Guest Blog – Hydropower Development on the Amur River and Russia’s Planning Flaws

Tim Grant, Summer Intern, China Program
China bank of the Amur River in late fall facing Russia
China bank of the Amur River in late fall facing Russia

The Amur River is the last free-flowing major river in Asia located along the border of eastern Russia and northern China. Originating in the Khentii Mountains of Mongolia, the Amur-Heilong River is the world’s tenth longest river flowing eastward until it connects with the Strait of Tartary. The river spans five distinct ecological regions, from grasslands and boreal forests to desert and tundra. 

The basin contains seventeen wetlands, all with immense flora, fauna and aquatic life. Within the Russian expanse of the Amur alone, there are at least 2,800 and 500 plant and animal species respectively, including critically endangered animals such as the Siberian Tiger.

Human populations are distributed unevenly within the basin, but an estimated 75 million people live within the Amur basin – the majority of which are located in China. The indigenous tribal population is prolific; within the Duarian Steppe, various Mongolian language tribes live along the river. The eastern Amur-Heilong communities are composed of Tungus-Manchurian speaking ethnic groups, such as the Owenk and Ulchi, and many of these communities consist of hunting and fishing groups dependent on the natural resources of the basin.

Chinese and Russian hydropower companies planning dams for the Amur

Amidst the sprawling, densely biodiverse Amur-Heilong and its tributaries, plans for construction of hydropower plants are currently being developed. JSC RusHydro, one of Russia’s largest and partly-government owned hydroelectric company, has proposed multiple hydroelectric projects upon the tributaries of the Amur, citing a need for “flood preventing hydropower plants on the river,” and has encouraged Chinese hydro-giant, China Three Gorges Corporation, to invest in the project.

Within Russia, two large hydroelectric dams with a total reservoir capacity of over 80 cubic kilometers and an area of about 3300 square kilometers have been built on the Zeya and Bureya tributaries of the Amur. These hydroelectric projects had large environmental impacts within the basin including the destruction of large areas of forests and marshes, disrupted migration of diverse species of fish and reduced populations of many endemic animals. The reservoirs also heavily disrupted water flows, reduced sediment loads and led to large temperature fluctuations harmful to aquatic river species and plant life. 

These hydrological changes have deteriorated the integrity of the floodplain wetlands, affecting more than a thousand kilometers downstream of the Amur River. Indigenous populations report that the dams are responsible for the changes in the local climate, water pollution as a result of rotten vegetation, and artificial periodic flooding of downstream settlements. Fishery depletion and the disruption of navigation have created additional hardships for the people of the Amur dependent on the river for their way of life.

Russian and Chinese collaboration on future development projects in the region will result in similar, long-term ramifications for the environment of the Amur basin if not handled properly. Plans for development and their imminent impacts ultimately leave the future of the Amur uncertain. 

RusHydro is considering development plans that encourage Chinese investment in “flood prevention” hydropower projects. If these projects move forward, the environmental risks for the river loom on the horizon. Although Rushydro has cited the “necessity” of such projects, the supposed rationale for the development is ultimately flawed and the options presented for hydropower projects are themselves problematic in scope. If such development projects were weighed in relation to the costs associated with environmental impacts on the Amur, I’m confident the desire to implement such programs would be less prevalent.

In 2013, RusHydro presented a "simple solution" for protection against floods by proposing new regulating reservoirs. Based on development plans created in the mid-20th century by Soviet engineers, the company presented the option of building nine hydroelectric projects on the tributaries of the Amur River. The construction of such projects would require the reservoir area in the basin to increase by 3000 square kilometers and catchment area blocked by dams to increase by 300,000 square kilometers. The official draft for the plan was submitted to the Ministry of Energy in Spring 2014, but has not yet been released to the public.

NGO Experts present their own viability study

The international organization Rivers Without Borders assessed the viability of such projects in a recent study. Excluding the impacts of the Zeya and Bureya reservoirs already in existence on the Amur Tributaries, the study found that the nine hydropower projects would increase the negative impact on the basin ecosystem from hydropower by approximately 100%.

Flood control as the rationale for the initial development plans is highly suspect. Four of the proposed dams will require reservoirs with an area of over 1,600 square kilometers, which will create a total of only 8 cubic kilometers of flood-retaining capacity, capable of preventing flooding of 87 thousand hectares. This is less than half of the area that would be flooded by the reservoirs themselves. Dams themselves are rarely utilized in such a fashion. In 2013, only 9 cubic kilometers of at least 30 cubic kilometers of the existing Zeya Dam reservoir’s capacity was used for flood regulation. 

Rivers Without Borders also identified deterrent costs as a factor in such development. Due to Russian economic constraints, receiving subsidies for such projects are complicated and competitive. Out of the nine dams presented, the company prioritized four as having the potential for development. Of these projects, RusHydro and the Ministry of Energy found that only three could be developed without large government subsidies. 

Weighing up the costs

If flood prevention alone is the motive for building such projects, the associated costs are quite high. In this scenario, the cost of creating just one cubic kilometer of flood prevention capacity is 13 billion rubles, or more than USD $370 million. The total cost is astronomically high considering the multiple cubic kilometers needed for the proposed hydropower plan. In contrast, flood protection by dykes on all major settlements would cost only about 20 billion rubles total, or USD $575 million.

If such a large endeavor to construct dams on the Amur River is indeed underway, then such development should assess both the associated environmental and economic costs. Given the high negative impacts on the basin, and the fact that cheaper, more economically sound alternatives to hydropower exist, plans to build large dams on the Amur River are unviable and thus should be reconsidered.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014