Mar. 23, 2023

Former Minister of Water Resources: “Put Aside the Controversial Hydropower Projects”

 Source: Caixin Online

Why are China's state-owned hydropower enterprises not socially responsible? Why can't the government perform unified orders? Why do they only think about maximizing their interests without considering the good of the environment or of the downstream users?

Caixin Online (Reporter: Hai Deng)
China has built many water projects in the past few decades. While these projects have brought communities flood control, power generation, and improvement of irrigation, some have brought controversy and scrutiny, but a hydropower construction boom has emerged. China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan calls for new projects that aim to achieve 120 million kilowatts of hydropower energy. As seen previously, many of these projects are highly controversial.
Yang Zhenhuai is the honorary vice chairman of the All-China Environmental Federation. From 1988 to 1993, he was the head of the Ministry of Water Resources. Ten years later, he served as deputy of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources and the Committee on Agriculture. At 83 years of age, he continues visiting water conservancy project sites, both completed and in the process of being built. Having dealt with water conservancy issues for over sixty years, Yang stressed that the life of a project far exceeds its engineer’s limited life. Thus, construction of every project needs careful attention to detail.director
While Yang Zhenhuai was in charge of the Ministry of Water Resources, the Chinese government launched the Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River and the Xiao Langdi Water Conservancy Project on the Yellow River, among other important projects. What does Yang think of these projects? Does he have any comments on the boom in dam construction that the southwest will be facing? During the Yangtze River Forum held in Nanjing on April 2011, Caixin was able to interview Yang online to discuss these issues.
Caixin: You were in charge of the Ministry of Water Resources when the National People's Congress passed the decision to build the Three Gorges Dam Project.
Yang Zhenhuai: The Three Gorges Project and the Xiao Langdi Water Conservancy Project have helped with massive flooding issues that these two important rivers caused for thousands of years.
The Three Gorges Dam Project caused the migration of one million people, a feat impossible in other countries,  but honestly speaking, if the National People's Congress had not passed it in 1991 by , it would not have happened at all.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Yellow River would dry up almost every year. After we had built the Xiao Langdi Project, it ceased drying up, but at the time, people disagreed about building the Xiao Langdi Water Conservancy Project on the Yellow River.
Caixin: What do you think of the criticism?
Yang Zhenhuai: We have one principle for the Xiao Langdi Water Conservancy Project on the Yellow River: let the debate flow. We simply know we should take action when the time is right. Lessons have emerged from the Three Gorges Dam, a project that was delayed for 20 years due to debate. While I believe that we must follow Deng Xiaoping’s words to do what is necessary, at the same time I am in favor of a democratic process followed by the National People’s Congress. Important projects should move forward in this manner, for the era of “just do it” has passed.
Caixin: Have any unexpected problems arisen from some of the hydropower projects?
Yang Zhenhuai: The reservoir sedimentation in Sanmenxia was completely unexpected. We thought we would be able to improve soil erosion management within ten to twenty years, but now it appears that the problem will not be solved within the next 100 years. It has  reached capacity, with the backwater extending to the suburbs of Xi 'an. This does not render Sanmenxia useless as it continues to act as a reservoir for floodwaters from the Yellow River.
Caixin: We will start many hydropower projects in the southwest during the Twelfth Five-Year Plan. What do you think of concentrating such a large-scale project in such period of short time?
Yang Zhenhuai: Having recently witnessed the Fukushima First Nuclear Power Station incident, we have reaffirmed that developing nuclear power is a serious matter. Compared to the pollution caused by nuclear power, hydropower is a much safer option.
 So why does using hydropower, which generates electricity and provides reservoirs, have such a bad rap? The major problem lies with the improper course of action taken when dealing with the migrants, who in the past have been completely neglected with respect to these projects. What’s more, profits have been given priority over environmental considerations, and ecological systems have been damaged.

Both of these issues have begun to receive attention.   The compensation paid to the migrants around the  Southwest Hydropower Station was about 100,000 RMB per person. The current problems around migrants in the reservoir region should be viewed in the context of China’s urbanization: 3 to 4 billion farmers are expected to migrate to the cities in the near future. While migrants from the reservoir sites go to the cities with their compensation,  the farmers will not have such capital available.

