Promoting River Protection in China
Ma Jun
24 January 2006

By Louise H. Yeung and Jennifer L. Turner

China's high economic growth over the past twenty years has brought millions out of poverty, but at a major cost to the environment, particularly the country's river ecosystems. While Ma Jun (an environmental researcher and author of China's Water Crisis) acknowledged that serious water pollution is threatening China's economy and the health of its citizens, his talk for the China Environment Forum focused primarily on the challenge of balancing hydropower development and the protection of some unique river ecosystems and cultures in China's southwest.

China boasts the world's largest number of dams at 86,000 and the number is growing. In 2004, Chinese dams collectively generated 100,000 megawatts (MW) of power. The government hopes to raise the level to 150,000 MW by 2010 and to 290,000 MW by 2020. China's first dam building boom in the 1950s emphasized irrigation and flood control, but construction waned in the 1980s due to engineering and financing problems. China's energy shortages over the past few years have ignited a new push for hydropower dams as a major part of the country's diversification of energy sources.

The growth of hydropower has been fueled not only by energy demand, but also by Chinese engineers who have solved some of the technical challenges that previously hindered dams on China's many highly silted or geologically difficult rivers. Moreover, private investors in China are increasingly willing to fund such dam projects. With financial and technical impediments gone, dams are being planned on more remote rivers along China's borders that previously were never considered—mainly on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and in rivers flowing into Thailand and Burma. After 5,000 years of development, Ma Jun mused that what is left of China's near pristine nature has receded to the borders. Now with greater development moving into these remote areas there may be no unspoiled nature for China's future generations to enjoy.

Difficult Tradeoffs
For the past two years, China has experienced severe brown outs in nearly two-thirds of the country, which underscores a growing energy shortage. Ma Jun pointed out since China's abundant rivers offer enormous hydropower potential, it is logical for the country to tap into this energy source. However, the current system for dam construction does little to address tradeoffs between development and conservation of unique ecosystems. Specifically, issues of environmental damage and social impacts of resettlement are not included in the cost calculations for dams. Thus, some of these large-scale dams have raised concerns among environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, and researchers who do not oppose all hydropower development, but worry about the detrimental impacts to ethnic minority communities and China's few pristine rivers and highly biodiverse areas.

The first example of Chinese environmental NGOs and journalists becoming actively involved in promoting a national discussion on protecting a pristine river and pushing for more transparency in dam construction took place surrounding a proposal for a series of 13 hydroelectric dams in Yunnan province on the Nu River (Nujiang)—one of two remaining wild rivers in China. After the dam plans were announced in the fall of 2004, some Chinese environmental journalists investigated the dam plans and potential impact on the area. After the first group of journalists who traveled to Nujiang began reporting on the beauty of the area, which is a notable World Heritage Site, other journalists flocked to the basin. Within weeks hundreds of news stories and broadcasts across China were criticizing the lack of transparency in the dam planning, which had not undergone the required environmental impact assessment (EIA). Environmental NGOs created a network organization called China Rivers Network to coordinate their joint work setting up photo exhibitions around the country to highlight the beauty of this endangered river to the public and to send petitions to central leaders. This extensive public debate caught the attention of Premier Wen Jiabao, who in February 2005 ordered the planning of the dams suspended pending an EIA. In August 2005, a broad coalition of Chinese groups (which included 61 NGOs and 99 researchers and government officials) sent an open letter to the top leaders urging public disclosure of the EIA for the hydropower development plan on the Nujiang.

Wildlife Concerns
Ma Jun outlined several problems that are emerging from the current dam construction boom in southwest China, focusing on some "bottom line" cases, such as the Nujiang, where he felt that more discussion with a broader group of stakeholders was needed before building dams. The locations for most of these planned dams are on the most biodiverse river ecosystems in China. For example, the Yangtze River hosts several huge endangered fish species found nowhere else in the world. These species lost some of their spawning ground in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and will lose more if the 12 planned dams are built upstream. Although the government has designated two offshoot tributaries as the new spawning grounds for these species, the drastic habitat changes from the 12 proposed dams would most likely push these fish to extinction. Hundreds of other fish and wildlife species could go extinct in the next wave of dam building in southwest China.

