20080312-yangtze dam nature conservancy.jpg
Area for proposed dam
on the Yangtze in Sichuan
China’s extensive hydroelectric energy potential, is found mostly in Yunnan, western Sichuan, and eastern Tibet. According to The Guardian: “Scientists and environmental activists have raised concerns that a profusion of dams in south-west China could increase the area's risk of natural disasters such as earthquakes and landslides. Ahydroelectric project on the Dadu river prompted social unrest in 2004, as tens of thousands of farmers along its banks rioted against plans to relocate them. Authorities responded by halting the Pubugou dam's construction for a year. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, May 17, 2013]

Dams in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan are key elements of efforts by the Chinese government to promote hydroelectricity as a cleaner alternative to coal. Among them are 54 key stations under development, that have been approved despite the devastating impact they would have on a national fishery reserves and poor economic feasibility.

The Xiaonanhai Dam was a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Yangtze River in Chongqing, It was slated to produce 1,760 MW of electricity. Construction on the dam began in 2012 and the completion date was set in 2019. However, the dam was cancelled in March 2015 due to environmental concerns. Some say it was axed for political reasons. The highly controversial dam was a pet project of disgraced former party chief of Chongqing Bo Xilai. Plans for the Xiaonanhai Dam were able to get off the ground due "the canny redrawing of the boundaries of an inconvenient wildlife refuge set up to protect the last habitat of some fabled Yangtze aquatic life — the Yangtze sturgeon and the, Zaijian Chinese paddlefish!”

May 2009, six Tibetan women were shot by China security forces during a protest over a hydroelectric dam project in Sichuan province, the Tibetan government-in-exile claimed. The women were demonstrating against a forcible relocation program in Yajiang, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Region, when public security officers and armed police opened fire on them. The condition of the women is unknown as they were reportedly taken away by the authorities. Other Tibetan sources were unable to confirm the shooting. Several dams are under construction in the area. Among them is the Lianghekou hydroelectric plant, which is scheduled to begin operation in 2010. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, May 26, 2009]

Damming the Brahmaputra

The Chinese government has proposed damming the mighty Brahmaputra River, one the world’s largest rivers, and diverting the flow to Yellow River to ease water shortages in the northern China. The move could cause an ecological and economic disaster in parts of India and Bangladesh that depend on the river and affect India’s own plans to dam the river.

The proposal calls for diverting the Brahmaputra where it does a big U-turn in the world’s deepest canyon before entering India and building a network of dams, canals and tunnels to divert 200 billion cubic meters of water a year to the Yellow River and five other rivers.

More than 185 million people in northeastern India and Bangladesh depend on the Brahmaputra. In the Indian state of Assam 80 percent agriculture relies on water from the river and 60 percent of power from hydroelectric projects comes from dams on the river and its tributaries. There are also worries that an earthquake could destroy a Chinese dam and cause a catastrophic flood that could kill thousands..

Dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet

No less than 28 dams on the Yarling Tsampo-Brahmaputra river in Tibet are either planned, completed or under discussion by China, according to Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan scholar of environmental policy at the University of British Columbia. [Source: Jonathan Wattsm The Guardian, May 24, 2010]

Exploitation of the river is already under way. China recently announced plans to build five dams further upstream, including a 500MW hydroplant at Zangmu, which is under construction by the power utility Huaneng.

According to Tsering, the biggest of them will be a huge plant at the great bend — either at Metog, known as Motuo in Chinese, or at Daduqia. The former would involve the construction of a series of tunnels, pipes, reservoirs and turbines to exploit the spectacular 2,000-meter fall of the river as it curls down towards India.

Chinese officials have warned that a delay would allow India to tap these resources and prompt “major conflict” in a region where the two nations have sporadically clashed over disputed territory. “We should build a hydropower plant in Motuo ... as soon as possible because it is a great policy to protect our territory from Indian invasion and to increase China's capacity for carbon reduction,” one official wrote.

Dam on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra in Tibet

Chinese hydropower engineers are lobbying for the construction of the world's biggest hydro-electric project on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra river as part of a huge expansion of renewable power in the Himalayas.Zhang Boting, the deputy general secretary of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, told the Guardian that a massive dam on the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo- the Tibetan name for the river - would benefit the world, despite the likely concerns of downstream nations, India and Bangladesh, which access water and power from the river.[Source: Jonathan Wattsm The Guardian, May 24, 2010]

Documents on the website of a government agency suggest a 38 gigawatt hydropower plant is under consideration that would be more than half as big again as the Three Gorges dam, with a capacity nearly half as large as the UK's national grid. This dam could generate the energy equivalent to 100m tons of crude coal, or all the oil and gas in the South China sea, and save 200 million tons of carbon each year.

