rightWith its vast mountain ranges and numerous rivers, China’s hydropower potential is the largest in the world. It is no surprise then that China is the world’s largest producer of hydroelectric power and is aggressively building dams. Hydropower accounts for about 16 percent of China's electricity and 7 percent of its total energy consumption. It plans to increase hydro-generating capacity by nearly two-thirds over the next five years. [Source: Washington Post]

By some reckoning hydroelectric power is China's second-biggest energy source after coal. In 2008, hydropwer accounted for 16.4 percent of China's total energy output, compared to 80 percent for coal, oil and thermopower and 2 percent for nuclear energy. While China is racing ahead to install more wind- and solar-power capacity, the energy generated by these works is considered too costly and insufficient to satisfy the country's voracious power needs. The drought in 2011 reduced the output of hydroelectric power, contributing to a government decision to raise the cost of electricity for industrial use in 15 areas.

Hydroelectric power is viewed as a relatively clean alternative to the heavily polluting coal-fired plants that are China's main source of energy. But some critics have questioned the potential environmental and social impact of so many huge projects.

China now leads the world in installed hydropower capacity, with 150 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, according to the London-based International Hydropower Association, which represents the hydropower sector. The Chinese government plans to expand this capacity to a future level of 700 GW. [Source: Antoaneta Bezlovam Asia Times, November 4, 2009]

Dams in China

China boasts nearly half of the world’s 50,000 large dams — three times more than the United States “and construction continues.Twenty major dams punctuate the Yellow River and another 18 are scheduled to be built by 2030. Share of the worlds dams: 1) China (45 percent); 2) the United States (14 percent); 3) India (9 percent); 4) Japan (6 percent); Other countries (26 percent).

Energy shortages are encouraging more dam building. Authorities think nothing of relocating 50,000 people to make a dam that will provide electricity for a new industrial area. Between 1949 and 2008 about 12.5 million Chinese citizens have been moved to make way for 86,000 dams.

Dams have been built to control flooding, improve transportation, generate electricity, provide water for irrigation, collect water for human consumption, and make rivers navigable. Dams however have many critics. Many object to them for environmental reasons, say they waste money, cause the destruction of productive farmland, force the relocation thousands of people and in the end don’t do what they supposed to do or only do it for a short period of time.

The Three Gates Gorge Dam, for example, was destroyed only four years after it went into operation in 1960 because 62 percent if the reservoir was filled with mud. A large dam n Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region produces only about a third of electricity it was designed to produce due to lack or water caused by droughts and erosion.

Dams gives Chinese planners additional flexibility in managing storage and release of water to adapt to floods, extremes in rainfall and drought. Extreme water and weather therefore means more dams, not fewer. In 2011 after a drought was followed by severe floods, Dr John Yin, a hydrologist at the University of San Diego, told Asia Times Online: "I believe that these recent extreme events will provide ammunition to those who want to build more large dams for increasing storage capacity to handle flooding and/or water shortage problems."

Great Migration for the Sanmen Gorge Dam in the 1950s

Sanmenxia Dam was completed in 1960, displacing 400,000 people. It was supposed stop chronic flooding on the Yellow River. Instead it slowed the rivers current, causing silting on a massive scale and increasing the likelihood of flooding. One engineer tod National Geographic the only way to fix it is to blow it up. Others have suggested build another dam to correct the problems made by Sanmenxia. The 400,000 people displaced by Sanmenxia were resettled from fertile land to a desert region 500 miles away. By some estimates a thirds of them died in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward. Many of the survivors made their way back to land near the land they were displaced from. When heavy rains fell the Sanmenxia reservoir back up, pushing polluted water over its banks. Three flood in five years destroyed cotton crops and poisoned villager’s water supply.

The San Men Xia Dam was a gigantic failure for which Mao and his planners were directly responsible. Built on the Yellow River with Soviet assistance in the 1950s and desperately and expensively repaired by China alone in the 1960s, it consumed a disproportionate share of the national budget and served as a drag on economic growth.

Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times, Improperly sited and designed, the dam's reservoir silted up almost immediately. Rivers feeding the reservoir slowed and dumped their sediment, raising beds and increasing flood risk. Within months, Shaanxi's capital, Xian, faced the real threat of inundation in the next major flood. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from rich Shaanxi farmland and relocated into hopeless desolation. Their 50-year struggle to return and obtain fair compensation and treatment is documented in Xie Chaoping's epic, “The Great Relocation”. [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, June 11, 2011]

Xie Chaoping was of detained for 30 days in 2010 for publishing a self-funded book, “Great Migration”, that disclosed the predicament of migrants and the corruption of officials during relocations to make way for the Sanmen Gorge dam in the 1950s. Xie's book outlines how peasants were tricked in the 1950s into leaving their fertile land on the promise of a better life in Ningxia . Those who did not starve to death within months were banned from returning to their ancestral homeland until the 1980s. The migrants were on the move for decades, some moving eight times.

In 1985 the central government ordered the local government to allocate 20,000 hectares of land to 150,000 migrants and pay them 120 million yuan in compensation. But only about half moved back, Xie's book says. They took up about 70 per cent of the land allocated to them. Xie says that according to Dali county government statistics, their average income in 2007 was about 1,150 yuan - half that of those who were not forced to move.

Typhoon Nina and the Collapse of the Banqiao Dam in 1975 Kills 229,000

Typhoon Nina, which struck China and Taiwan in August 1975, was the fourth-deadliest tropical cyclone on record. Approximately 229,000 people died after the Banqiao Dam collapsed and devastated areas downstream. The collapse of the dam due to heavy floods also caused a string of smaller dams to collapse, adding more damage by the typhoon. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Nina underwent explosive development on the late hours of August 1. Aircraft reconnaissance reported a 65 hPa drop of pressure on the same day as well as August 2 with wind speeds increasing from a mere 75 mph (120 km/h) to 150 mph (240 km/h) during that period and it attained its peak intensity of 155 mph (250 km/h) later that day. The typhoon began to weaken as it approached Taiwan, making landfall near the coastal city of Hualien as a Category 3 storm with 115 mph (185 km/h) winds. +

The storm began to weaken as it battered across the island's central mountain range, sparing the most populated areas from the eyewall. It entered the Formosa Straits as a weak typhoon and the storm came ashore near Jinjiang, Fujian, China. After moving toward the northwest and crossing Jiangxi, it turned north on the night of August 5 near Changde, Hunan. A day later, the storm moved over Xinyang, Henan, and later was blocked by a cold front near Zhumadian, Henan for three days. The stationary thunderstorm system brought heavy rainfall, causing the infamous collapse of the Banqiao Dam. The storm moved southwest on August 8, and dissipated soon afterwards. +

Due to the interaction with the mountains of Taiwan, Nina weakened to a tropical storm before making landfall in mainland China. The storm crossed the coastline with winds of 110 km/h (70 mph); however, little damage resulted near where the system struck land. Further inland, the remnants of the storm produced widespread torrential rainfall, with more than 400 mm (16 in) falling across an area of 19,410 km2 (7,500 mi2). The heaviest rainfall was recorded along the Banqiao Dam where 1,631 mm (64.2 in) of rain fell, 830 mm (33 in) of which fell in a six hour span. These rains led to the collapse of the Banqiao Dam, which received 1-in-2000-year flood conditions. In all, 62 dams failed during the disaster, causing large temporary lakes and $1.2 billion (1975 USD) in damage. +

Deadliest Tropical Cyclones Rank Name/Year Region Fatalities: 1) Bhola 1970 Bangladesh 500,000; 2) India 1839 India 300,000; 3) Haiphong 1881 Vietnam 300,000; 4) Nina 1975 China 229,000; 5) Bangladesh 1991 Bangladesh 138,000; 6) Nargis 2008 Myanmar 138,000. Sources: NOAA, ReliefWeb]

