China’s Domestic Dam Plans Draw Ire At Home and Abroad

Katy Yan
Monday, March 18, 2013

China’s State Council – the country’s ultimate decision-making body – announced its new Energy Development Plan in January, which includes several controversial dams that had previously been suspended as a result of environmental concerns and public opposition. According to the document posted on the central government’s website, hydropower dams on the upper reaches of the Jinsha and Lancang (Upper Mekong), as well as on two of China’s last largely free-flowing rivers – the Nu (Salween) and the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) – would be “kicked off in an orderly manner.”

The announcement took Chinese environmentalists by surprise, and also generated a media frenzy in India, where tens of millions of people depend on the Brahmaputra River, which originates in the Tibetan Plateau.

Aerial view of the Nu River
Aerial view of the Nu River
Photo by Heng Duan Shan Society

Li Bo, director of China’s oldest environmental group, Friends of Nature, told the South China Morning Post: "There were signs during the past year that mega-dams were staging a comeback after being put on hold for years, but I'm still shocked by the lack of transparency in the decision-making process behind this."

Nu River Back in the Spotlight

Among the plans are five contested dams on the Nu River. A total of 13 dams on the Nu were first proposed in 2003 by the local government, which hoped to exploit the region’s rich hydropower potential to export electricity to the booming industrial centers on the eastern seaboard. That same year, a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law was enacted in China, and the region was inscribed into the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is believed to support more than 25% of the world’s and 50% of China’s animal species. As a result of public opposition to the dams, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended these plans in 2004.

Since then, the 13 dams have been reduced to five: Songta in Tibet, and Maji, Yabiluo, Liuku, and Saige in Yunnan. Together, the dams would displace up to 30,000 people, destroy the Nu River’s aquatic ecosystem, and flood the deep scenic gorges for which the Three Parallel Rivers area is known. [UPDATE: Yunnan officials estimate the displacement could be as many as 60,000 people, largely of the ethnic Lisu minority group.]

All five dams are situated in one of China’s most seismically active and geologically unstable zones. Senior geologists in China have repeatedly warned about the risks of seismic activity and extreme climatic events on dam building in the region, including the potential for a domino effect of dam failures should an upstream dam collapse during an earthquake or extreme flood event.

In February 2011, four geologists wrote to the State Council leadership opposing the damming of the Nu River for geological reasons, after dam developers began pushing the five dams again. Their language was blunt: “The Nu River is on an active fault with frequent earthquakes, and in a landslide-prone area subject to frequent downpours…Due to high seismic and geological risks, large dams should not be built here.”

Despite these warnings, preparatory activity has already begun. Based on eyewitness accounts, site clearance and road-building at the Songta and Maji dams have started, though no EIAs have been developed. According to a 2012 Ministry of Environmental Protection notice, preparatory works must be included in all hydropower project EIAs.

In addition, while public participation is required under law during the EIA process, this is more rhetoric than reality. Only one EIA has been completed thus far for the Nu River – that of the Liuku Dam – but the full version was never disclosed. Only a summary of the EIA was posted, because the information in the report was deemed a “state secret.” Resettlement of an entire village proceeded at the Liuku Dam site despite local objections, and the unsatisfactory process has been well-documented by the Beijing-based group Green Earth Volunteers.

"[Premier] Wen was able to put those projects on hold for eight years but with his tenure coming to an end, the pro-hydro interest groups are getting an upper hand again," said Wang Yongchen, director of Green Earth Volunteers.

Anger Abroad

News that China would also be building three dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra River sparked immediate concern in India partly because, according to the Washington Post, the Indian government learned of the plans through Chinese media reports rather than through diplomatic channels.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry moved quickly to respond by stating that they were in “close communication and cooperation” with India on the issue. According to a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, “The construction of the stations will not impact flood control or disaster reduction efforts, or the ecological environment on the lower reaches.” Both governments have said that they are sharing data on water flow, though no formal water-sharing agreement has been developed that would them to assess whether their river is being used fairly and sustainably.

Despite the Foreign Ministry’s assurances, downstream countries continue to criticize China for its lack of transparency. For instance, while China shares the Mekong with five other countries, it has only twice shared water flow data with its downstream neighbors. Large dams on the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River in China have been blamed for disrupting water flows – causing downstream floods when they were opened and droughts when they were closed. Without a transparent process for sharing data on flows and dam operations, such fears and security concerns are likely to increase.

Groups in Burma and Thailand have also expressed concern over the potential cumulative impacts that dams on the Nu (Salween) might have for downstream communities and ecosystems. Thus far, no cumulative impact assessments of dams or analyses of the economic, ecological and cultural benefits that these rivers bring have been completed for either basin.

“The central problem with hydropower development on the Nu, the Lancang, or any river anywhere, are the additive impacts – environmental, hydrological, seismic – of multiple projects on a single water course,” said Dr. Ed Grumbine, a US policy expert working in Yunnan who has published extensive research on the topic. “Environmental review that assesses only one dam at a time cannot capture the cumulative impacts of multiple dams built in cascades.”

Grumbine adds: “China may be undermining its own geopolitical future with downstream countries by not being more cooperative with its plans for dams on transboundary rivers.”

Environmentalists Rally to Respond

While the State Council announcement makes the dams look like a done deal, Chinese officials have emphasized that at this point, they are just plans. Meanwhile, in response, Chinese and international NGOs are rallying to keep the dams debate in the spotlight. Environmental and resettlement concerns, alternative energy options, and greater transparency will continue to dominate the debate.

China’s new leader Xi Jinping has made repeated promises of greater transparency. These dams will be a key litmus test for whether the government will live up to his words.