Social Implications and Reactions
In addition to wildlife extinction, the reservoirs created by the 100+ planned dams in southwest China could force the relocation of up to one million people. Many of these people live in remote mountainous areas often in the valleys of steep gorges. Thus, relocating higher up the mountains is not a viable option for most. During his travels to many potentially affected remote villages, Ma Jun encountered many different reactions by people whose villages would be submerged by dams. In one small Tibetan village in the upper reaches of the Nujiang he found farmers living in very simple houses in a very isolated part of the country. These people have been excluded from the dam planning and could not even comprehend the concept of a dam, not to mention the effects it would have on their small community. Because they do not even understand what will be happening or what kind of compensation they will receive, how to give them voice in the process will be a challenge.

Conversely, upstream of the planned dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge people live in very fertile flatlands and are relatively well off. At least half the families have sent one child to college. Unlike the Tibetans on the Nujiang, these well-educated farmers are aware of their rights and what they could lose if the dam is constructed. Many oppose this dam, but planning and surveying for the dam has begun. Notably, this dam has captured the attention of the Chinese news media and sparked opposition from the Chinese public and NGOs. Like the Nujiang case, the debate over the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam could be a major test for the new laws and policies that require greater transparency and public participation in major infrastructure projects.

Costs and Benefits
Over the past few years the dams planned in southwest China are being promoted by dam builders as a major means to alleviate poverty by bringing electricity for mining and industry. The planned dams in the upper reaches of the Yangtze are being pursued as a means to slow down the deposit of silt and pebbles in the Three Gorges Dam reservoir and extend its utility to supply nearly 10% of the country's energy and prevent floods.

Resettlement is one of the largest costs of building dams in China. For example, the relocation of farmers for the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam would be more costly than many of the other parts of southwest China because dam builders would have to compensate and move well-off farmers. Another relocation cost could be the loss of culture and history of many ethnic minority villages in the region.

Chinese officials admit poverty remains a problem for a large number of citizens who were moved to make way for previous dams. Since there are no easy ways to resettle people without hurting their livelihoods, some new thinking among Chinese dam builders is to give resettled people a share of the benefits produced by hydropower. For example, many of these planned dams are being built to generate electricity to mine local minerals and some profits from mining could help compensate resettled people. However, if new resettlers are given this benefit, previous resettled people could also demand similar compensation, opening up dam builders to more costs and conflicts. In short, while dam building in China is portrayed as a cleaner and cheaper energy supply option, this calculation does not include many of the environmental and social costs.

The current economic incentives that externalize environmental and social costs for building dams increase the likelihood dams will be built along China's few wild or near wild rivers. Comparing these wild rivers to endangered species, Ma Jun likened these unique ecosystems to breathing organisms that will die if not protected. He considered these incredibly unique river landscapes with deep gorges and distinctive rock formations as an important part of China's national identity.

Policies Increasing Public Voice
Ma Jun sees hope for the growing openness in dam decision-making and construction due to recent policies and increased activities by NGOs pushing for more transparency in environmental governance. For example, the new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law passed in 2003 requires evaluation of the plans for infrastructure and other construction, as well as public comment on all EIA reports. This new EIA Law has already empowered China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to exercise its muscle to protect the environment. For example, in January 2005 SEPA temporarily suspended 30 large construction projects across the country—many of which were dam and other water infrastructure projects that had neglected to develop proper EIA reports. In 2005, SEPA passed regulations on holding public hearings for environmental projects and in the same year held its first public hearings on an EIA for a high-voltage line in Beijing that local citizens felt was inadequate. In the same year, SEPA officials also solicited public and international input on how the government could strengthen public participation in new EIA regulations.

These all represent positive steps to increase citizens' rights to influence environmental laws and infrastructure projects. However, Ma Jun astutely pointed out, more must be done, for China only has a 15-year window opportunity to correct environmental ills threatening the country's ecosystem, economy, and human health. In terms of dam building, once they are built there is no room for discussion and compromise. Ma Jun stressed that the concerns of many Chinese environmentalists centered not simply on protecting nature, but more importantly on encouraging more open dialogues on dams as a way to avoid the worst outcomes. Tradeoffs are inevitable, but having a more transparent system with greater stakeholder involvement could enable tradeoffs to be made in smart ways.