Collapse of the Banqiao Dam

The Banqiao Reservoir Dam is a dam on the River Ru in Zhumadian City, Henan province, China. Its failure in 1975 caused more casualties than any other dam failure in history. The Banqiao dam and Shimantan Reservoir Dam are among 62 dams in Zhumadian that failed catastrophically or were intentionally destroyed in 1975 during Typhoon Nina. The dam failures killed an estimated 171,000 people; 11 million people lost their homes. It also caused the sudden loss of 18 GW of power, the power output equivalent of roughly 9 very large modern coal-fired thermal power stations. The Banqiao dam was subsequently rebuilt. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to the Hydrology Department of Henan Province, in the province, approximately 26,000 people died from flooding and another 145,000 died during subsequent epidemics and famine. In addition, about 5,960,000 buildings collapsed, and 11 million residents were affected. Unofficial estimates of the number of people killed by the disaster have run as high as 230,000 people. The death toll of this disaster was declassified in 2005. +

Construction of the Banqiao dam began in April 1951 on the Ru River with the help of Soviet consultants as part of a project to control flooding and electrical power generation. The construction was a response to severe flooding in the Huai River Basin in 1949 and 1950. The dam was completed in June 1952. Because of the absence of hydrology data, the design standard was lower than usual. After the 1954 Huai River great flood, the upstream reservoirs including Banqiao were extended, constructed and consolidated. Banqiao Dam was increased in height by three meters. The dam crest level was 116.34 meters above sea level and the crest level of the wave protection wall was 117.64 meter above sea level. The total capacity of reservoir was 492 million m³ (398,000 acre feet), with 375 million m³ (304,000 acre feet) reserved for flood storage. The dam was made of clay and was 24.5 metres high. The maximum discharge of the reservoir was 1742 m³/s. Cracks in the dam and sluice gates appeared after completion due to construction and engineering errors. They were repaired with the advice from Soviet engineers and the new design, dubbed the iron dam, was considered unbreakable. +

Chen Xing, one of China's foremost hydrologists was involved in the design of the dam. He was also a vocal critic of the government dam building policy, which involved many dams in the basin. He had recommended 12 sluice gates for the Banqiao Dam, but this was scaled back to five. Chen Xing was criticized as being too conservative. Other dams in the project, including the Shimantan Dam, had a similar reduction of safety features and Chen was removed from the project. In 1961, after problems with the water system were revealed, he was brought back to help. Chen continued to be an outspoken critic of the system and was again removed from the project. +

Officially, the dam failure was a natural as opposed to man-made disaster, with government sources placing an emphasis on the amount of rainfall as opposed to poor engineering and construction. After the flood, a summit of National Flood Prevention and Reservoir Security at Zhengzhou, Henan was held by the Department of Water Conservancy and Electricity, and a nationwide reservoir security examination was performed after this meeting. Chen Xing was again brought back to the project. +

1975 Flood from Typhoon Nina and the Collapse of the Banqiao Dam

The People's Daily has maintained that the dam was designed to survive a once-in-1000-years flood (300 mm of rainfall per day) but a once-in-2000-years flood occurred in August 1975, following the collision of Super Typhoon Nina and a cold front. The typhoon was blocked for two days before its direction ultimately changed from northeastward to west. As a result of this near stationary thunderstorm system, more than a year's rain fell within 24 hours (new records were set, at 189.5 mm rainfall per hour and 1060 mm per day, exceeding the average annual precipitation of about 800 mm), which weather forecasts failed to predict. China Central Television reported that the typhoon disappeared from radar as it degraded. According to Xinhua, the forecast was for rainfall of 100 mm by the Beijing-based Central Meteorological Observatory. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Communications to the dam was largely lost due to wire failures. On August 6, a request to open the dam was rejected, because of the existing flood in downstream areas. On August 7, however, the request was accepted, but the telegrams failed to reach the dam. The sluice gates were not able to handle the overflow of water, partially due to sedimentation blockage. On August 7 at 21:30, the People's Liberation Army Unit 34450 (by name the 2nd Artillery Division in residence at Queshan county), which was deployed on the Banqiao Dam, sent the first dam failure warning via telegraph. On August 8, at 1:00, water at the Banqiao crested at the 117.94 meters level above sea level, or 0.3 meter higher than the wave protection wall on the dam, and it failed. The same storm precipitated the failure of 62 dams in total. The runoff of Banqiao Dam was 13,000 m³ per second in vs. 78,800 m³ per second out, and as a result 701 million m³ of water were released in 6 hours, while 1.67 billion m³ of water were released in 5.5 hours at upriver Shimantan Dam, and 15.738 billion m³ of water were released in total. +

