Dams and Landslides

Environment officials claim hydroelectric power is dirtier than thermal power, not a clean solution at all

(January 27, 2011) China’s ministry in charge of environmental protection says hydropower can be dirtier than coal power. Chinese Hydroelectric Engineering Association accuses them of slander.


This article from Times Weekly—translated by Probe International—highlights the controversy surrounding hydro power in China. While environmentalists say the government is pushing ahead with projects in seismically-active and geologically unstable regions, officials say the environmental concerns being raised are exaggerated. The article also says that the main reason for the hydro power projects is to meet orders from top officials to promote “green” power and cut carbon emissions. The article was originally published on December 30, 2010.

Times Weekly (Shidai zhoubao), December 30, 2010


Report by Times Weekly special correspondent Cui Wei and Times Weekly journalist Huang Changcheng, in Beijing. Translated from the original.

“To a certain extent, hydroelectric power can result in more severe pollution than thermal power,” declared Ling Jiang, vice director of the Pollution Prevention Department of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on December 22, 2010 at a seminar, “Innovative Strategies and Policies for Controlling Water Pollution in China.” Environment officials have seldom criticized large-scale hydro in the past.

A number of hydrology experts, however, were quick to rebuke the remarks made by Ling. The next day, Zhang Boting, the Deputy Secretary General of China’s Hydroelectric Engineering Association published an essay “Environmental protection officials should have general knowledge of science and understand basic logic.” In the essay he said environmental officials are merely repeating falsehoods and using these claims to slander hydroelectric power.

“The Twelfth Five-year Plan[1] recommended that our priority should be to develop hydropower, with proposed targets currently much higher than I had anticipated,” Zhang says.

In a Times Weekly interview, Zhang Boting revealed that a Ministry of Water Resources plan has raised the proposed target of 63 million kilowatts for conventional hydropower schemes to 83 million kilowatts. In the same plan the target for pumped storage power stations has also been increased—from 50 million to 80 million kilowatts. China’s installed hydropower capacity reached 207 million kilowatts by the end of 2010.

If the new targets in the 12th Five Year Plan are approved, accelerated work to develop hydropower projects in the country will be pursued in controversial regions such as China’s southwest. The stated rationale for such construction is a reduction in carbon emissions.

Disagreements over hydroelectricity are expected to continue—meaning its future is still far from certain. The only certainty is that both critics and supporters of dam construction will continue to promote their agendas in an effort to control the debate and overwhelm their detractors.

Is hydropower ‘dirty power’?


Following his speech in December, Ling Jiang revealed that the Ministry of Environmental Protection recently found that water was much more polluted after the construction of a dam. “Water algae greatly increased and the water’s ecological system seriously deteriorated,” he said, citing a slower current as the main reason. He added that hydro development also created resettlement issues for migrants, which resulted in increased geological degradation such as soil erosion and other problems.

The losses, he said, were enormous.

Hydro dams have always attracted controversy, particularly in regard to their impact on the environment. Towards the end of a decade noteworthy for the decline of dam construction, the World Commission on Dams was established in 1998 to address the large-dam controversy. After a two-year study of hydro dams, the Commission published its Dams and Development report, which found that dams were bad for the environment—a verdict that many people disputed at the time. Environmentalists would later extend their support for the Commission’s findings.

“Influenced by the report, the attraction of dams diminished and was often dismissed in policy papers,” says Zhang Boting. While acknowledging the report’s effect on the perception of hydro power, he also believes the downsides have been exaggerated by dam opponents and the public. The result is that only one-third of planned hydro projects in China’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan have been completed. The increased targets now being proposed are expected to make up for this shortfall.

“Reservoir water quality declined, not only because the reservoir itself contained polluted water, but also because reservoirs are more demanding than free-flowing rivers,” he says.

Pollution resulting from reservoir waste discharge doesn’t necessarily prove that dams cause pollution. It may actually be the opposite, as dam construction tends to invite strict regulation of reservoir waste discharge. As a consequence, water quality generally improves, “because wherever reservoirs are built, people are not allowed to use rivers as sewers and discharge waste with impunity,” says Zhang Boting.

This line of reasoning, however, has failed to convince environmentalists.

Yu Xiaogang, a well-known environmentalist and director of the Green Watershed in Yunnan Province, says, “what has been called an unexpected beneficial effect has sometimes been laughable.”

