Beijing Water

China’s deadly dam fever

(August 31, 2011)  Financial rewards for bypassing dam safety procedures have created an unrestrained dam-building boom in China that is threatening lives and the environment.

Probe International

China’s current boom in hydropower production has become something of a one-eyed monster, spurred on by a lack of regulation and enabling financial incentives that not even disastrous consequences can stop.

In this report for China’s Global Times, Zhu Shanshan looks behind a surge in dam construction in China’s Gansu Province to reveal the money grab driving it. In some cases, dams are approved without feasibility studies in areas already vulnerable to earthquakes and landslides because of the taxes these projects will reap. Tax revenues from dams have ramped up earnings for local authorities in leaps and bounds and are fast becoming their main source of income — a trend experts, such as Probe International contributor, Fan Xiao, fear will overtake the entire nation and lead to over-damming of rivers countrywide.

Indeed, Zhu Shanshan’s findings support the conclusions contained in Fan Xiao’s recent report for Probe International, “A Mighty River Runs Dry,” in which he calls China’s current rate of chaotic dam building “a tragedy of the commons” that will dry up rivers like the Yangtze. The unchecked development of hydropower resources is like “draining the pond to catch the fish,” Fan Xiao warns, and will result in a water crisis in rivers and valleys on the one hand, and a large waste of financial resources through the construction of crippled water projects on the other.

More alarming for those living along the dammed rivers is the growing incidence of landslides that have already killed or injured close to 4,000 people. Dam construction loosens soil, as does the rising and falling of dam reservoirs.

Even experts at the Ministry of Water Resources agree that current hydropower plant development creates a moral hazard in which tax revenue is collected by local authorities, while disaster relief is the (often ignored) responsibility of central or provincial governments. The people, meanwhile, are left to face the life threatening risk of landslides.

Read Zhu Shanshan’s article for Global Times below.

Dodgy dams endangering Gansu county

By Zhu Shanshan, Global Times, August 4, 2011

In order to further economic growth, authorities in Zhouqu, Gansu Province, have greenlit a number of dams without studying their environmental impact, only a year after a massive landslide devastated the county.

The county government has approved 68 hydropower projects, despite only one of these having passed a feasibility study and registered with the local earthquake information center, China Central Television (CCTV) reported on Wednesday.

Besides, more than 1,000 such plants, mostly smaller ones, are clustered along the 600-kilometer-long Bailong River despite geological conditions in the region being unsuitable for such projects due to the river straddling a tectonic plate fault line.

A landslide hit Zhouqu following torrential rain on August 2010, killing 1,471 people and wounding more than 2,500.

Another small landslide recently destroyed some county roads, and local residents have complained that such slides are increasing. Locals have also complained the amount of trees being felled to feed dam construction has worsened erosion, CCTV reported.

Fan Xiao, geologist with the Sichuan Bureau of Geological Exploration and Exploration of Mineral Resources, told the Global Times that these projects are putting local people under great threat from landslides.

“Building dams requires a lot of digging in the mountains. This destroys vegetation and creates debris, which is typically left to pile down in the valleys. Loose, uncovered slopes and debris together trigger slides,” Fan said.

Furthermore, Fan noted that a dam’s reservoir creates an unnatural fluctuation of water levels, further eroding banks by submerging them periodically. He Jianzhou, head of the village of Yueyuan in Zhouqu, told the Global Times that power stations are being built every five kilometers along the Bailong River.

“[A number of] dams have raised water levels and drowned farmland,” he said. “The river used to abound with carp and other fish, but fish can no longer swim upstream to lay eggs. There are now hardly any fish in the muddy water.”

He also complained that the massive construction required to build hydropower stations has taken land away from farmers, who have received little compensation in return.

“The county pays the farmers 25,000 yuan ($3,885.55) per mu in compensation. That is way too little.”“

Nie Weimin, head of the country’s earthquake information center, told CCTV that due to the region’s vulnerable geological condition, construction projects are required to undergo a string of safety evaluations to assess their earthquake resistance capacity.

However, when asked about how projects could be approved by local authorities without any feasibility studies, a project leader on one of the dams told CCTV that the local investment promotion bureau had helped push the paperwork through.

According to the report, the county’s fiscal revenue for this year is estimated at 49 million yuan, almost five times higher than in 2005 before the hydropower boom made income levels soar.

About 40 percent of this year’s fiscal revenue will come from tax drawn from the plants.

However, to relieve the damage brought about by the massive landslide last year, central and provincial authorities have invested over 5 billion yuan in rescue and rebuilding efforts.

Wang Hao, a water resource expert with the Ministry of Water Resources, told CCTV that Zhouqu’s hydropower plant development is based on a false mechanism. This enables tax revenue to be collected by the local authorities, with disaster relief being paid for by the central or provincial governments, but leaving the people to face the risk of landslides.

“These projects are aimed at boosting local GDP growth and earn more tax revenue, regardless of their feasibility. This blind expansion has inflicted harm on the environment and is proof of an unscientific development,” Wang said.

Dams are becoming the main source of revenue for local governments in southern Gansu, Fan warned, adding that the trend of over-damming rivers is happening nationwide with local officials chasing higher GDP figures.

“A lot of waterways dry out during dry seasons. This is not just happening in Zhouqu,” Fan said.

In 2004, CCTV reported that 17 small-scale dams were built on a 34-kilometer-long river in Shimian county, Sichuan Province.

According to official data, in 2003 alone, 123 hydropower plants were found without approvals, management certificates and proofs of inspection.

Huang Shaojie contributed to this story.

Further Reading

China dam shocker spreads

Dams gone wrong:  Is danger lurking in China’s dams

Beijing’s massive water diversion project could trigger earthquakes: experts

Dams are worse

China’s admission spotlights Three Gorges woes

The relationship between large reservoirs and seismicity

Building dams in China’s seismic regions always a risk

Reservoir-induced seismicity in China

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