The resulting flood waters caused a wave, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide and 3–7 meters (9.8–23 feet) high in Suiping, to rush onto the plains below at nearly 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph), almost wiping out an area 55 kilometers (34 miles) long and 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) wide, and creating temporary lakes as large as 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 sq miles). Seven county seats, Suiping, Xiping, Ru'nan, Pingyu, Xincai, Luohe, Linquan were inundated, as were thousands of square kilometers of countryside and countless communities. Evacuation orders had not been fully delivered due to weather conditions and poor communications. Telegraphs failed, signal flares fired by Unit 34450 were misunderstood, telephones were rare, and some messengers were caught by the flood. While only 827 out of 6,000 people died in the evacuated community of Shahedian just below Banqiao Dam, half of a total of 36,000 people died in the unevacuated Wencheng commune of Suipin County next to Shahedian, and the Daowencheng Commune was wiped from the map, killing all 9,600 citizens. Although a large number of people were reported lost at first, many of them later returned home. A 2005 book compiled by the Archives Bureau of Suiping county reports that more than 230,000 were carried away by water, in which 18,869 died. It has been reported that 90,000 - 230,000 people were killed as a result of the dam breaking. +

To protect other dams from failure, several flood diversion areas were evacuated and inundated, and several dams were deliberately destroyed by air strikes to release water in desired directions. The Nihewa and Laowangpo flood diversion areas downstream of the dams soon exceeded their capacity and gave up part of their storage on August 8, forcing more flood diversion areas to begin to evacuate. The dikes on the Quan River collapsed in the evening of August 9, and the entire Linquan county in Fuyang, Anhui was inundated. As the Boshan Dam, with a capacity of 400 million m³, crested, and the water released from the failures of Banqiao and Shimantan was rushing downstream, air strikes were made against several other dams to protect the Suya Lake dam, already holding 1.2 billion m³ of water. Suya Lake only won a temporary reprieve, and both it and Boshan became targets as well. Finally, the Bantai Dam, holding 5.7 billion m³ of water, was bombed. +

The Jingguang Railway, a major artery from Beijing to Guangzhou, was cut for 18 days, as were other crucial communications lines. Although 42,618 People's Liberation Army troops were deployed for disaster relief, all communication to and from the cities was cut. Nine days later there were still over a million people trapped by the waters, who relied on airdrops of food and unreachable to disaster relief. Epidemics and famine devastated the trapped survivors. The damage of the Zhumadian area was estimated to be about CN¥ 3.5 billion (US$513 million). The Zhumadian government appealed to the whole nation for help, and received more than CN¥ 300 million (US$44,000,000) in donations. +

Reconstruction of Banqiao Dam

Within eleven years after the dam failure, the lower reach of the River Ru, esp. Zhumadian City, experienced several more disastrous floods. After many feasibility studies, the new Banqiao Reservoir reconstruction was listed as a key national project of The Seventh Five-Year Plan of China. The project owner was Huai River Water Resources Commission. The construction contractor was Changjiang Gezhouba Engineering Bureau. By the end of 1986, the rebuilding project commenced. On June 5, 1993, the project was certified by the Chinese government. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The reconstructed Banqiao Reservoir controls a catchment area of 768 km2 (297 sq miles). The maximum reserve capacity is 675 million m³ (178 billion gallions), a capacity increase of 34 percent above the capacity of the failed dam. The effective storage is 256 million m³ (67.6 billion gallions) and the corresponding normal high water level is 111.5 meters (366 feet) above sea level. The flood control storage is 457 million m³ (121 billion gallions). The dam is made of clay and is 3,720 meters (12,200 feet) long, and 50.5 meters (166 feet) high. The dam crest level is 120 meters (390 feet) above sea level. The maximum discharge of the reservoir is 15000 m³/s (about 3.96 million gallons/s). Legacy

