Last ditch plea on Yangtze dam

As China ratifies its new development plan, environmentalists are pleading with politicians to protect an imperilled fish reserve. Meng Si reports on the latest developments.

China’s Xiaonanhai dam, a controversial hydropower scheme planned for the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, is set to destroy the region’s last reserve for rare fish. But, in spite of the sacrifice being made in its name, there are strong doubts about the actual benefits the development will bring.

One public figure convinced that the scheme is a mistake is geologist and environmentalist Fan Xiao. In an open letter to some of China’s most senior political figures, including premier Wen Jiabao, Fan has reiterated the demands of the green movement, calling for a public hearing on the project; urging the government to reconsider the decision to shrink the area’s protected fish habitat; and arguing that the dam should be abandoned.

“The Xiaonanhai Dam will ruin the reserve,” wrote Xiao in his letter. “Removing the dam site and nearby stretches of the river from the protected area is a decision to wreck a nature reserve to suit the hydropower industry, and to disregard national laws on environmental protection.”

The letter was sent to a list of names from China’s political elite: as well as Wen Jiabao, Fan addressed the chair of the economy planning body the National Reform and Development Commission (NDRC) Zhang Ping, minister for environmental protection Zhou Shengxian, agriculture minister Han Changfu and water-resources minister Chen Lei. Chongqing’s party secretary Bo Xilai was also included, as was chair of the Yangtze River Commission Cai Qihua and chairman of the Yangtze Three Gorges Group Cao Guangjing.

As previously reported on chinadialogue, planned changes to the reserve’s boundaries, which will see the protected area – the region’s last reserve for rare fish – shrink by almost 15 square kilometres, have been confirmed by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). Chongqing, the south-western Chinese municipality within which the area in question falls, has said the downsizing is happening for the sake of local economic growth. But, given the location and scope of the Xiaonanhai dam, many academics and NGO campaigners have concluded that the changes have been designed specifically to allow the dam to go ahead.

In his open letter, Fan explained that 189 species of fish are known to live in the reserve, many of which are protected at the national or global level. With hydropower development in full swing in the region, this stretch of river is the last place these rare and unique fish can live and breed.

The letter also cited Qin Weihua, an expert with the MEP’s Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, concluding that if it is allowed to proceed, the dam will inundate seven spawning grounds for rare fish and fish unique to the upper Yangtze, prevent migration and may even lead to extinction of certain species. 

Fan also pointed out that, at the Xiaonanhai site, the river is wide and the gradient of the river bed shallow, making it a poor location for hydropower development. And yet 70,000 mu (46.7 square kilometres) of arable land is to be flooded. “In Jiangjin district alone, 41 square kilometres of urban land, with a population of over 400,000, will be flooded,” wrote Fan. Relocations will push the cost of every kilowatt of generating capacity to 13,553 yuan – far in excess of the 4,950 yuan per kilowatt cost of the Three Gorges dam

The letter also said that the land to be inundated is some of China’s richest and most densely populated arable land. Zhongbadao, where the dam will be located, enjoys fertile soil and a moderate climate. The area produces 20,000 metric tonnes of vegetable crops a year, or up to 500 tonnes a day, and is a major provider of food to Chongqing. According to locals, said Fan, the average annual income for villagers in 2009 was 10,400 yuan (almost US$1,600), and some make more – “there are plenty making 20 or 30 thousand. You can get rich on vegetable crops.”

Moreover, large-scale hydropower development may worsen generating overcapacity, explained Fan. “In fact, China’s electricity generation capacity has expanded at unprecedented scale and speed in recent years. According to NRDC figures, in 2010 China added a further 91.27 gigawatts of power-generation capacity – almost one tenth of total capacity at the end of 2010. Already supply is meeting demand, with a slight surplus.”

Fan argued that there are a number of misunderstandings at work when hydropower is described as “clean energy” that can help to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: “In the majority of cases, hydropower emissions are lower than thermal power, but there are environmental issues: large dams damage aquatic ecosystems; cause or worsen geological disasters in the reservoir area; reduce the environmental capacity of the water by slowing flow; and cause water pollution in the reservoir area. Hydropower cannot be seen as a clean source of energy.” He cited the World Commission on Dams’ seminal 2000 report to show that academic research backs this up. Achieving emissions-reduction targets cannot be at the cost of even more serious environmental destruction, he said.

Fan also believes that expanding hydropower will not necessarily reduce the use of thermal power or cut emissions. “In the last decade, entire rivers in the west of China have been covered with cascades of dams and hydropower-generating capacity has rocketed. But thermal-power investment, capacity and coal consumption have all also rapidly increased. While there has been a slight rise in the percentage of hydropower in overall energy structure and a slight rise in the percentage of thermal power, there has been no fall in the absolute amount of thermal capacity and associated carbon emissions. In fact, these have continued to increase.

“Some provinces where hydropower – and its contribution to overall generation – are increasing, have built more auxiliary thermal-power plants to cope with peak demand and dry-season shortages.”

With an expected price tag of up to 37 billion yuan (US$5.6 billion), the Xiaonanhai Dam is one of the single largest projects to come onto Chongqing’s books since the start of the 11th Five-Year Plan period in 2006 and will significantly boost the municipality’s GDP and tax base. But Fan worries that these boundary changes are only a taste of the future – the complete elimination of the reserve to make way for more dams at the nearby sites of Zhuyangxi and Shipeng.

In December last year, seven Chinese environmental NGOs wrote to the MEP to request a public hearing on the plan to shrink the reserve. They were refused. In late January, Chinese environmental NGO Friends of Nature sent an open letter to members of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – the two government bodies that determine national-level policy – calling for urgent attention. This week, these bodies are in session to ratify China’s development plan for the next five years. Will they turn their attention to the Upper Yangtze?

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from foxxyz shows the Three Gorges Dam.