China resumes dam projects to dismay of environmentalists
Mar 13, 2011 - USA Today - energycentral.com
BEIJING, Breaking a seven-year moratorium, Chinese officials plan to dam the nation's last free-flowing river in a remote canyon that is home to almost as many species of plants as in the whole of the USA and shrink a fish refuge on the Yangtze River to make room for another dam.
China says a renewal of hydropower projects is needed to reduce the country's carbon emissions, which are No. 1 in the world largely because of a reliance on "soft" coal for power. Soft coal is of poorer quality than the coal used for power in the USA and has a higher sulfur content.
Environmental groups say China and state-owned power enterprises are using the issue of carbon emissions as an excuse to revive plans for dozens of hydroelectric projects for industrial purposes opposed by villagers in remote river basins.
The government and dam builders "have used this argument very well," says Li Bo, executive director of Friends of Nature, a Chinese environmental group.
China has roughly 22,000 large dams, and its hydroelectric projects -- which produce no carbon emissions -- generate the most electricity in the world. It has plans for many more.
The communist government has promised to produce 15% of its energy by 2020 from non-fossil fuel sources, including hydro, solar and nuclear. Right now, less than 10% comes from such sources. Boosting its hydropower so significantly could mean the construction of massive dams that environmentalists say may have serious negative consequences for people and wildlife along the riverways.
China insists the dam projects are for the benefit of the environment.
"Hydropower is the cleanest energy in the world," says Zhang Boting, vice general secretary of the China Hydropower Engineering Society.
In the past five years, only a third of the dams proposed in China were under construction because environmentalists misled people into believing the projects hurt the environment, Zhang says.
Among the projects is a 13-dam cascade proposed for the Nujiang ("Angry River") in southwest China's Yunnan province. The Nujiang is the largest undammed river in China. The project had been laid aside because of objections from residents and environmentalists, but China plans to revive it.
Shi Lishan, an official with China's National Energy Agency, says residents are causing ecological damage. He says farmers are eroding the soil on the steep banks of the river.
"Some people say that Nujiang people are not growing grain but brewing disasters," he said.
Edward Grumbine, environmental studies professor at Prescott College in Arizona, says Chinese officials should stop looking on people living near dam projects "as a problem." The government says the hydroelectric power will lift them out of poverty, but "it's not at all clear that the local people will benefit greatly," says Grumbine, who wrote about the area in his book, Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River.
Grumbine says up to 60,000 people will have to be uprooted for the project and that the area already has electricity. He says the Chinese government has refused to make public any studies on the environmental impact of the dam project.
The Angry River comes out of the Tibetan Plateau east of the Himalayas and winds through sheer canyons as it moves south through China. More than 7,000 species of plants and dozens of rare or endangered animals and fish live among the nearby mountains.
"The Nu stands as an icon for a living landscape," Grumbine says.
The great Yangtze River is also being readied for more dams. The largest river in Asia is home to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world and more than five times the scale of the Hoover Dam.
The Upper Yangtze Rare and Endemic Fish Nature Reserve was created along the river in the late 1990s as a refuge from the Three Gorges Dam downstream and other dams upstream, says Guo Qiaoyu, Yangtze River project manager for the Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based group.
The government wants to build a dam near Chongqing city, and the reserve is in the way, she says.
A plan to reduce the size of the reserve will imperil rare species such as the Chinese paddlefish and Yangtze sturgeon by interrupting breeding and curtailing space for floating eggs and larvae, Guo says. "If we build another dam and change the reserve again, this means we change our promise, again and again."
In the Nujiang valley, tour guide Alou, an ethnic Tibetan, has led environmental treks along the river for seven years. In Dimaluo village, he says, people need more income, but he worries about overdevelopment.
"We may see direct benefits from the dams in 10 or 20 years, but the disadvantages may take several decades to emerge," he says.