After the disaster of the Banqiao dam failure, the Chinese government became very focused on surveillance, repair, and consolidation of reservoir dams. China has 87,000 reservoirs across the country; most of which were built in the 1950s-1970s using low construction standards. Most of these reservoirs are in serious disrepair, posing challenges to the prevention and control of flood-triggered geological disasters in areas with a population of 130 million or more. China's medium and small rivers are considered to be the Achilles' heel in the country's river control systems. According to statistics from the Ministry of Water Resources, China has invested CN¥ 64.9 billion (US$9.72 billion) since the 1998 Yangtze River floods in repairing and consolidating the country's 9197 degraded reservoirs, of which 2397 are large or medium sized, and 6800 are key small reservoirs. All of the above projects should be finished before the end of 2010. However, there are 5400 small (1) reservoirs and a great many even smaller (2) reservoirs in need of repair. The capacity of a small (1) reservoir is defined to be between 1 million m³ and 10 million m³. The capacity of a small (2) reservoir is defined to be between 100,000 m³ and 1 million m³. Projects to repair and consolidate 5400 small (1) reservoirs will be completed before the end of 2012. Projects for the remaining smaller (2) reservoirs will be completed within 3–5 years.

Massive Yellow River Dam Project

Twenty major dams punctuate the Yellow River and another 18 are scheduled to be built by 2030.

The massive $4.17 billion Yellow River Dam built near Xiaolangdi in central China is the nation's second largest dam project after the Three Gorges Dam. The main purpose of the earthen dam is to halt the rising river by flushing out the silt. This will be accomplished with 16 reinforced tunnels that cut through an adjacent mountain which allow engineers to regulate the flow of water. During the wet season water can be stored in the reservoir to prevent flooding, and during the dry season it can be released to flush out sediment as well as provide water for irrigation.

The reservoir behind the dam will be able store water until the year 2020. At the time no more water can released to flush out the sediment down river and the river and levees will once again start rising. "Our children and grandchildren will need to think of another solution to the silt problem," one engineer told Newsweek.

Yellow River Silt, See Places

Yellow River Floods. See Disaster

In June 2009, the Chinese media reported that several dams on tributaries of the Yellow River were near collapse shortly after being built. According to the China Sailu at least five dams in Huan County in Gansu Province are “in very fragile condition.” Shoddy construction and embezzlement were blamed for the problem.

Benefits of the Yellow River Project

The Yellow River dam will protect 120 million people from the river's notorious flooding; better allocate water so deprived farmlands get their share of irrigation water; and ensure the river doesn't dry up like it has in the past.

The dam will make 30 percent more water available for irrigation, which will reduce dependency on wells and ground water, and produce 1,800 kilowatts of electricity (valued at $170 million a year). This is only a tenth of the power produced by much swifter moving Yangtze River at the Three Gorges Dam.

Unlike the Three Gorges project, the Yellow River dam has received a favorable reception from bankers and environmentalists. Its estimated cost is only a forth of the Three Gorges Dam. The U.S Export-Import Bank and the World Bank have pledged over $1 billion in loans.

