Mar. 23, 2023

Murky waters stain China's booming hydro industry

Source: Global Times
By Wang Yongchen

In the past, hydroelectric power has been assumed to be a clean energy, since it consumes no fossil fuels and emits no pollutants. However, plenty of recent scientific research suggests that the environmental consequences of the construction of dams and operation of hydropower stations are considerable.

A typical example is the emission of methane, a kind of greenhouse gas, as a result of decaying forest beneath the risen water level. Other submerged pollutants include the industrial and domestic wastes.

At the Earth Summit 2002, a summit convened by the UN to discuss the prognosis of human sustainable development, only small dams, those lower than 15 meters were defined as "clean energy."

Almost half of the large dams in the world are in China. So there's an urgent need to conduct an assessment of the environmental consequences.

Other negative consequences of dams include risking the extinction of specific fish and plant species. But the destruction of the local biosphere does not look so urgent compared to the ramifications of geomorphic change.

China's hydropower capacity is mainly concentrated in the country's southwestern regions, where the geological conditions are fragile and unpredictable. Currently the geological assessments are only run individually and locally, which means no one is clear about what could happen when so many colossal dams are being built at the same time.

We and other NGOs have been trying to persuade the public and the government to incorporate environmental considerations into policymaking. It is unfair to merely label us as "a group of people enthusiastic about saving the Earth," or treat us as the antithesis of industrial development.

What we are doing is revealing those hidden long-term cost that some myopic people are unconcerned about. We prioritize the long-term national interests, sustainable growth, and local people's welfare, rather than short-term economic interests.

At present, the recognition of the environmental hazards brought by hydroelectricity is worryingly insufficient. Many local environmental policies still lack comprehensive analysis and a workable basis. Thus a lot of so-called solutions are merely decorative.

There are also legal impediments. Currently, under the law, it is the constructors that spend money and hire specialists to do environmental analysis. Often the constructors can unduly influence the verdicts.

As a result, the environmental hazards caused by hydroelectricity have led to academic concerns and research. Thanks to the expertise of environmental scientists, many environmental costs are now defined and made known to the public. And it is up to environmentalists to translate those findings into public conscience and pressure on policymaking.

Rivers and their associated hydropower are in fact a kind of public good. They belong to the nation, but have been privatized by power companies. Of course, the costs of privatization, such as monetary investment, are shouldered by the public funds. But power companies are still profiting from selling electricity.

We've done many investigations into local residents' lives after the construction of reservoirs. Some people falsely believe that local residents are better off after they're forcibly moved, but according to our investigations, generally villagers settled along rivers are relatively rich and are badly affected by the construction of dams.

Take the Lisu people along the Nujiang River in Liuku, Yunnan Province. They've been moved en masse to newly constructed villages, and have lost their agricultural livelihood since the new villages aren't built on arable land. They also cannot raise livestock since the new buildings have no yards. To prevent them from being miserably unemployed, local governments offer them shop buildings, but Liuku is isolated and the villagers can't all make a living from this.

Other farmers are poorly relocated to makeshift buildings, which are vulnerable to mudslides and other geological hazards. In July 2010, a destructive landslide struck a migrant village in Sichuan and killed 20 people. This isn't coincidental, as the relocation of local people uphill often leads to more geological risks.

If the process of policymaking remains opaque and is controlled by cronies, hydroelectricity construction will be a vicious and exploitative racket.

Global Times reporter Wang Di compiled this article, based on an interview with Wang Yongchen, founder of Green Earth Volunteers, a leading environmental NGO in China.

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