Three Gorges Probe

Burst of New Dams in Southwest China Produces Power and Public Ire

(March 22, 2011) Rachel Beitarie of Circle of Blue writes about the human costs of widespread megadam building in China.

CHENGDU, China—Even in China, where power plants, coal mines, water-transport networks, and other big tools of industrialization are built at astonishing scale and with surprising speed, the hydropower dam construction program in Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet, and other southwest provinces has no equal in China, or anywhere else for that matter.

Here in Suijiang County—a remote and mountainous region on the border between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces—the immense scope of the most aggressive dam-building program in history is immediately apparent. Near the county’s center, an army of men and equipment is building the Xiangjiaba Dam, a wall of concrete and steel that is 909 meters (2,982 feet) long and 161 meters (528 feet) high.

When completed in 2015, the dam will house eight turbines capable of generating just over 6.4 gigawatts. It will be the fourth-largest hydropower plant in China and one of the 20 largest power plants of any kind in the world, according to industry figures.

Immense as it is, the Xiangjiaba Dam is just one of a dozen hydropower projects of similar scale in what Chinese engineers call a “cascade” of electricity-generating projects that have been approved for the Jinsha River—a 2,300-kilometer section of the Yangtze River in Sichuan Province. An even larger project, the 278-meter-tall (911-foot) Xiluodo Dam, is nearing completion downstream and will have the capacity to generate 12.6 GW of electricity. Taken together, the 12 Jinsha River dams will be capable of generating 59 GW, or nearly as much power as all 4,000 hydroelectric generating stations in the United States.

China already operates half of the world’s large hydropower dams, and there are more on the way—many more.

Along China’s midsection, the upper Yangtze River and five of its tributaries have 100 big dams that are in various stages of planning, engineering, and construction. Additionally, at least 43 big dams are in the same stages of development on the Lancang, Nujiang, Hongshui, and Jiulong rivers in China’s southwest.

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