About 170,000 people who live in the Yellow River basin will have to be resettled to higher ground. Most of the resettled population have no objections about the move. Many are leaving mud-walled homes and small plots of land for modern homes with conveniences and large parcels of land. See Water Shortages, Nature

New Dams in China

More than 100 dams are being planned for the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Proponents of the hydropower industry here are unequivocal in their support for more dams. Pan Jiazheng, hydrologist with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, argues that water is the only renewable energy source in China that can be developed on a large scale. “Developing hydropower is the only viable way to make a dent in China's consumption of coal,” Pan says. “Those who argue that hydropower is not a clean energy have to ask themselves whether there is any other task more urgent for China's clean development than burning less coal.” [Source: Antoaneta Bezlovam Asia Times, November 4, 2009]

Critics of hydropower expansion, though, are equally forceful. “It is quasi-science to believe that hydropower equals green energy,” says Zheng Yisheng, who researches environment and development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “You can't see rivers just as a source of energy and choose to ignore their ecological function as eco-systems. People need energy but they need a place to live too.”

What is more, China is actively seeking to export its Three Gorges expertise abroad, signing up agreements to build hydropower works in countries from Cambodia to Pakistan and Nigeria.

China’s Dam-Building Frenzy

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: China is the world’s biggest dam builder at home and abroad. Indeed, no country in history has built more dams than China, which boasts more dams than the rest of the world combined. Before the Communists came to power in 1949, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. Now the country has more than half of the world’s roughly 50,000 large dams, defined as having a height of at least 15 meters, or a storage capacity of more than three million cubic meters. Thus, China has completed, on average, at least one large dam per day since 1949. If dams of all sizes are counted, China’s total surpasses 85,000. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011, Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and the newly released Water: Asia’s New Battleground.]

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, China’s dams had the capacity to store 562.4 cubic kilometers of water in 2005, or 20 percent of the country’s total renewable water resources. Since then, China has built scores of new dams, including the world’s largest: the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

China’s powerful hydro — power lobby argued that dams also offered a clean way to reduce the nation’s dependency on power plants fired by carbon-belching coal, which generate about three-quarters of China’s electricity. In 2000, with demand for power surging along China’s east coast, Beijing launched a policy known as “sending electricity from west to east,” pushing for new dams on rivers in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan, In 2002, however, the industry hit an obstacle — a new law that required an environmental impact assessment for each project before work could start. Under pressure from emboldened environmentalists, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered Huaneng, a state electricity company then run by Li Peng’s son, to suspend a huge dam planned for the Nu River in Yunnan.

Problems with China’s Dam Projects

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: China’s over-damming of rivers and its inter-river and inter-basin water transfers have already wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems, causing river fragmentation and depletion and promoting groundwater exploitation beyond the natural replenishment capacity. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

The social costs have been even higher, a fact reflected in Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s stunning admission in 2007 that, since 1949, China has relocated a total of 22.9 million Chinese to make way for water projects — a figure larger than the populations of Australia, Romania, or Chile. Since then, another 350,000 residents — mostly poor villagers — have been uprooted.

So, by official count alone, 1,035 citizens on average have been forcibly evicted for water projects every day for more than six decades. With China now increasingly damming transnational rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Irtysh, Illy, and Amur, the new projects threaten to “export” the serious degradation haunting China’s internal rivers to those rivers. The time has come to exert concerted external pressure on China to rein in its dam frenzy and embrace international environmental standards.

People Relocated by Dams and Resistance to Dam Projects in China

Large numbers rural people have lost their homes as a result of hydroelectric dam projects. Some have been evicted from their land and received little or no compensation. Without a means of making a living, many of the displaced people migrate to the cities. Between 1949 and 1999, 17.5 million people — twice the population of London - were relocated for dams. Since then, the pace has accelerated thanks to mega-projects like the Three Gorges dam, which has forced the relocation of 1.5 million people, and the South-North diversion.

Major Chinese hydroprojects and resettled populationThree Gorges dam — 1.5 million people Sanmenxia dam — 410,000 people Danjiangkou dam — 380,000 South-North water diversion — 345,000 Xiaolangdi dam — 200,000 people Pubugou dam — 120,000 Zipingpu dam — 33,000 people

There have been a number of protests against dams. In November 2004, 90,000 farmers in Sichuan Province, frustrated by a lack of response to their complaints over the seizure of their land for a dam project in Hanyuan County, barred workers from entering the dam site for days. It took 10,000 paramilitary troops to put down the protest.

