Three Gorges’ Sister Dams Near Completion

Katy Yan
Monday, March 2, 2009

In the grand canyons of the Jinsha (“Golden Sands”) River in central China, a dozen dams are being planned to fuel China’s rapidly growing cities and industries. Since Beijing's recently announced economic stimulus package, the construction of these dams have sped up, making environmental impact assessments somewhat of an accessory, according to Professor Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The first two dams, the 260-meter-high Xiluodu and 160-m-high Xiangjiaba – China’s second and third largest dams – are now being built on the Jinsha, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze River. A primary motivation for these projects is to reduce the enormous amount of “Golden Sands” silt entering the massive Three Gorges Dam downstream. If unchecked, the sedimentation at Three Gorges could seriously harm the dam’s turbines and reduce the reservoir's overall lifespan.

Altogether, these two dams will produce 19 gigawatts of power, which is four times greater than the capacity of the Hoover Dam. The China Yangtze River Three Gorges Project Development Corporation expects that both projects will be completed by 2015.

While cost estimates for Xiangjiaba hover at around US$4.2 billion, higher figures have been suggested. This would not be surprising, given the budget-breaking experience of Three Gorges, which has seen its costs skyrocket due to the embezzlement of resettlement funds, construction of extra retaining walls to prevent landslides, and the clean-up of the reservoir’s polluted waters.

The huge dams are being built in a recognized earthquake zone, and could add to the risk of reservoir-induced earthquakes in the region (see pp. 8-9). In addition, more than 125,000 people have already been resettled out of the Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu reservoir areas. They represent several different ethnic minority groups from six counties within Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

Besides being home to these ethnic groups for thousands of years, the Jinsha River region represents one of China's most important biodiversity hotspots.  It also serves as a prime river-rafting destination for adventure-seekers from around the world. However, all of this will soon change.

In addition to the 12 dams planned for the Jinsha, its major tributaries are also being dammed: six dams are planned on the Min River, 17 on the Dadu River, and 21 on the Yalong River. One of these 12 Jinsha dams, the controversial Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam, has been scrapped for the Longpan Dam farther upstream, according to Professor Jiang. If Longpan Dam is built, experts expect severe impacts on the region’s biodiversity and the resettlement of 100,000 mainly ethnic minority individuals.

As in the case of Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu, and the rest of the Jinsha dams, "The problem with large scale dams" argues journalist Ma Jun, “is that they make it almost inevitable that more dams will be built, just to keep the existing ones functioning."