Jinsha dam plans stoke old rows

A war of words over hydropower development on the Yangtze tributary is the latest revival of an eight-year old argument. Deng Quanlun and Hu Feifei report.

Editor’s note: once again, experts, NGOs and officials are getting stuck into China’s hydropower debate, much of it played out in the country’s media. Here’s a translated article from Guangzhou-based newspaper Time Weekly about the ongoing struggle between dam-building and environmental protection in south-west China.

Another bout of fighting has broken out over hydropower development on China’s Jinsha River, the westernmost tributary to the Yangtze.

At the launch of a new survey on dam-building in late May, Zhang Boting, deputy secretary general of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, denounced the “fake experts” he said were misleading journalists and the public, and rejected reports of an untrammelled dam frenzy in south-west China.

Specifically, he levelled the “fake expert” insult at Yang Yong, chief scientist at the Hengduan Mountains Research Institute and a member of the expert committee at the China Foundation for Desertification Control.

Yang has been waging a battle to protect the Jinsha River from exploitation since 2004. He argues that plans for intensive development, involving 25 dams, will break the river up into sections of still water. This is not a good use of the Yangtze’s resources, he says, and will affect fish migration.

Plans in the public domain include a cascade of 25 dams on the Jinsha River, which would generate as much electricity as four Three Gorges Dams put together. This would create a huge cluster of reservoirs – on average, one every 100 kilometres. 

For two weeks in April and May, the magazine of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, Energy, invited a group of hydrologists to survey dam-building activities in south-west China. Zhang Boting joined the expert group. Coincidentally, while they were carrying out their investigation, a flurry of media reports came out raising doubts about the wisdom of the development plans.

On May 16, a meeting was held to present a summary of the survey’s findings. It was also an opportunity for the industry to respond to public concerns about excessive development. Zhang made a keynote speech at the meeting, in which he started by refuting claims that hydropower construction had got out of control.

Are plans to have “hydroelectric dams less than 100 kilometres apart” excessive? No, Zhang said: this is normal. Cascades are standard both in China and abroad. There are 70 hydroelectric dams on the 1,000-kilometre Tennessee River, he said, and in Europe similarly dense clusters of dams are found on rivers including the Rhine and the Danube. [Editor’s note: According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, only 41 dams in fact contribute to the Tennessee Valley power system].

Zhang had more to say. He followed up his speech with 11 articles, published on the society’s website, systematically rebutting criticisms of the Jinsha development plans. 

And his efforts triggered a counter-attack. Yang Yong accused Zhang of forgetting China’s circumstances, of blindly applying foreign experiences to development of the Jinsha, and deliberately ignoring the fragility of ecosystems on the upper reaches of the river. He said the ecologies of the Jinsha and other rivers in south-west China are extremely sensitive, and cannot be directly compared with rivers overseas. 

There are, however, lessons to be drawn from abroad, Yang said: US and European dam-building is carried out as part of wider river management approach that is sensitive to the overall functions of the river ecosystem, he argued. In contrast, development of the Jinsha is more single-mindedly focused on hydropower, and could damage the river as a whole.

With 25 dams, the rapidly-flowing Jinsha River will be sliced into sections of passive water, changing the hydrology of the entire basin, he said. The environment, habitat and lifecycles of state-protected fish like the Chinese paddlefish and the Dabry’s Sturgeon will be impacted.  

Yang accused Zhang of being a spokesperson for industry interests. He said he was a “person of confused logic” with a coarse attitude, who attacked and insulted those who held different views.

Both men have impressive backgrounds. Zhang, 58, was sent to work in the north-east of China during the Cultural Revolution. On returning to Beijing in 1977, he attended Peking University and later joined the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, where he was involved in dam design, stress analysis and structural analysis. In 1990, he joined the China Hydropower Engineering Society.

Yang, 53, has been described in the media as the most “enlightened” of civil society’s environmental experts, thanks to his extensive on-the-ground research. Over the last 20 years, he has visited almost all of China’s rivers, on foot, by raft or by car. He has followed the environmental story of the Jinsha since the 1980s. On May 23, he was awarded the Nikkei Asia Prize – which “recognises the achievements of people and organisations that have improved the lives of people in Asia” for his independent and sustained investigations into dams and the environment.

The two men have never met, but they are by no means strangers. Zhang is a staunch supporter of dams, while Yang is a representative of the opposition. And their ongoing war of words shows the struggle between hydropower and environmental protection in microcosm.

Controversy has dogged the Jinsha since 2004. The previous year, the State Development Planning Commission (predecessor of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic planning body) approved plans for a cascade of eight dams on the middle reaches of the river. When the news broke, an opposition lobby of green NGOs, experts and environmental protection officials quickly got organised.

In 2009, a crackdown on dubious environmental approvals for large projects by the Ministry of Environmental Protection brought the programme to a halt. Then in July 2010, the government ended a moratorium on approvals for new dams, prompted by an urgent need to cut carbon emissions. Zhang Guobao, at the time head of the National Energy Administration, said that if energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets for 2020 were to be met, China would need 380 million kilowatts of hydropower capacity. That meant both approvals and construction needed to speed up.

But even as China’s hydropower sector geared up again, the row over environmental protection versus development was raging on. Now into 2012, it appears as fierce as ever.

Lu Youmei, a hydrology and hydropower engineer and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering is broadly supportive of dam-building. Lu admitted that there are problems to be addressed in the Chinese hydropower sector, but said this is no reason to give up: “The key is to look at the problems realistically, scientifically and rationally.”

Lu said that, far from it being a case of development going too far in China, river exploitation is actually lagging behind other countries. National Energy Administration figures indicate China has the potential to generate 542 million kilowatts of energy from hydropower, but is only actually generating around 34% of that, 185 million kilowatts. This is much lower than utilisation rates in developed nations of around 60% to 70%.

But Weng Lida, once head of the environmental protection department at the Yangtze River Commission, insisted that hydropower development has got out of control. “There are too many dams on the rivers in the south-west, the rivers can hardly breathe,” he said

And, early last month, the Ministry of Water Resources’ Changjiang River Scientific Research Institute, China Three Gorges Project Corporation (CTGPC) and WWF published a report called “China’s Environmental Flows Research and Practice”. The report concluded that there were already too many hydropower plants on some parts of the upper Yangtze and that untrammelled development was affecting the basin’s ecological balance.

Chen Guojie, a researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, is worried: if plans for the upper reaches of the Yangtze go ahead as planned, 100 species of fish will die out, he warned.

Even Cao Guangjing, chairman of China Three Gorges Project Corporation – the state-owned company behind the world’s largest hydroelectric dam to date – is cautious. With more dams, the coordination of water storage and drainage will be problematic, he said; dealing with this challenge is a work in progress, and hydropower development needs to take account of this.

You can’t squeeze all the value out of every drop of water, you need to consider the environment’s needs, he said. “Protect as you develop, develop as you protect. That’s the principle.”

Deng Quanlun and Hu Feifei are reporters at Time Weekly, where this article was first published.

Homepage image by International Rivers