Amidst Renewed Dam Enthusiasm in Beijing, Chinese Environmentalists Take a New Approach

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Mon, 08/30/2010 - 03:35

Over the summer, the whispers here in China have grown into media articles which have blossomed into reports of official policy. “China’s central government is warm to big dams again.” Projects on the Jinsha River that were put on hold, are free to continue, and big hydropower is the prominent answer to China’s promises about cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

While China has long been the country with the largest number of dams, it is now, reports suggest, the country with the largest installed hydropower capacity, and the government hopes to double this capacity by 2020. To meet this capacity, practically each and every planned dam on China’s major rivers and large tributaries will need to go forward, immediately (see maps on this site). While these projects may result in less carbon been poured into the atmosphere from China, they will also mean destruction of pristine western China plateau valleys, the drowning of China’s grand canyons, and wave after wave of forced displacement of poor and minority farmers and herders.

Efforts to stop the worst dam projects through defensive actions in China have been in vain. The only possibly exception is the 13 dam cascade proposed on western Yunnan’s Nu River, but many suspect it will go forward eventually (see my earlier blog The Nu River - Will it outlast Wen Jiabao?) Temporary holds have been issued for some more controversial projects, and a lot has been said about the idea of a rational, planned, and environmentally and socially responsible dam building process. But now it seems even these nods to the environmental side may come to an end.

Chinese NGOs are largely aware that defensive measures in the face of so much government and industry backing won’t stop even the bad projects. China’s EIA enforcement capacity and its courts system are still too weak. So, the news of a kind of “Most Endangered Rivers List” (thanks to American Rivers for the likely inspiration) for China is welcome, as it indicates a more offensive approach, one that I think is the only answer if Chinese citizens hope to see any of the country’s great rivers free flowing and healthy ten years from now. The brief news item appeared on a popular news website,, and an English summary was sent out on Chinaenvironmentbrief a few weeks ago. The effort of a group of Chinese NGOs, it lists the following rivers and their respective threats, and calls for priorities for improved management, pollution control, and conservation efforts:

Yangtze River: Major pollution in the Three Gorges Dam Reservoir
Yellow River: Irregular and ad hoc water flows in different regions and seasons
Huai River: Heavy pollution, poor water quality which is a threat to human health
Qingyi River: Serious water pollution that is adversely impacting biodiversity
Heilong River: Industrial and agricultural waste causing major pollution
Hai River: The entire river has deteriorated, with pollution being omnipresent in the river water
Beijing Water System: Severe water shortages, urban water security a risk
Han River: Water availability and quality declining and intermittent
Gan River: Faces ecological problems due to pollution
Qiantang River: Hydrological environment and capacity under severe pressure
Lancang River (Upper reaches of the Mekong River): International disputes over river basin affect effectiveness of green initiatives
Nu River: Water environment and biodiversity under threat