Along with the Congo river at the Inga falls, the on the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo is considered one of the two greatest concentrations of river energy on earth, but it was long thought impossible to access because of the rugged, high-altitude terrain and the risk of water-related conflict with neighboring countries. But China has overcome many engineering obstacles with the construction of the railway to Tibet, and its growing energy demands are spurring exploration of ever more remote areas.

“Tibet's resources will be converted into economic advantage,” Yan Zhiyong, the general manager of China Hydropower Engineering Consulting Group, told China Energy News earlier this year. “The major technical constraints on damming the Yarlung Tsampo have been overcome.” But given the huge expense, technical difficulties and political sensitivities of the scheme, it is far from certain of final approval by the government.

Problems with Dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet

Any step forward is likely to be controversial. Tibetans consider Metog a sacred region, and environmental activists warn against building such a huge project in a seismically active and ecologically fragile area. [Source: Jonathan Wattsm The Guardian, May 24, 2010]

“A large dam on the Tibetan plateau would amount to a major, irreversible experiment with geo-engineering,” said Peter Bosshard of International Rivers. “Blocking the Yarlung Tsangpo could devastate the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau, and would withhold the river's sediments from the fertile floodplains of Assam in north-east India, and Bangladesh.”

China's construction of dams also raises the prospect of a race with India to develop hydropower along south Asia's most important river. “India needs to be more aggressive in pushing ahead hydro projects (on the Brahmaputra),” Jairam Ramesh, the Indian environment minister, told the Guardian. “That would put us in better negotiating position (with China).”

To minimize the risk of water-related conflict, the two nations have agreed to share information about hydro-plans on the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. Indian media have raised concerns that Beijing may ultimately embark on a gigantic diversion scheme that would channel water away from India to the dry northern plains of China, but such fears are dismissed by Tsering, who says the dam at Metog would be for hydropower, not water diversion. “The laws of physics will not allow water diversion from the Great Bend.”

China Eyes Huge Dam on Tibet's Brahmaputra River

China might build a huge dam with up to 60 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity on a section of the Brahmaputra river, known as the Yarlung Tsangbo, which flows from Tibet into India and Bangladesh. Yan Zhiyong, chairman of state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China, said that plans to dam the river were a "historic opportunity", and would not only help to meet the country's clean energy plans but would also strengthen water supply security. His remarks were published by China Energy News, a sister publication of the Communist Party-run People's Daily.[Source: Reuters, November 30, 2020]

Reuters reported: “The ruling Chinese Communist Party had said it would "implement the development of hydropower resources on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Tsangbo river" in a list of 2021-2025 "five-year plan" policy recommendations published at the beginning of November 2020. Yan said hydropower construction would help to develop Tibet, while the construction of power grids and roads would make cross-border cooperation with South Asian countries "more smooth.".

“Environmental groups and Tibetan rights activists have expressed concern about China's hydropower ambitions in the region, saying it could affect downstream water supplies. Anti-hydropower groups say China's rivers are already at saturation point after a dam-building boom that included the construction of the Three Gorges Project and many other giant hydropower plants on the Yangtze and its tributaries.

Dams on Three Parallel Rivers

There are plans to build 100 dams in Sichuan and Yunnan in the Three Parallel RIvers area, where three great rivers — the Mekong, the Upper Yangtze and the Salween — pass close to each other. The plan calls for more than a dozen dams larger than the Grand Coulee dam and one that will be the tallest in the world. Even though the dams are in remote mountainous areas they are set to displace 1 million people.

The biggest issue concerning the region is how extensively to dam to the Jinsha (Upper Yangtze), Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween). The Jinsha has four dams under construction as of 2009. The Lancang had three as of that time. Two were under construction and nine more are proposed. A plan put on the table in 2003 called for 13 dams on the Nu.

There are plan calls for major four dams along the Jinsha (Upper Yangtze) River, which would generate twice the power of the Three Gorges dam. The muddy Jinsha fills the Yangtze with half its silt. There are plans to build 13 dams on the Nu River, which flows into Thailand and Burma. The project would produce the largest cascade dam and generate more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. Another proposed dam on the Yangtze will submerge Leaping Tiger Gorge.