An environmental group called the Green Watershed was formed to help farmers affected by the dams proposed for the Three Parallel Rivers area of Sichuan and Yunnan. The group has organized residents in the area of the dams to petition authorities and has forged links with international environmental groups.

Farmers in the Three Parallel Rivers area were enraged by the secretive and cagey way the government is pressuring to have the project built. They are aware of what happened at the Three Gorges Dam and are worried the they will suffer the same fate as farmers there.

Some feel a small is better strategy would work more effectively. A number of countries have had success with microhydroelectric plants. The systems’set up with support of local people — divert waters from streams and rivers to run turbines with complex dams and catchment areas. Plants produce up to 200 kilowatts, enough to provide electricity for 200 to 500 homes.

A report by China's Economic Observer suggested the hydropower industry has overcome the political and environmental obstacles of the past five years and will now accelerate dam building. In January 2011, the National Energy Agency said China plans to build an additional 140 gigawatts of hydropower capacity in the next five years as it tries to achieve the goal of producing 15 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.

China’s Overseas Dam-Building Frenzy

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: China is also the global leader in exporting dams. Its state-run companies are building more dams overseas than all other international dam builders put together. Thirty-seven Chinese financial and corporate entities are involved in more than 100 major dam projects in the developing world. Some of these entities are very large and have multiple subsidiaries. For instance, Sinohydro Corporation — the world’s largest hydroelectric company — boasts 59 overseas branches. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

Both the profit motive and a diplomatic effort to showcase its engineering prowess drive China’s overseas dam-building efforts. China’s declared policy of “noninterference in domestic affairs” actually serves as a virtual license to pursue dam projects that flood lands and forcibly uproot people — including, as with Myitsone, ethnic minorities — in other countries. But it is doing the same at home by shifting its focus from dam-saturated internal rivers to the international rivers that originate in the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria.

China contends that its role as the global leader in exporting dams has created a “win-win” situation for host countries and its own companies. But evidence from a number of project sites shows that the dams are exacting a serious environmental toll on those hosts.

Problems with China’s Overseas Dam Projects

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: As a result, the overseas projects often serve to inflame anti-Chinese sentiment, reflected in grassroots protests at several sites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Moreover, by using a Chinese workforce to build dams and other projects abroad — a practice that runs counter to its own “localization” requirement, adopted in 2006 — China reinforces a perception that it is engaged in exploitative practices. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

As the world’s most dammed country, China is already the largest producer of hydropower globally, with a generating capacity of more than 170 gigawatts. Yet ambitious plans to boost its hydro-generating capacity significantly by damming international rivers have embroiled the country in water disputes with most neighbors, even North Korea.

More broadly, China’s dam-building passion has spawned two key developments. First, Chinese companies now dominate the global hydropower-equipment export market. Sinohydro alone, having eclipsed Western equipment suppliers like ABB, Alstom, General Electric, and Siemens, claims to control half the market.

Second, the state-run hydropower industry’s growing clout within China has led the government to campaign aggressively for overseas dam projects by offering low-interest loans to other governments. At home, it recently unveiled a mammoth new $635 billion investment program in water infrastructure over the next decade, more than a third of which will be channeled into building dams, reservoirs, and other supply structures.

China’s Dam Frenzy Hits Wall in Myanmar

China’s frenzied dam-building hit a wall recently in Burma (Myanmar), where the government’s bold decision to halt a controversial Chinese-led dam project helped to ease the path to the first visit by a US secretary of state to that country in more than a half-century. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

The now-stalled $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, located at the headwaters of Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, was designed to pump electricity exclusively into China’s power grid, despite the fact that Burma suffers daily power outages. The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of China’s State Council hailed Myitsone as a model overseas project serving Chinese interests. The Burmese decision thus shocked China’s government, which had begun treating Burma as a reliable client state (one where it still has significant interests, including the ongoing construction of a multibillion-dollar oil and natural-gas pipeline).

Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 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 April 2013

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