River of tears

A river in Fujian illustrates the downside of hydroelectric dams

River of tears

Another dam goes up on the Jiulong

Dam it all. Well, that seems to be the attitude of planners along the Jiulong River. According to Southern Weekly, the waterway in Fujian offers a cautionary tale of the damage caused when too many hydroelectric power stations are built.

There are now more than 1,000 hydroelectric dams in the area, reports the magazine, and the river’s ecosystem has been completely changed.

The result: plummeting water quality, eutrophication [deoxygenation] and the decimation of local wildlife.

“The original aquatic ecosystem no longer exists,” an author of an official environmental impact assessment admits. (The report has only just been released, four years after it was commissioned).

But if the Ministry for Environmental Protection has come out against the dams, there are other powerful voices much more in favour of them.

That’s because there is plenty of money to be made by the dam operators. Southern Weekly cites the case of Longfeng dam in Fujian’s Hua’an County. Any power generated is supposed to be sold directly to the country’s electricity grid at a price fixed by the National and Development Reform Commission (NDRC). The grid should then sell that power on at a mark-up to industry.

In practice, things are alleged to have been done a little differently.

With power in short supply, the dam’s operators have apparently been able to sell directly to industrial users. Southern Weekly states that Longfeng earns 50% more per kilowatt hour by doing so but companies are happy too, as they are paying less than half the rate set by the NDRC for industrial usage.

All this amounts to a solid financial return. Longfeng was built at a cost of around Rmb14 million in 2002 but is estimated to generate Rmb1.8 million in revenue per year. With its investment cost already covered, and limited annual operating expenses, practically every kilowatt hour sold amounts to pure profit.

“Even the county’s own Water Conservancy Bureau was tempted to join the ranks of [dam] developers,” admits local official Zhang Liang. And there are other benefits too. Hua’an’s local government reportedly uses cheap power to persuade energy-hungry industries to set up operations in the mountainous region.

So more dams get built – and the law requiring environmental impact assessments is sidelined, according to the magazine’s investigation.

The dams have also been hoarding water during drier periods, which blocks shipping routes and deprives local farmers. Water levels are now so low that Hua’an reportedly has a new industry: mining the river’s bedrock for stone.

The Jiulong River is far from an isolated case. Dams have proven environmentally controversial in many other parts of China. According to the Global Times, the Zipingba dam in Sichuan has even been blamed for reawakening dormant fault lines in advance of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam also has a chorus of critics, who say it has aggravated pollution and water shortages downstream. A State Council report out this week admitted that “urgent problems” needed to be resolved in relation to “ecological protection and geological disaster prevention”, as well as the relocation of residents (1.3 million were moved).

Still, the government recently ended its 2004 moratorium on dam construction on China’s last free-flowing river – the Nu (even though it sits directly on top of a geological fault line).

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