China’s Hydropower Hopes… But at What Cost?

China has officially begun construction of the 314 meter (1,030 ft)-high Shuangjiangkou Dam on a tributary of the Yangtze River. The dam’s projected cost is 36 billion yuan (US$5.8 billion), and it is just the latest addition to China’s growing list of major dam projects, with the Three Gorges Dam being the most well-known (and most controversial).

While an increase in hydroelectric power output is largely viewed as a good thing for coal-dependent China, construction of yet another huge dam is bringing about fresh concern on the negative (and possibly irreversible) environmental impact.

The Shuangjiangkou Dam will one of the world’s tallest, with an output of 2,000 MW, and it is just one of many hydropower facilities being planned or already under construction—a reminder of how ambitious China has been with its expanding hydroelectric power capacity. By 2030, the country hopes to meet its goal of generating 20% of its power from non-fossil fuel sources, confident that this will reduce carbon emissions in China.

Many are still skeptical of the benefits of so many hydropower projects because of the far-reaching effects they have already had on both the environment and the local population. Including dams currently under construction, there are over a dozen large dams on the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River alone.

The Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, is the most notorious in this regard. It spans the Yangtze River in the middle of Xiling Gorge—the easternmost of the famed Three Gorges in central China. Upon completion, the water level rose significantly in the two gorges upstream, forever changing the scenery in the area.

And while scenery is certainly something, the bigger issue was the need to displace some 1.2 million people, their towns and villages now underwater. The main part of the reservoir created is over 600 km (373 mi) long, and has submerged whole cities and villages, as well as countless factories, mines, and waste dumps. Yes, waste dumps. The level of industrial waste, silt, and garbage in the reservoir today is horrifying.

An increase in landslides, along with nearly decimated fish populations, is also directly attributed to the dam. Many villagers living near the banks of the reservoir have had to be relocated over the past few years because their homes have been destroyed or are in close proximity to landslides.

It is not all bad news, however.

Large dams, particularly the Three Gorges, have served as a (mostly) reliable flood control mechanism on the Yangtze, as the river has been plagued by catastrophic floods throughout history, the most recent of these occurring in 2010 and 1998.

Also, river shipping capacity can usually be increased in conjunction with large dams. On an incredibly busy waterway such as the Yangtze this is particularly crucial.

Despite concerns that current and projected environmental damage could outweigh the benefits, the majority of dam projects in China still get the green light, due to the country’s 2030 goal for energy output.

A rare exception is the rejection of the proposed 1,000-MW Xiaonanhai Dam, which was to be constructed on the Jinsha River—the main waterway of the upper Yangtze. The Ministry of Environmental Protection did not approve this project based on the fact that the ecology has already been greatly affected by existing dams along other stretches of the Jinsha.

This rejection, which occurred in April, has actually brought attention back to ongoing arguments against dam projects. In particular, those on the Jinsha River, as much of the river is within the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is known as one of the most biologically diverse temperate regions on the planet.

Also within this region is the Tiger Leaping Gorge stretch of the Jinsha River—a focal point of opposition to local dam projects proposed back in 2004–2007. Sean Xia, owner of Sean’s Spring Guesthouse and lifelong resident of the gorge, is one of many who actively spoke out against the damming of the gorge. Hydropower companies pushed hard with their proposals, including numerous sites further downstream, something that would have displaced nearly 100,000 people and all but destroyed the local ecosystem. This spectacular area came very close to being changed forever and would have also resulted in the resident ethnic minorities losing the place that they have lived for countless generations. By the end of 2007, however, all plans for the dam were scrapped.

Perhaps more rejections will be seen over the coming years, as existing dams attempt to solve one problem only to create 10 more. If this turns out to be the case, it is anyone’s guess how China will find a lasting solution to their energy and pollution problems, as the population continues to urbanize and consume ever increasing amounts of power.