Environmentalist oppose these projects because of the ecological impact they will have. Thailand and Burma oppose them too because they have their own plans to build dams on the river. The Nu River project is slated to be built through an area that has been declared a World Heritage Site UNESCO and biodiversity hot spot and has been described as “maybe the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystem in the world” because of the variety of unique flora and fauna found there. The Nu is one of only two free flowing rivers left in China.

Plans for the dams were suspended in 2004 but revived in 2005. The projects are widely seen as ground zero for conflict between development-minded officials and environment-minded ones. Surprisingly much of the discussion revolves around following the law. A Chinese government environmental review released in 2006 recommended that dam projects be reviewed and an effort made to limit their damage and decrease the number of people relocated.

Environmental Ministry Shuts Down Upper Yangtze (Jinsha) Dam Projects

The Chinese government proposed building huge hydropower dams in the Upper Yangtze (Jinsha). The planned Jinsha stations were slated to have a combined generating capacity of 60 gigawatts, exceeding that of the Three Gorges Dam by almost a factor of three. Many of hydropower projects proposed for the Yangtze's are on steep Sichuan tributaries. [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, 2009]

China's environment ministry has suspended construction of two ambitious hydropower dams in the Upper Yangtze (Jinsha) river region, saying the projects were illegal because they were started without necessary environmental assessments. The announcement, carried widely in state media today, is an unusually aggressive move by the ministry of environmental protection, whose local bureaus answer to local governments despite it being upgraded to a full ministry last year. [Source: AP, June 12, 2009]

The dams are part of an estimated 200 billion yuan ($30 billion) project involving hydropower stations along the Jinsha river tributary in south-western China which environmentalists have said would damage the region's biodiversity. “To protect the management of the environment ... and to punish the violation of the environment and illegal acts regarding the environment, the environmental ministry decided to suspend the construction projects in the middle reaches of the Jinsha River,” spokesman Tao Detian said in the statement. Tao said additional environmental reviews would be needed for the hydropower projects to go ahead.

Two large state-owned power companies, Huadian Power and Huaneng Power, started blocking the middle reaches of the river in January without approval from the ministry, it said in a notice on its website. The Beijing News newspaper quoted an unidentified person who works for a hydropower project at a large power company as saying it was the first time the environment ministry has responded so strongly to hydropower.

China plans to build 12 hydropower projects along the 1,423-mile (2,290km) Jinsha River that flows from northern Qinghai province to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. The electricity output from the stations is estimated to equal the output from the massive Three Gorges Dam in central China.

Dams have big impacts on communities both upstream and downstream, and the companies should take into consideration the ecology of the Lijiang area, Tao said in the statement. Lijiang is an important tourism and trekking area in south-western China.

Nu River Dam Axed

Hydroelectric power company Huadian plans to build a cascade dams on the Nu River in the spectacular canyon in Yunnan Province. The plan envisages the construction of a dozen of so dams on the middle and lower reaches of the Nu river, with a total generating capacity of 21.3GW that is similar to that of the Three Gorges Dam. But Huadian — one of China's five biggest utilities — and the provincial government have argued that "more low-carbon energy is needed to meet the climate commitments of the fast-growing economy.”

The Nu ("angry river" in Chinese) is better known outside of China as the Salween. One of the last large free-flowing river in China, it flows from its source in the Himalayas through the heart of a UNESCO world heritage site that has been called the "Grand Canyon of the Orient". It is home to more than 80 endangered species, including snow leopards and Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys. Downstream, it provides water for Myanmar and Thailand, whose governments have joined a coalition of conservation groups and scientists in expressing opposition to the dam plans.

In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist by training, shelved plans to build 13 dams on the Unesco-protected Nu River, one of the country's last free-flowing rivers. Wen told authorities to "widely heed opinions, expound on [the plan] thoroughly and make prudent decisions". Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “Conservation groups hailed the reprieve as a rare victory against Big Hydro in an area of south-west Yunnan province that is of global importance for biodiversity. [Source: Jonathan Watts The Guardian, February 1, 2011]

Nu River Dam Revived

In February 2011 it was announced that China would forge ahead with controversial plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants and dams on the Nu River. The move overturned a suspension ordered in 2004 on environmental grounds and reconfirmed in 2009. Lobbying by the dam’s proponents appeared to have been successful, according to reports in the state media. "We believe the Nu River can be developed and we hope that progress can be made during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015)," Shi Lishan, the deputy director of new energy at the National Energy Administration, told Chinese national radio.

