Renewed Damming in China Sparks Concern Downstream

“Shocking” news emerged last month of Chinese plans to resume hydropower exploitation of the Nu (Salween), Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha rivers. At The Hindu, Ananth Krishnan reported that three new dams have also been approved for the Yarlung Zangbo or Brahmaputra river:

China has given the go-ahead for the construction of three new hydropower dams on the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra river, ending a two-year halt in approving new projects on the river amid concerns from India and environmental groups.

[…] China has, so far, only begun construction on one major hydropower dam on the main stream of the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra or Yarlung Zangbo as it is known in China – a 510 MW project in Zangmu in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which began to be built in 2010.

One of the three approved new dams is bigger than the Zangmu project.

[…] While they are run-of-the-river projects, they will be required to store large volumes of water for generating power. Their construction is likely to trigger fresh concerns in India on how the flows of the Brahmaputra downstream will be impacted.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei attempted to ease such concerns on Wednesday. From Xinhua:

Hong said, “The Chinese side always takes a responsible attitude towards the exploitation of cross-border rivers and every new project will be planned and reasoned in a scientific way (before being started).”

He added that the interests of the countries on the upper and lower reaches are all taken into consideration.

But The Guardian’s Jonathan Kaiman outlined a number of other fears surrounding renewed development on the Nu and other rivers:

Ma Jun, head of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said that because local governments and state-owned enterprises profit enormously from building large-scale infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric stations, they often cut corners on legally required environmental impact assessments.

“We had a chance to review some of the summaries of the large dam projects on the Jinsha river – there are major gaps identified in those reports, and some of them are very basic ones,” he said.

[…] The state council notice also mentions the Xiaonanhai hydropower station on the Yangtze river, a $4.75bn, seven-and-a-half-year project designed to have a capacity of 1.76 gigawatts to provide electricity to the sprawling south-western metropolis Chongqing.

Critics say that the project will displace about 40,000 people, submerge about 20 miles of arable land and destroy endangered fish species including the Dabry’s sturgeon, a 140m-year-old “living fossil” which has appeared on a Chinese postage stamp.

A slideshow at The Guardian showed some of the areas, communities and habitats under threat from new dams.

As Kaiman noted, reservoir-induced seismicity is another worry in parts of the country already prone to landslides and earthquakes. In December, a Probe International study suggested that the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which killed some 80,000 people was likely caused by the weight of water behind the nearby Zipingpu dam.

For more information, see International Rivers’ China resources.