Dai Qing and Three Gorges

Chinese dams are seeking to outshine the stars in the sky

(February 25, 2011) French journalist Claude Arpi writes that the Chinese dam lobby is using global warming to ram through catastrophic dam projects.


Do you know that in recent years China has built some 25,800 large dams? More than any other country on the planet. Unfortunately, these projects have forced the relocation of more than 10 million people and have caused unimaginable damage to the environment.

In China, powerful lobbies work hard to get the government’s green light to recklessly continue the construction of hydropower plants.

India does not want to be left behind, the business is too lucrative. A recent BJP report on the functioning of the Congress governments in the Northeast has equated the ‘hydropower project scams’ in Arunachal Pradesh with the 2G scandal. Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorjee Khandu would have allotted “hydro power projects totalling 70,000 MW and worth Rs4,00,000 crore in a short period. Companies with zero business activities and zero experience and with little financial strength had been allotted hydro power projects worth Rs 100 to Rs1,000 crore”.

Whether the allegations will prove correct, only the future will tell, but there is no doubt that in India, like in China, the dam-building lobby is extraordinarily powerful.

An article published in the ‘official’ Global Times shows that the lobbies have been able to change the decision taken by premier Wen Jiabao in April 2004. Wen had then given an assurance that the large hydropower plants would be “seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.”

Now ‘science’ has taken a U-turn and it says build, build, build.  The South China Morning Post noted the ‘scientific’ change of wind: “Analysts say mainland authorities have clearly pinned their hopes on renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydropower, to help reduce the mainland’s reliance on coal”.

Today, in the name of global warming and environment protection, the dam lobby is able to restart their nefarious activities.

China’s southwest, particularly the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan are famed for an abundance of waters, most of the major Asian rivers having their origins in Tibet. The dam builders (often managed by princelings or children of Politburo members) have been biding their time. With the new policy, scheduled to be announced next month, they will make a killing using the huge hydro-potential of Tibetan rivers; ironically with an ‘environmental’ rationale.

The ‘planners’ of the Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design of the Ministry of Water Resources are delighted, they will be able to build enough hydropower stations to reach their 83 million kilowatts target. Zhang Boting, vice-general secretary of China Hydropower Engineering Society, speaking for the dam builders, said that they are now sure to meet their target.

However, Wang Jian, a river specialist from Beijing who visited sections of the major rivers in December told the Global Times that smaller projects, which do not need central government approval, have burgeoned, “They are as dense as the stars in the sky.”

Dai Qing, a senior journalist believes that the present trend will show that China is always one step behind the world. “In many Western countries, dam builders are out of favour, but here in China, we are still busy building dams.”

The most interesting aspect of the current controversy is that several articles appeared in the mainstream Chinese media objecting to the construction of large structures on the Tibetan rivers. Wang Yongchen wrote an op-ed in the Global Times: “Plenty of recent scientific research suggests that the environmental consequences of the construction of dams and operation of hydropower stations are considerable”.

He gives the example of the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas resulting from the decaying forests submerged by the higher water level.

Many in China still remember the Banqiao Dam. Built on the Ruhe River in 1952 to ‘control’ the Yellow River, it collapsed on August 8, 1975. Though it was designed to withstand a ‘one-in-1,000-year’ flood, it was washed away and 26,000 people died in a few minutes. Later 1,45,000 people perished from epidemics and famine.

The building of dams on the Salween, Mekong or Brahmaputra also has strategic consequences. Unfortunately in India, the union ministry of power believes that a timely grant of environment “is crucial to ensure India’s right over the Brahmaputra”. This is absolute legal non-sense for the simple reason that India and China are not bound by a convention or a treaty on waters.

The fact remains that in authoritarian, as also as in ‘coalition’ governments, dam-builders are kings. Who listens when billions of Yuans or Rupees are involved? Money is needed for the next elections, isn’t it?

The author is a French-born writer and journalist

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