Will China's Rivers Survive the Next 20 Years?

Ma Jun
Monday, August 15, 2005

Record-Breaking Dam Building Boom Could Make Free-Flowing Rivers an Endangered Species

World Rivers Review, August 2005

For 20 years, International Rivers has focused a bright light on some of China's most controversial dam projects. For most of those years, it was difficult for Chinese citizens to organize around the issue of large dams or speak out against specific projects. But in recent years, a number of NGOs in China have begun to take on the role of monitoring China's dam plans – perhaps the most extensive river-engineering plan in the history of the world. Author Ma Jun has is actively involved in China's river preservation work, and is the author of the book China's Water Crisis.

China is facing serious shortages of both water and energy as its rapid economic expansion further strains its limited natural resources. This has fueled a new round of hydropower development proposals in a country that is already the most dammed in the world (see box). China's installed hydropower capacity reached 100,000 megawatts (MW) in 2004, making China the biggest hydropower user in the world (hydro now accounts for about 25% of China’s total energy mix). According to plans drafted by China’s central planners, the country’s installed capacity will reach 150,000 MW by the end of 2010 and 250,000 MW by 2020. China’s hydropower developers are urging the planning authority to further boost the installation goal to 300,000 MW by 2025.

Such massive river development is unprecedented, and dwarfs the rest of the world's hydro schemes. The Chinese planning authority believes that the scale of the scheme is a good match for the overall plan to quadruple the Chinese economy by 2020, while dam developers jubilantly embrace this 20-year building spree. On maps in their offices and boardrooms, hundreds of new dams have been marked on rivers in southwestern China, which boasts the biggest hydropower potential in China. At least 114 dams on eight rivers in the region are proposed for the Chinese hydropower sector’s "great leap forward."

These dams will be built on the mainstream of major rivers and most of them are large dams. Quite a few of them would set records on either height or size in their own categories in Asia or even in the world. Development rights have been snapped up mostly by the five major state-owned hydropower companies. Smaller investors have also swarmed to the southwestern part of China, elbowing their way in to gain the rights of hydro development on the secondary and tertiary tributaries. The stakes are huge: for instance, some 356 dams are set to be built in the Dadu river basin, a primary tributary of the Yangtze, while in the vast network of Yanglong River, another Yangtze tributary, 339 dams are planned.

Past impediments to growth in China's hydro-industry have been sidelined, thus removing any blocks that previously slowed the rate of dam building, including:

  • The engineering gap has been bridged, and Chinese hydro companies are now capable of building dams of impressive scale and complexity;
  • The shortage of funds, which has long been a barrier to China’s hydro development, is no longer an issue, and state and private investors now rush to vie for a share of the hydro pie;
  • The oversupply of electricity, which restricted dam development in the 1990s, is moot now that the Chinese economy seems increasingly stuck in an energy-intensive growth pattern.

While the removal of these barriers might thrill the dam developers, local NGOs and environmentalists worry that the hydro craze will severely overexploit China’s rivers and lead to serious environmental and social harm. To those who care about China's rivers, Jinsha, Minjiang, Dadu, Jialing, Wujiang, Yalong, Hongshui, Lancang and Nujiang are not just abstract names or thin blue lines on maps. Instead, they are great ecosystems that nurture biodiversity, the sources of water for millions of people, the creators of some of the world’s most magnificent gorges and canyons. They cannot share the enthusiasm of hydropower developers as they know that tripling China’s hydropower capacity would mean virtually the end of pristine rivers in China, the fragmentation of ecosystems across China and in downstream neighbor states, and the impoverishment of biodiversity. From a social-equity point of view they know that hydro expansion is highly likely to displace more than one million people from their homeland in the deep valleys of China’s hilly southwest.

