Three Gorges Probe

At the Water’s Edge

The ongoing drought in Southern China is pitting massive hydropower plans against flood management authorities – and creating a standoff with millions of livelihoods at stake.

By staff reporters Deng Hai and Yu Dawei and intern reporter Pu Jun


If the water levels drop any lower in the Three Gorges Dam, the power will shut off. But this year’s scorching, record-breaking drought across six provinces in Southern China means that the Yangtze River is in desperate need of answer the Three Gorges could have stored in its reserves.

On May 18, an executive meeting by the State Council, China’s cabinet, attempted to address a more unified response to water management problems in the region. The meeting resulted in the “Follow-Up Work on the Three Gorges Dam” framework, in which the tie between the drought and the expansion of hydropower were discussed. Aside from drawing relocation and resettlement plans leftover from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the meeting also put out new objectives in its operations management system.

Government officials from various provinces have long faced the difficulties surrounding water use and conservation due to exploitation of water resources. At the Yangtze Water Forum held in April, questions were raised over the rapid construction of hydropower projects.

Wan Bentai, chief engineer of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said that the South-North Water Transfer project could result in major drops in the water levels of the Yangtze River and could allow for large flows of saltwater into the surrounding estuaries.

Less Rain, Low Water Levels

The Three Gorges Dam has widely been derided as the origin of the drought in the Poyang Lake district, along with other areas in the Yangtze River basin. But some experts have said the problem stems from reduced runoff in the region, and heightened demand for water in communities near the Yangtze River.

At the current stage, the Three Gorges Dam is serving to alleviate low water levels in Poyang Lake through discharging water in its reservoir, said Xu Xinfa, deputy director of the Jiangxi Provincial Institute of Water Sciences.

But Xu said that an early onset of the dry season in the Poyang Lake area is expected to occur due to the upcoming water impoundment at the Three Gorges reservoir. Starting in October every year water levels in the lake area drop significantly and those levels remain until April. This, combined with this year’s climate changes, will exacerbate the dry conditions of the lake’s area.

Low water levels over a long period of time are expected to result in problems including shrinking wetlands, a sharp decline in fishery resources and greater difficulty in preventing and controlling parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis.

Weng Lida, former head of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau, said that the original feasibility reports for the Three Gorges project foresaw such problems and put forward corresponding countermeasures. However a report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2010 showed that difficulty in water pollution control, relocation issues and environmental issues exceeded the original projections.

Tight water supplies from the start – even before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, heightened conflicts between water resource management authorities at the upper reaches and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. In response, the Ministry of Water Resources introduced new regulations in 2009, lowering the target for the volume of discharge to no less than 6,500 cubic meters per second, compared to official estimates of 10,000 cubic meters per second in 2001.

Figures from the Changjiang Water Resources Commission show that the average runoff in the Yangtze River basin declined by 14.9 percent from 1951 to 1990. From 1991 to 2006, the average runoff dropped by 18.4 percent.

At the same time, hydropower in China has experienced a wild building boom. Figures from the Ministry of Water Resources showed that a total of 2,441 hydropower stations were built or under construction in the Yangtze River basin as of 2007. The 12th Five-Year Plan passed in 2011 seeks to increase the country’s hydropower by 120 million kilowatts – six times the amount actually increased during the 11th Five-Year Plan period.

One dam after another have not only impacted water supplies in the region, but have unexpectedly affected hydrology plans behind the biggest dam of them all – the Three Gorges reservoir. With the completion of large and medium-sized dams at the upper reaches of the Yangtze River and the opening of the impoundment of these dams in the 1980s, the drop in the water levels every September and October has gradually picked up speed.

Cracks in Coordination

Hydropower continues to suffer from dislocated development. Weng said that some hydropower plants were built against official regulations, forcing changes to the state’s planned layout for future hydropower stations along the Yangtze River.

Zhou Jianjun, a professor at the Hydraulic Engineering department of Tsinghua University, said that competitive water impoundment may occur between many controlling reservoirs at the upper reaches of the Yangtze River that are under construction or will soon be constructed. Coupled with concentrated discharge before the flood season, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River will be facing a greater burden in terms of flood prevention.

He said if these issues are not addressed, drinking water, power generation, shipping and other integral water supply infrastructure may be severely affected at the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, or even the entire river basin.

Coming up with a unified plan ultimately rests on reconciling the differences in goals between hydropower authorities and flood management agencies. Power dispatch authorities require that cascade hydropower stations ensure power generation and steady discharge of water, whereas water management authorities prioritize flood prevention, water supply and irrigation, and the requirements on water discharge vary. It is usually difficult to reconcile the differences between the two, so conflicts often arise when different authorities wrest for control of water administration to serve their own purposes.

Officials at the Yangtze River Hydrography Bureau told Caixin that the key to reconciling conflicting goals among various water management authorities lies in creating a department to oversee all dam management issues – but suggested that water resource bureaus should hold the scheduling rights to dams.

Zhou said that to solve the problem at the root, water conservation must be prioritized. The design of the Yangtze River hydropower project needs to be modified, and hydropower stations must be discouraged from maintaining high water levels for power generation without taking regional water use into account.

Deng Hai and Yu Dawei and intern reporter Pu Jun, Caixin, June 16, 2011

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