In January. 2013, Chinese authorities approved a controversial series of 13 dams on the pristine upper reaches of the Nu river — eight years after Beijing suspended the plans under pressure from environmental groups. According to to the South China Morning Post: “The decision was mentioned in a 2011-15 energy-sector blueprint that was released by the State Council, sparking criticism about a lack of openness in the decision on the dams."Hydropower bases on the Nu River and the upper reaches of the Jinsha and Lancang [Mekong] will be kicked off in an orderly manner," says the document posted on the central government's website.[Source: Li Jing, South China Morning Post, January 15, 2013]

Some environmentalists were stunned “Opponents said the decision marks a long-awaited victory for the country's mighty state-owned power companies and local governments that have been lobbying top leaders to promote the building of mega dams, regardless of the potential safety risks and social consequences. "This is really shocking," said Li Bo, a director at Friends of Nature, a leading environmental group. "There were signs during the past year that mega dams were staging a comeback after being put on hold for years, but I'm still shocked by the lack of transparency in the decision-making process behind this. "If implemented, these projects could destroy the baseline for ecological security, which completely goes against a promise highlighted by the new leadership to preserve a beautiful homeland for our future generations."

“The plan would see plants with a capacity of 120 gigawatts begin construction by 2015, with at least 54 hydropower bases listed as "key construction projects" and a further nine in the works, mostly in the seismically active southwest. Four hydropower bases will be developed on the Nu River. “This comes following "scientific and prudent reviews", the plan says, officially lifting — just weeks before his departure — a dam-building moratorium on the river imposed by Wen in 2005 due to ecological and geological concerns. Under mainland law, however, each of the projects is still subject to environmental impact reviews before construction starts. “Both Wang and Li warned of the geological risks associated with building mega dams in seismically active regions of the country's southwest, which sees frequent earthquakes and landslides, along with the destructive impact the dams would have on residents and the ecology. At least four of the dams were that were shelved by Wen Jiabao have been revived in the new plan. "Wen was able to put those projects on hold for eight years, but with his tenure coming to an end … the pro-hydro interest groups are getting an upper hand again," said Wang Yongchen of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental NGO.

The Nu River dams were officially resuscitated shortly before Wen Jiabao’s retirement in March 2013. According to the New York Times: “Opponents say it is no coincidence that the project was revived shortly before the retirement of Mr. Wen, a populist whose decision to halt construction was hailed as a landmark victory for the nation’s fledgling environmental movement. Although he did not kill the project, Mr. Wen, vowed it would not proceed without an exhaustive environmental impact assessment. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 4, 2013]

Nu River Dams Problems and Critics

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “Critics say the project will force the relocation of tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in the highlands of Yunnan and destroy the spawning grounds for a score of endangered fish species. Geologists warn that constructing the dams in a seismically active region could threaten those living downstream. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 4, 2013]

“Among the biggest losers could be the millions of farmers and fishermen across the border in Myanmar and Thailand who depend on the Salween, as the river is called in Southeast Asia, for their sustenance. “We’re talking about a cascade of dams that will fundamentally alter the ecosystems and resources for downstream communities that depend on the river,” said Katy Yan, China program coordinator at International Rivers, an advocacy group.

As one of two major rivers in China still unimpeded by dams, the Nu has a fiercely devoted following among environmentalists who have grown despondent over the destruction of many of China’s waterways. For many advocates, the Nu has become something of a last stand. “Why can’t China have just one river that isn’t destroyed by humans?” asked Wang Yongchen, a well-known environmentalist in Beijing who has visited the area a dozen times in recent years.

“No such assessment has been released. Given the government’s goal of generating 15 percent of the nation’s electricity from non-fossil fuel by 2020, few expect environmental concerns to slow the project, even if the original plan of 13 dams on the Nu has for now been scaled back to 5. “Building a dam is about managing conflicts between man and nature, but without a scientific understanding of this project, it can only lead to calamity,” said Yang Yong, a geologist and an environmentalist.