Such is the backdrop against which the rising rivers movement in China has emerged. Today, many local NGOs follow the dams issue, and since 2003 they have made high-profile challenges against a series of dams that they believe will be the most damaging:

  • NGOs informed the public and media about how Yangliuhu Dam would harm a 2,200-year-old World Heritage water project that is, amazingly, still serving millions of people today. Some 180 media reports combined with public dissent finally forced the developer to abandon the project in 2003.
  • Next, the NGOs turned their focus on a cascade development project on the Nujiang, one of the last two free-flowing rivers in China. Their efforts aroused national public attention on the fate of a remote river that was unknown to most Chinese until then. Again, widespread public concern and a strong focus on the project by the media attention finally led the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to halt the project for a more comprehensive environmental impact assessment.
  • In mid-2004 the environmentalists began to work to preserve the Tiger Leaping Gorge, shedding light on a massive dam project that will devastate this spectacular world-class landscape, and the rich cultural diversity and the stable economic life of 100,000 people.

Most of the local NGOs doing this work are not ideologically anti-dam. They understand that China needs power to support its rapid economic growth and to meet the rising demand from a more affluent society. What they cannot accept is the mentality that still dominates the hydropower sector, which views every single gorge as a good dam site. They are urging the agencies and developers to review the hard lessons from the past 50 years before they take on the damming of any new gorges. The lessons of China's dam-building legacy, which river activists say have yet to be learned, include the failure to properly resettle 10 million people displaced by China's dams, the destruction of ecological balance, the losses of biodiversity, the destruction of natural and cultural heritage sites, the terrible sedimentation problems that have made some of China's biggest dams uneconomic, the exaggeration of benefits, and the cost and time overruns of past projects. What these groups want is a fair and transparent process to decide dam issues.

NGOs and environmentalists believe that it is high time for such a process to be established in China. They argue that China has turned into a market economy and most of the newly proposed hydropower development schemes are free-market capitalism at its worst, and that no interest groups or individuals should be allowed to continue making easy money by externalizing these project's huge costs on displaced people, on society in general, on the national economy or on the environment. They argue that best-practice planning for China's energy future requires an open and transparent decision-making process which gives the rights to know to all stakeholders and promotes their full involvement.

Currently, decisions on large dams are determined solely by government officials, developers and technical experts. That makes it easy for the insiders to reach agreements between themselves. To ensure the quality and justness of the environmental impact assessment, all stakeholders – especially the dam-affected people and those committed to defending the interests of the nature and future generations – must be brought into the process. A real and effective stakeholder involvement depends very much on the active involvement of the media and NGOs. Only when all stakeholder groups are ensured their full right to know and right to participate will China’s hydropower development begin to give appropriate considerations to competing social goals, to make fair judgment on tradeoffs, to give fair compensation to dam-affected groups, and to seriously consider cumulative impacts and alternatives.

The prospect of China’s river preservation may look grim, but there are also many hopeful signs. Growing public awareness and increased attention from civil society on the impact of dams have prompted the government to look at more sustainable development models. The top leadership is chanting the new view of more balanced development and has openly committed to the establishment of a “harmonious society,” with the harmony between man and nature one of the key themes. The Internet, with more than 100 million users in China, has boosted transparency on environmental and social issues – a much needed first step in a fair process. However, the old practice of developing hydropower at whatever cost is dying hard and the vested interests will push very hard with their mighty power. Over the next 20 years, these two views will clash vehemently on the fate of hundreds of rivers. The lives of millions of people will very much be determined by this grand hydropower endgame.


Half the World's Large Dams in China

Dams over 15 m

Dams over 30 m

Dams over 100 m

Dams over 150 m

Dams over 60 m under construction in 2002













(Source: Chinese National Committee on Large Dams)


Fast Facts on China's Dam Plans

The following hydropower projects are the centerpiece of the authorities' big dam plans for China:

  • A 12-dam cascade on the middle and lower reaches of the Jinsha River, (upper Yangtze)
  • A 6-dam cascade on the Minjiang River, a Yangtze tributary
  • A 17-dam cascade on the Dadu river, a Yangtze tributary
  • A 17-dam cascade on the Jialing River, a Yangtze tributary
  • A 10-dam cascade on the Wujiang River, a Yangtze tributary
  • A 21-dam cascade on the Yalong River, a Yangtze tributary
  • A 14-dam cascade the Lancang River, the upper reach of Mekong
  • A 13-dams cascade the Nujiang River, the upper reach of Salween
  • A 10-dams cascade on the Hongshui River, the middle reach of the Pearl River.