As for the environment, the fish are most affected. A few fish that are important for stream biodiversity reside in the rivers of the southwest. It is imperative that some reaches of the river remain in their natural ecological state, and that the hydropower station allocates some of its capital to protect the fish reproductive areas. For example, Gezhou Dam set up a Chinese sturgeon research lab in the Gezhouba Institute. After spawning, these sturgeons will be raised on site until they are a year old, after which they are put into the Yangtze River, where it is expected they will swim to the ocean and back. Another possible solution is to build fish pathways, or allow fish to pass with the aid of ships. However, no country thus far has solved this problem. Though the fish passes have been built, how can the fish adapt to swimming through them automatically? The reservoirs that have built fish passes experience little or no use by the fish.   
The most dangerous hydropower station incident is dam collapse; so Chinese authorities have made this a national security issue and have spent a lot of money on assessing, handling and reinforcing dangerous reservoirs. As such, new reservoirs built in accordance with design standards are generally safe.
Some are against building a step hydropower station because they are under the assumption that they will cut off streams. In fact, there is no cut off. Hydropower stations do not store all the water. On the contrary, water turbines generate electricity, so water must run for power generation. What changes is flow pattern, so that the rapids change into lakes. If, however, a diversion-type hydropower dam is built, the water is brought a few kilometers downstream for power generation. For example, the Yingxiu Bay in Yingxiu town of Wenchuan experiences river cut-off when the diversion-type hydropower dam draws water. To maintain an ecological flow, it is important that the rivers not dry up.
Actually, we really should reconsider the construction of so many hydropower stations in the southwest;  it generates many controversies that are difficult to reconcile. These problems can be left for the next generation, and construction should definitely not be hurried.
Caixin: Do you think the hydroelectric development of Nu River, specifically, should be slowed ? You are aware that earthquakes in the southwest are happening more frequently…
Yang Zhenhuai: The dam should not be built in a fractured area or in those places where earthquake intensity has reached 8 to 9 degrees, and it should not be on an active fault. In my opinion, the hydroelectric stations can be built on the Nu River. Burma has already built them downstream. How do the local people near Nu River become rich without hydroelectric development? If farmers cannot have their basic needs to live on, how can they protect nature or ecology?
Caixin: If the hydropower stations are built upstream in the southwest, people near the middle and lower reaches may worry about the safety of water resources; is that right?
Yang Zhenhuai: By constructing the dam, and developing and utilizing the river, we are supposed to be producing a win-win situation for all reaches of the river: upstream, middle, and downstream. Everything should be integrated and include unified scheduling. The electricity from the hydropower plant and supply to the power grid should be managed in an integrated manner.  
The hydropower sector is reluctant to connect itself so strongly to the power grid because they view all running water as potential electricity. However, this is a state-owned business. Why not shoulder the social responsibility? Why not dispatch the water in a controlled manner? Why should these companies only consider maximum profit while abandoning the interests of the environment and forgetting the downstream effects?
When I was a member of the NPC Standing Committee, I took part in the legislation of two laws. One was the new water law in 2002, the other a flood control law in 1997. According to the flood control law, all the reservoirs, including hydropower stations, must be managed to ensure flood-control management during flood season. After all, the safety of downstream users is the number one priority. The new water law also provides protection by ensuring that during the years of drought or drought periods, all the reservoirs, including hydropower stations, must allow water to drain downstream to enable residents to fight against the drought.
However, merely having these two items is not enough. More important than instating a law is the need to enforce it; without exception, violators must be punished. Another way to ensure compliance is to provide financial incentives. If someone has done something good, he should be compensated.
Caixin: Some water experts believe there are problems with some dam designs. If the main purpose for the dams is to generate electricity, the dead water level will be relatively high. So, when there are droughts downstream the water drained from the reservoirs may not be enough.
Zhenhuai Yang: The aims of hydropower design teams to achieve maximum electrical energy were reasonable one or two decades ago,  but to keep pace with the times, redesign, verification, and revision of large hydropower stations is crucial under a new approach that advocates harmonious development for the environment and humans.

Like tap water, people control the amount of emitted water from reservoirs and hydropower projects. If it is not in accordance with the sustainable development concept or with a controlled power grid, changes can be made. Instead of just focusing on the economic effects, all the dispatching processes have to be carried out under the consideration of unified social, environmental, and economic effects, all three of which are equally important.
Caixin: The results of the Yangtze River watershed planning revision are out. However, experts in this field have been critical of electric power planning and consider that it has hijacked watershed planning.
Yang Zhenhuai:Watershed planning would go through the examination and approval of the State Council. Under the water law, all professional planning should comply with the watershed planning, but this would involve a readjustment of the pattern of interests among departments. The hydroelectric power enterprises have the privilege to utilize the water resources in our country, so they should assume certain responsibilities. Nothing of interest goes without requiring responsibilities. It is not reasonable for certain individuals or small groups to make use of shared public resources without paying compensation for them.
Many hydroelectric power enterprises have not been on good terms with the locals, migrants, fisheries sector, or the environmental sector. That may be the reason why so many people have begun talking about green hydropower.
Those who utilize the water resource should pay for it and establish funds to eliminate the possible adverse effects on locals, most of which appear decades later.
Water conservancy should be green and environmentally friendly. Dujiang Weir has set an excellent example having reduced the adverse effects of hydropower development to a minimum while benefiting the affected residents.
Caixin: The development rights seem to be concentrated in the hands of a small number of state-owned enterprises. I wonder how these rights are distributed. For example, no other companies other than Ertan Company have the right to develop Yalong River.
Yang Zhenhuai:Who gave  them permission to do this? Why his company but not mine? Bidding should be done in an open and fair manner. Now, private enterprises have become involved in development processes.
In other countries, the water development projects have to be ratified by the water resource and administrative departments. But in China, there are no such guidelines in the water resource administration system at present. It only manages the watershed and the amount of it, not how it would be developed.
Currently, the best water resource development departments are in Beijing. The process starts from utilization , which involves the water gathering, draining, and recycling processes, until it goes back to sewage treatment plants, forming a water cycle.
Caixin: A problem has been found in the middle route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. Danjiangkou Reservoir has seen a decreasing runoff upstream. It is also possible that if Danjiangkou runs short of water, it could divert water from Three Gorges. But the fact remains that the upstream runoff of the Three Gorges is also decreasing.
Zhenhuai Yang: Divert more water when it is abundant, less when it is scarce, and have no diversion when it is dry – then the problem would be solved. Danjiangkou Reservoir discards 6 billion cubic meters of water during the flooding period every year; why should the north not divert it?
The most scarce and valuable resources in China are land and water, which have been diminishing after industrialization and urbanization. Therefore, to build a resource-effective and environmentally friendly society, we must have highly stringent water management. We must control water utilization by having a fixed amount of water available for use and so we do not exceed water capacity while limiting emissions. Under the premise of water conservation, if drought and water shortage remain troubling, it is possible to divert water from the Yangtze River into the Han River.Only twenty percent of the Yangtze River is utilized, which means it has great potential to take part in theSouth-to-North Water Diversion Project.

Translator:Xiaoxin; Ding;Liu Tingying; Shuang Tao
Proofreader: Cristina Airado

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