China’s Xiaonanhai Dam Draws Ire from Scientists and NGOs

Songqiao Yao
A dead sturgeon is found in the Yangtze River
A dead sturgeon is found in the Yangtze River
Reuters 2011

This is a guest blog by International Rivers' China Program Assistant, Songqiao Yao.

China’s largest and the world’s third largest river, the Yangtze, is home to some of China's most important freshwater species. The Yangtze used to contribute to 70% of China’s freshwater catch annually. However, aggressive hydropower development has reduced the size and degraded the quality of this aquatic haven. Many critical fish species have become endangered since the construction of the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams. In 2007, the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin (or baiji) marked the loss of an entire evolutionary lineage.

In order to mitigate the impact from dams and protect the habitats of rare and endemic fish species in the Upper Yangtze River, a provincial nature reserve was created in 1997 and given national status in 2000. The Upper Yangtze Rare and Endemic Fishery Reserve is the last remaining stretch of river that can support hundreds of species of fish, including dozens that are found nowhere else in the world. Yet it has also been vulnerable to the whims of project developers and local governments (its boundaries were redrawn in 2005 to make way for Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu dams). Now with the prospect that a $3.75 billion project, the Xiaonanhai Dam, might be built by the China Three Gorges Corporation within the Reserve – forcing the Reserve to be redrawn again – these giant freshwater fish that once shared the banks with dinosaurs may soon face their own extinction.  

However, a coalition of experts and environmentalists have banded together in China to prevent this from happening. They point to the fact that Xiaonanhai does not provide significant returns for investment, nor would it play a significant role in meeting Chongqing's energy needs. With a higher cost per kilowatt than other dams on the Yangtze, the dam would irreversibly destroy the habitat for around 40 rare and endangered freshwater fish species. In a press briefing conference on June 5th, Vice Minister Zhou confirmed that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has yet to receive the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Xiaonanhai Dam. Nevertheless, preparatory work for the Xiaonanhai hydropower project has been ongoing since March 29, 2012, despite widespread criticism from experts and the general public.

A Clash of Two Symbols

Since the early 1990s, economic and environmental concerns have repeatedly delayed proposed plans to build dams on the upper section of the Yangtze River. The trend changed in 2009 when the Chongqing municipal government, under the leadership of recently deposed Party Secretary Bo Xilai, added Xiaonanhai to its list of key projects for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). Bo pursued massive development projects that stoked short-term growth (Chongqing had a mind-boggling annual growth rate of 16%) with little regard to long-term impacts or sustainability (economic or environmental). For instance, the Xiaonanhai valley’s wide riverbed and low drop in height means it is far from ideal in terms of hydropower generation. The investment per unit of installed capacity at the Xiaonanhai plant is a substantial 13,553 RMB/kW, more than twice the cost of adjacent dams. The reservoir behind the dam would flood 18 square miles of highly productive farmland and the homes of nearly half a million people. 

The encroachment of Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu upon the Upper Yangtze Rare and Endemic Fish National Nature Reserve, 2000.

The redrawn boundaries of the Yangtze Rare and Endemic Fish National Nature Reserve in 2005.

Area loss caused by the new modification plan to the Yangtze mainstream section in the nature reserve.

Critics of government corruption also point out that massive development projects are often a perfect vehicle for diverting large sums of cash toward those in political power. The municipal government saw the potential boost for GDP growth, job creation, taxation and other revenues that Xiaonanhai would bring, but failed to pay attention to the public interest and their responsibility to protecting the environment.

Xiaonanhai is thus the thunderous clash of two symbols. The Reserve represented China’s good intentions to preserve some of the Yangtze’s diverse values during the course of its hydropower development, even if it achieved a far-from-perfect balance across those values. The Reserve stands as not only the last habitat for magnificent and ancient species like the paddlefish but also a flowing symbol that “sustainable” hydropower must not compromise the health of entire ecosystems. Xiaonanhai would undo all of this and symbolize development that benefits the few at the expense of broader society and future generations.

Sound Policies Need Strong Implementation

At the June 5th press conference, Vice Minister Wu mentioned that the MEP would closely monitor and improve the management of the EIA process for hydropower projects, and support the implementation of sound watershed management practices. Regarding Xiaonanhai Dam, the MEP commissioned the local environmental protection bureau to holistically review and evaluate the environmental impact of the Yangtze cascades from a regional and watershed planning perspective.

The National Reform and Development Commission (in charge of approving major projects like Xiaonanhai) also recently released a new River Development Plan that clearly signals their intent to enhance watershed planning and sound hydropower development. However, loopholes in China’s EIA process have historically allowed construction of hydropower projects to start even before a full EIA report has been approved, which is a legal requirement under China’s EIA laws. This is because early preparatory work, also known as santong yiping (or “three connections, one leveling,” which refers to creating access to water supply, electricity and roads related to the dam, as well as land leveling) can start before a project EIA is approved. An EIA report for the santong yiping stage is required, but it is often just a rubber stamp process. As previous case studies have shown, while a project EIA for Xiaonanhai may not have yet received approval, once early preparatory work has begun, the dam cannot be stopped because early investment in the project is so high. Public participation, as required by EIA law, becomes meaningless, as in the case of Xiaonanhai, where its preparatory EIA was publicly available online for only two days.

Chinese NGOs and Netizens Speak Out

Environmental activists and scientists have been actively trying to save the Upper Yangtze endemic fishe species for the past four years. Scientists have openly spoken out against the adjustments of the reserve boundaries. In March, a group of environmental NGOs and experts released an open letter calling for a halt to early site preparation works. Public concerns were shared on China’s biggest social media sites, where Netizens were informed of the environmental threats of Xiaonanhai through slideshows and numerous media articles. Postings with the hash tags like #Tears of Yangtze Fishery and #Focus on Xiaonanhai, Save Yangtze Fishery raised public awareness around the grim prospects of endemic fish species. Facing a deadlier crisis than their more famous counterparts such as the Giant Panda and Tibetan Antelope, these giant Yangtze fish species may only be seen in museums in the future. 

The current delay in submitting Xiaonanhai’s project EIA report may buy NGOs and experts some time to more thoroughly examine Xiaonanhai’s ecological and social impact, engage in dialogue with the government and the Three Gorges Corporation, and continue to raise national and international awareness. However, what is truly needed is for the government to recognize that sound environmental policies need to be implemented and not ignored, and that when the short-term benefits for Chongqing are weighed against the long-term financial and ecological costs to the country, the Xiaonanhai project is a bad deal all around.

Maps by Fan Xiao, with modifications by International Rivers.