“For example, the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River has resulted in major sedimentation, as the system designed to flush the sediment from the dam doesn’t work properly,” Yu Xiaogang says. “Both sand and gravel continually accumulate as a result. The only way to maintain reservoir storage capacity and reduce sedimentation is to build more dams further upstream—eventually, the entire river is partitioned into reservoirs.”

“Sedimentation in the lower reaches of the river then forces reservoirs to be constructed in the upper reaches. There is no way to solve this problem.”

Yu Xiaogang says that, although dam experts claim China’s hydro technology is advanced, sedimentation continues to be a problem.

“Water contamination happens not only because the body of water is less capable of purifying itself, but also because decomposing organisms in the water produce methane,” says Yu Xiaogang. “In some tropical countries, the types of pollutants emitted by hydropower stations are as bad as the pollutants from thermal power stations.”

He adds that the types of environmental problems produced by dams are many—and they’re not just limited to a decline in water quality. The number of fish species in a river can decline and soil erosion from deforestation may occur, as residents are forced to relocate to make way for the dam and clear land for farming.

And while Zhang Boting admits that the costs of relocation programs now account for an increasing portion of hydro dam costs and nearly half of total investment, Yu Xiaogang says such relocation costs are only sufficient to cover housing and land expenditures for relocation programs within the reservoir area. Residents housed outside the reservoir area must apply for assistance after relocation. Furthermore, as migrants struggle to survive in such circumstances, environmental destruction is inevitable.

Many of these environmental problems also contribute to one another: water contamination, methane emissions, a decline in biodiversity, shrinking wetlands, sedimentation and an increased threat of earthquakes. All of these problems ensure that hydropower is not included in the ranks of clean energy.

Arguments about hydro power

“It is understandable that each side of a particular hydropower project argues vigorously to wrest control of the discourse. As a hydropower expert, I hope that hydropower can be better and more equitably put to use rather than be demonized,” Zhang Boting told reporters. He emphasized that, “no matter what, the discourse must be scientific.”

China’s policy makers always tread carefully when it comes to hydropower.[2] In 2008, the government proposed a 4 trillion yuan development plan, with a group of power companies willing to invest more than 100 billion yuan. Of this, 95.5 billion yuan would be used for the Yangjiang Nuclear Power Program in Guangdong, as well as the extension project at the Qinshan Nuclear Power Station in Zhejiang. In addition, the government would invest 4 billion yuan to improve the electrical grid in rural regions. Hydropower was not included in this program.

In a working report submitted on the first day of the Eleventh National Party Congress in 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao proposed the active development of nuclear, wind, solar and other clean energy sources—but made no mention of hydropower. Later, after speaking with representatives of the People’s Congress—including Xiangbapingcuo, then Head of the Tibet Autonomous Region Government—the report was changed to “propose that nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar and other clean sources of energy should be actively developed.”

From then on, the number of hydro projects in China has gradually increased.

In the second half of 2010, for example, the Longkaikou and Ludila dam projects on the Jinsha River received approval and construction was resumed after being forced to stop in June 2009 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Ministry said the two projects, which were owned by the Huaneng (China Energy) and Huadian (China Electricity) Engineering Group respectively, had not undergone environmental impact assessments. The river had been dammed without proper authorization, which the ministry says, “had a large effect on the ecology of the Jinsha River’s middle reaches.”

The resumption of the projects is the result of a reversal by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

At the same time, the Jin’anqiao hydropower station obtained official approval from the National Development and Reform Committee to resume construction. Its construction was deemed to have begun without approval and was halted for a number of years. One by one, as in the case of Jin’anqiao, formal suspensions are being lifted and construction approved.

Reporters have learned that construction on the above dams is part of the “One reservoir, eight stages” scheme to develop hydropower in the middle reaches of the Jinsha River.  According to Gao Yingmeng, President of the Jinsha River Middle Reaches Hydro Development Company Ltd, paperwork for construction on two projects in the program, the Liyuan and Guanyin, are in progress—indicating that the ban on hydro development in the middle reaches of the Jinsha River has been lifted.

The Development and Reform Committee has already expressed its unequivocal support for large scale hydropower projects

In August of last year, the deputy director of the Development and Reform Committee and the director of the State Bureau of Energy, Zhang Guobao, told media outlets that the country plans to have 15% of its energy come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020. Nine percent of this energy will come from hydropower, while nuclear will account for four percent. Of the 400 million kilowatts hydropower needed for the plan, 380 million kilowatts must still be built.