Battle Over the Dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge

In 2004 the local government announced it wanted to build a dam and power station on the scenic spot of Tiger Leaping Gorge, which would evict some 100,000 farmers from their land and drown the gorge like gorges behind Three Gorges Dam. Since then the movement against the dam has become a focal point for nascent environmental activism. The opposition against the project rallied local peasants, national media and green groups in a rare demonstration of defiance against powerful lobbies of energy developers and development-oriented officials. [Source:Antoaneta Bezlova Asia Times, November 6, 2008]

Antoaneta Bezlova wrote in the Asia Times, “Villagers even sent a signed petition to Beijing pleading with the central government to roll back the project and attracted attention to their and won the support of fledgling Chinese environmental groups. Such was the national outcry against the damming of the unspoiled gorge that Beijing appeared to bow to public demand and suspended the project. Premier Wen Jiabao pulled the plug on the Leaping Tiger Gorge Dam in 2008, after reading an investigative report by Liu Jianqiang in the Guangzhou-based Nanfang (Southern) Daily blasting the project. He ordered an environmental review of the dam and an investigation into allegations of unapproved construction. Since then, reporting on the fate of the project has died down and local protests have been muzzled.”

In the ancient trading town of Shigu, where the Yangtze River makes its first bend, authorities are wary of protests against the dam and have stepped up their presence in town. Three police cars patrol the small market place and the steps to a grand monument dedicated to Red China's Long March. “Policemen watch us all the time,” a local woman told the Asian Times , “They don't like us talking to foreigners and outsiders very much.” “Everybody is still unsettled about the dam,” a shopkeeper selling funeral wreaths, said, ‘People are poor and they don't want to be made to give up their land to move up the hills. There is nothing much they can grow there.”

“There has been a change of parlance,” local environmentalist Yu Xiaogang told the Asian Times, “Local officials no longer talk of building dams but of transferring water from the Jinsha River to relieve the lack of water in the provincial capital of Kunming. Water transfer projects don't generate money and no one can accuse them of being profit-minded.”

Proposed New Dam Upstream from Tiger Leaping Gorge

“The original plan to build a dam on the Tiger Leaping Gorge has been replaced with a new one to dam the Jinsha at Longpan,” Bezlova wrote. “The precise location of the dam’still under discussion” is proposed to be about 150 kilometers upstream of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. All other details such as the building of a cascade of seven other dams downstream remain in place. The proposed series of dams and power stations is supposed to generate 88.3 billion kilowatts of electricity a year.” [Source: Antoaneta Bezlova Asia Times, November 6, 2008]

In November 2007, Yunnan provincial governor Qin Guangrong described the planned water transfer plan to central Yunnan as the most expensive and difficult engineering project” undertaken by the province since the communist takeover in 1949. “The proposed water transfer project can only be realized if all eight dams on the Jinsha are built,” Yang Yong, a geologist who studies the development of water resources in China's western provinces, told the Asian Times. “That leaves little doubt that if the government is serious about supplying water to Kunming, the project would go ahead.”

Apart from relieving the lack of water in central Yunnan, the proposed damming of the Jinsha is aimed at diverting water to Kunming to clean up the notoriously polluted Dian Chi Lake. The lake was once one of Asia's biggest freshwater lakes, but over the past 50 years it has shrunk to a third of its former size and silted up. Yunnan has spent billions of dollars on reducing pollution in the lake with little to show in terms of results. Dian Chi is suffering from algae blooms that are destroying the lake ecosystems by depleting the water's oxygen content.

The cost of the water diversion project from the Jinsha (Yangtze) River to Kunming is about $7.2 billion. “The length of the diversion project is nearly 600 km, which makes it expensive and difficult,” Yu Xiaogang who runs the Kunming-based NGO Green Watersheds, told the Asian Times. “Local officials have mobilized a lot of propaganda to justify the cost. They say the livelihoods of 10 million people in central Yunnan are worth the uprooting of 100,000 people at the Tiger Leaping Gorge.”

“The new site for Longpan dam is supposed to result in the displacement of less people - an estimated 20,000 mainly minority residents - than the original plan for the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam” Bezlova wrote. “Experts say the impact on forests and the ecological diversity of the area would be equally severe. They suggest there are other potential solutions to the lack of water in central Yunnan that could minimize the need for water diversion from the Jinsha.”

“There has been an explosion of energy-intensive industries in the province in recent years, many of them transferred from the eastern coastal areas where both power and resources are being slowly depleted,” Yang Yong told the Asian Times. “One needs to treat the existing pollution first and keep the growth of polluting industries in check before green-lighting such (water diversion) projects.”

Image Sources: Nolls China website; CNTO; Xindua, ESWIN. Telegraph, Envirnonmental News; NASA, Nature Conservancy

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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