China’s Hydropower Rush Could Devastate Rivers

Susanne Wong
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

China’s rush to develop its hydropower is already leaving a trail of devastated fisheries and communities in its wake. According to Renewable Energy Focus, the country continued its domination of the global hydropower market, installing more than half of new capacity in 2012. China plans to generate 15% of its electricity from renewable energy as part of an effort to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants. Unlike many other countries, China includes large destructive dams in its renewable energy targets.

Roughly 100 dams are planned or under construction in the Yangtze River basin. Nineteen dams are planned for the Lancang (Upper Mekong), 13 for the Nu and 9 on the Yarlung Tsangpo.

The ecology of the Yangtze River, one of the cradles of Chinese civilization and culture, has been devastated by dam construction and other development projects. WWF China and the Yangtze River Fishery Resources Management Commission under China’s Ministry of Agriculture released a report in October that showed a steep decline in fish species on the upper branches of the river. Many important fish species, such as shad, sturgeons and puffer fish, are “on the brink of extinction,” according to the report. 

Populations of carp species have plummeted from 30 billion to less than 100 million in the past 60 years, reports the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The fisheries office also found that fish species have declined from 143 to 17 in the Jinsha Tributaries.

Weng Lida, director of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau, attributed the decline in fish species to the construction of dams, overfishing and pollution. With more dams planned or under construction, the situation is likely to deteriorate.

China’s huge hydropower targets, set in 5-year planning documents, are however not being realized as quickly as planned. At least on the Lancang River, little progress has been made. And in Nu River, dams supposed to be started by 2015, have seen no progress. Some on-the-ground sources suggest that tightening of state lending may be holding the dam builders back. Concerns within government may also be the source of delay, with some concerned about whether China’s hydropower development plans will be too much for its rivers. 

China’s environmental NGOs also believe that the government will not push all its rivers over the ecological redline; a number of groups will release a report in December reviewing the devastation of rivers caused by China’s rapid economic development in last 10 years and the short-sighted economic development model that has driven irrational hydropower development. 

China’s intense pace of dam construction has also left little room for neighboring countries to negotiate on how best to develop shared transboundary rivers. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently expressed concerns about China’s plans to dam and divert the Upper Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo, with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. In an unprecedented move, the prime ministers released a joint statement referring to transboundary rivers as “assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries.”

While the statement is a positive step, it is countered by China’s plans to build a mammoth 40,000-MW hydropower scheme on the river (a megaproject that some experts say will never be built). China’s river lovers and its downstream neighbors will be watching carefully to ensure the rhetoric is not drowned out by poorly planned projects. 

A Decade in Limbo: Nu River Dams Return

Ten years ago, China’s then Premier Wen Jiabao announced his momentous decision to suspend a 13-dam cascade planned for the free-flowing Nu River, and requested further in-depth research on environmental and social impacts. The move was in response to strong opposition from both civil society organization and academic community to damming the Nu. The success is one of the most important victories for China’s environment movement in the early 2000s.

During the past ten years, China’s incredible pace of economic development has resulted in an equivalent growth in its energy demand. While China is now labelled the biggest CO2 emitter in the world, hydropower is being put forth as a solution to emission reductions. In the 12th Five Years’ Plan, dam building in the Nu River has been revived, with construction of four dams to begin by 2015 (together with 50 plus dams in other rivers). It is believed that these plans put China’s rivers at risk of ecological collapse. Chinese NGOs realize the 10-year anniversary is not a time to celebrate but to revive their network to continue their fight for rivers like the Nu.

In December, Chinese NGOs will hold a workshop to review past work on river protection and discuss future strategies. They will also release the China Rivers Report, which summarizes the challenges that rivers are facing, and the negative impacts expanding hydropower development would bring. At the same time, the groups will launch a public exhibition about changes along the Nu River in the past decade, and a documentary on the same theme, to draw broader public attention to these issues. 

It is hoped that the stronger voice from civil society as well as solid evidence of the ecological crisis facing China’s rivers could pressure the Chinese government to stall its inappropriate pace of hydropower development. This is considered to be the last stand to defend the ecological redlines for the rivers in China, as well as the enormous population that relies on them.