”Hydropower must play an important role in the country’s medium and long-term energy plans,” Zhang Guobao said at the time. The term “actively develop” in regards to hydropower was also clearly used in the report “Recommendations for National Economic and Social Development in the Twelfth Five Year Plan by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.”

If the aim is to realize these targets, growth in large-scale hydropower projects is unavoidable.

According to Zhang Boting, the majority of hydropower projects will be built in China’s southwest region and done so within the time frame of the Twelfth Five-Year Plan. One concern with this plan is that projects in the southwest will likely face ardent opposition, due to the region’s unique ecology and history of geological disasters.

“In the past we constructed dams in places with optimal geological conditions, but now we can only build them in the mountains of the southwest, areas that are poor, geologically speaking, and where the risk of earthquakes is highest,” said Yu Xiaogang. He warns that despite the fact that water resource departments have the power to influence decision-making on the construction of dams, “if they use evasive language that doesn’t seem truthful, their plans will collapse.”

Impetus to build dams grows in order to cut carbon emissions


“I think the main reason environmental officials are having this kind of discussion about hydropower relates to their assessment criteria,” says Zhang Boting. “In the past, environmental protection officials were only concerned about emissions of toxic gases such as sulphur dioxide and they didn’t consider carbon dioxide emissions as part of the equation at all.”

“I think that if carbon emissions are considered as part of the criteria, environmental protection officials would strongly support the development of hydropower.”

Zhang also believes that hydropower’s energy production capacity is better than that of solar or wind energy. “To be frank, solar and wind projects were unnecessarily built in recent years and were unable to make up the energy lost when the Jinsha River project closed.”

“As the pressure to reduce emissions increases, there is no cheaper alternative to replace hydropower.”

Yu Xiaogang, on the other hand, believes that, “we not only need to solve the problem of providing energy infrastructure or ‘hardware’, we also need to see the provision of energy policy and management, the ‘software’, which is just as important.” He points to projects in Germany and the United States where residents were provided subsidies to install solar panels and sell excess power back into the grid as positive examples.

“But would our government allow residents to sell the energy they produced to energy suppliers?” he asks. “The government has not regulated energy supply in such a way that we can both protect the environment, while allowing residents to profit. Our policies are more influenced by profits to be made by the hydropower industry.”

“There are still large differences between the West and China in regards to policy and management or ‘software’ provision,” he adds.

“In fact, we should be looking to obtain energy at a municipal level, rather than having the central government determine what energy resources are developed—because when they do that, they end up promoting hydro or nuclear at the expense of other options,” he says. “This creates a situation in which the environment is continually sacrificed in favor of energy resources.”

Zheng Yisheng, a researcher with the Environment and Development Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is a long-time follower of the concerns surrounding hydropower. He told reporters that, “there has been an increase in hydropower projects because of pressure to reduce carbon emissions and an inability to find a quick and convenient solution to the energy problem.”

“However, it is important to recognize the complexity and interrelatedness of China’s environmental problems. As well as climate change there are other issues, such as geology and the extreme ecological fragility in the southwest of the country, which requires constant vigilance,” he says. “We will only be able to come up with a long term policy if we ask specific questions, carry out concrete analysis, fully consider all the pros and cons, look at how all parties can benefit and weigh up the results calmly and objectively.”

He thinks there is a strong resistance to make difficult policy decisions and that we should be stricter in enforcing current laws and procedures—including those relating to public participation—while incorporating the opinions of all parties.

“We have already learned many lessons about this,” he says.

Zheng Yisheng added that while energy policies are the most important part of climate policies—climate policies are not the same as energy policies. The only long-term way to achieve sustainable long-term change is through more comprehensive policies that consider environmental, energy and resource, economic, social and cultural impacts.

“The debate surrounding water resources is not just an energy problem but a life threatening issue in China,” says Zheng Yisheng. “However, we can’t pretend we don’t have any other illnesses, just to cure that particular disease.”

Further Reading:

[1] A series of five- year economic development initiatives first launched in 1953.

[2] Editors note: While the article says the Chinese leaders have been careful in the past when making decisions concerning the construction of dams, the exact opposite is the case.  For example, with the Three Gorges dam, many scholars, engineers and affected citizens voiced their concerns but were ignored.

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