Three Gorges Dam at Full Capacity

The Three Gorges Dam’s 32nd and final generator went into full operation for the first time on Wednesday, finally bringing the dam to maximum capacity almost 20 years after the project started. From the AFP:

“The full operation of the generators makes the Three Gorges Dam the world’s largest hydropower project and largest base of clean energy,” said Zhang Cheng, general manager of China Yangtze Power, the operator of the generators.

The dam, which first went into operation in 2003 at a cost of $22.5 billion, has a combined generating capacity of 22.5 million kilowatts (22,500 megawatts), the equivalent of fifteen nuclear reactors.

[…] The project began in 1993 despite warnings the weight of the reservoir would dangerously alter central China’s geology, uproot millions of people, poison water supplies by trapping pollution and disrupt the Yangtze watershed.

Hydropower developers have not finished with the river yet. A planned cascade of 25 dams on the Jinsha, the Yangtze’s westernmost tributary, would generate four times as much electricity as the Three Gorges. Critics argue that the south-west’s rivers “can hardly breathe” under the weight of existing dams, while supporters insist that China must make the most of its hydropower potential to combat rising carbon emissions. From chinadialogue:

[… E]arly last month, the Ministry of Water Resources’ Changjiang River Scientific Research Institute, China Three Gorges Project Corporation (CTGPC) and WWF published a report called “China’s Environmental Flows Research and Practice”. The report concluded that there were already too many hydropower plants on some parts of the upper Yangtze and that untrammelled development was affecting the basin’s ecological balance.

[…] Even Cao Guangjing, chairman of China Three Gorges Project Corporation – the state-owned company behind the world’s largest hydroelectric dam to date – is cautious. With more dams, the coordination of water storage and drainage will be problematic, he said; dealing with this challenge is a work in progress, and hydropower development needs to take account of this.

You can’t squeeze all the value out of every drop of water, you need to consider the environment’s needs, he said. “Protect as you develop, develop as you protect. That’s the principle.”

Caixin reporter Liu Hongqiao highlights another water crisis in the region: the devastation of Hubei’s lakes by water overuse and industrial and agricultural pollution. Despite billions of yuan poured into efforts to reverse this decline, economic development has consistently been allowed to override environmental protection.

Hubei, located just above the Three Gorges Dam region on the Yangtze River, was once known as “The Province of a 1,000 Lakes.” It’s total lake area has shrunk to only 3,025 square kilometers from 26,000 square kilometers over the past century, official statistics show.

[…] The facts now point to an urgent situation. National standards say water quality rated worse Category III is not fit for human consumption.

According to a 2012 water quality report released by the Hubei Province Water Environment Monitoring Center, of the 26 lakes surveyed in the province, only one lake met the Category II water quality standard. Water quality in 25 lakes was Category III or worse. Four had Category V water.

“Hubei was once a province with plentiful water resources and nationally it used to rank number one among fish-producing provinces in total aquaculture production,” said Wang Shuyi, dean of the Wuhan University Institute of Environmental Law. “But this advantage has been lost.”