Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"Don't Build Dams Everywhere"

Three Gorges Probe began as an organization dedicated to covering that controversial dam project and all its ramifications. They've expanded to cover other projects and the implications of power generation in China. Here is an English translation of an article by Chen Guojie, a senior researcher at the Chengdu Institute for Mountain Hazards and Environment, who warns of the hazards of overdeveloping hydropower in China's river-rich Southwest. In the rush to build, it's impossible to even get an accurate count of how many dams are being planned for the region, and regulatory oversight has been sorely lacking:
A recent survey by the Sichuan Electric Power Bureau found 128 small-scale hydro stations with the "four no's": no feasibility study, no official approval, no environmental assessment and no acceptance certificate. In a few extreme cases, small dams have been built on river sections that are just a kilometre long. The situation is reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, when crude steel smelters cropped up in every backyard.

What is particularly worrying is that in most cases, no comprehensive planning for the development and environmental protection of the valleys involved has been undertaken. Each dam builder administers its own affairs, with no regard for the collective interest.

Who should be responsible for these unchecked activities and how can this chaotic situation be brought under control? I'd like to characterize the situation as "anarchism under government rule."
The environmental consequences of this free-for-all are potentially devastating, particularly given the "terracing" of dams planned for the region:
Building cascades of dams has become the pattern of future development not only on the upper Yangtze and the Pearl but also in the Lancang and Nu river basins. If the current trend is allowed to continue, the Yangtze, Pearl, Lancang, Nu and Hongshui will no longer be natural rivers; they will be like staircases -- a series of sections interrupted by hydro stations. So the water of the Yangtze will no longer come from heaven1 but from these "steps," and our free-flowing rivers will disappear forever....

...The upper reaches of the Yangtze and the Pearl rivers, and both the Lancang and Nu rivers, are important habitats for aquatic life that thrives in fast-flowing water. There are 153 fish species -- including 44 species unique to the Yangtze -- in the main channel of the river alone, where their breeding habitats are also concentrated. The widespread construction of hydropower stations, especially in the form of terraced dams, has left these species little room for survival. Construction of the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams on the Jinsha River [upper Yangtze], for example, is making the "Yangtze Hejiang-Leibo rare fish species protection zone" much smaller, with the breeding habitats almost totally destroyed.
China's environmentalists have repeatedly warned about the consquences of such irresponsible, unplanned and unchecked development. The problem, Chen reports, is that the decision-makers simply do not listen:
It is interesting to note that almost all the experts who have expressed views about the Three Gorges project that diverge from the official position have never been invited to take part in any other feasibility studies or subsequent environmental assessments. Local governments and the authorities in charge of proposed hydro projects only want to invite the participation of "yes men," to help push the schemes forward, while those who view the projects with a more critical eye are excluded. This is a long-standing and peculiar situation, which by now is just taken for granted in China.
Chen questions whether the proliferation of dams will lead to profits for anyone, beyond local officials who benefit from kickbacks and skimming from resettlement funds:
Local governments like the idea of building hydro stations, especially small dams, in the hope of accelerating the development of the local economy. However, whether local owners will actually be able to sell to the grid the electricity generated from small dams is uncertain given that the grids are controlled either by the national or regional grid companies.

Unchecked development of hydropower resources could lead to a glut on the market, with many regions unable to sell their hydroelectricity as a result. Local hydro project owners would then face a dilemma: In the wet summer season, they could produce abundant power but have difficulty selling it. And in the dry season, there would be demand for their electricity but they wouldn't have enough water to run the turbines and produce the power.

Many hydro stations in the southwest are built with bank loans, and the revenue generated from the projects cannot even cover the interest on the loans. How can owners make a profit from hydro stations in such circumstances?...

...While it is true that local governments can benefit from the project-related resettlement schemes and from the construction of new towns, it is also the case that local officials associated with resettlement operations tend to grab the opportunity to pocket some of the public funds earmarked for the schemes. Dam construction projects have become breeding grounds for corruption and degenerate behaviour.
Certainly the majority of these projects have not benefited the common people, many of whom have lost not only their homes but the farmland which once generated their income. Chen notes that the vast majority of those displaced by such projects are still living in poverty, years later.

It's past time for this chaotic situation to be brought under strict control, Chen states. The question is, does anyone in the Chinese government have the power to do so?

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