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China needs to address the effects of dams

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In Brief

As China shifts its focus to curbing carbon emissions, hydropower is becoming central to its alternative energy plan. But while the potential for renewable power generation cannot be ignored, the potential for costly environmental degradation is also high.


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In late-2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping released a joint statement on climate change, announcing both countries’ intention to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The US will reduce overall emissions by at least 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. China will cap its carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030. This joint statement does not have the binding authority of a treaty, nor does it enjoy the support of the new Republican majority in both houses of the US Congress. So, while it has succeeded in raising the profile of climate change on the international agenda, it is too early to tell whether the statement will result in material changes to either country’s policies.

But one thing is certain: reducing China’s carbon emissions will require weaning the nation’s economy away from fossil fuels, especially coal, which currently accounts for three-quarters of China’s electricity generation. Top Chinese officials appear willing to do just that. In its new Energy Development Strategy Plan, the State Council has laid out ambitious goals for developing alternative and renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower.

Hydropower dams have become a centrepiece of the discussion on renewable energy. In addition to high-profile projects like the Three Gorges Dam, hydropower facilities have already been built on nearly all of China’s major river systems. Hydropower output is growing at an annual rate of 12.9 per cent, faster than any other electricity-generation source. Over the past several decades, China has far outpaced all other countries in hydropower development. It is now home to half of the world’s approximately 50,000 large dams.

This poses a unique set of environmental and social challenges that must be addressed.

When a dam is installed on a river it fragments the riparian ecosystem, changing a free-flowing river segment into an expanse of still water. In the process, it disrupts sensitive habitats, alters the temperature, chemistry and sediment load of the water, and changes the geomorphology of the river itself. The Three Parallel Rivers Region in Yunnan Province is a case in point. Dozens of dams are now under development on the Jinsha (the headwaters of the Yangtze), the Lancang (Upper Mekong) and the Nu (Salween), even as international NGOs mobilise to preserve the region’s estimated 6000 plant species and numerous rare, threatened or endangered animals.

The social consequences are equally dire. In 2004, a Xinhua News report — based on research conducted by the Ministry of Water Resources — concluded that at least 15 million people in China have been displaced due to dam construction. This is the largest dam-related displaced population in the world. For the people who live along rivers targeted for hydropower development — many of whom belong to culturally or economically vulnerable groups — dams cause displacement and resettlement, lost farmland, unemployment, and disruption in social networks and community well-being.

China’s steep escalation in hydropower development is unlikely to slow anytime soon. So, how can China develop hydropower in a way that best protects ecosystems and people?

Here, the large body of research produced by ecological and social scientists, in China and elsewhere, over the past several decades is instructive. The research points to three basic principles on how to minimise or mitigate environmental and social costs.

First, comprehensive river-basin planning that focuses on environmental protection and socioeconomic well-being, along with hydropower development, can minimise the impacts of dams on ecosystems and communities.

Second, a clear process for social impact assessment can ensure that the needs of affected people and communities receive due consideration.

Third, an enforceable legal and policy framework for land requisition can ensure that displaced people receive adequate compensation, enabling them to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

This is not just China’s problem. The repercussions of the current hydropower boom are being felt far beyond the country’s borders. Armed with the best hydropower engineering capacity in the world, and the backing of government financial institutions like China Exim Bank, Chinese firms are involved in the planning and construction of more than 300 dam projects in 70 countries, from Southeast Asia to sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. As hydropower development continues to build momentum as an important source of renewable energy, more public scrutiny is needed.

Bryan Tilt is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oregon State University. He is the author of the new book Dams and Development in China: The Moral Economy of Water and Power.

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