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The high price of developing dams

Jiang Gaoming

Readinch

The new economic stimulus is encouraging hydropower development in southwest China, raising fears about the ecological and social costs. Jiang Gaoming reports.

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The Chinese government’s recently disclosed 4-trillion-yuan (US$585 billion) economic stimulus package has revived interest in hydropower projects in the country’s southwest. Yunnan province and Sichuan province have accelerated work on projects that were already planned or under construction. On a recent reporting trip to Yunnan, I saw that in some cases this has meant building work starting before any kind of environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been conducted.

At the Guanyinyan dam, in Huaping county, and Ludila dam, in Bingchuan county, construction vehicles speed back and forth amid clouds of dust. EIAs have not been undertaken for either of these dams. Even elementary safety checks have not been performed and government regulators are absent. The hydropower authorities claim that the activity is part of preparatory work for feasibility studies, but actual construction work – the building of roads, spillways and abutments – is underway. Waste material from the work is being dumped directly into the Jinsha River and the increase in silt is damaging the hot-arid valley ecosystem. More critically, the dam’s reservoir lies over the Chenghai fault and near unstable mountain slopes that are vulnerable to landslides, mudslides and earthquakes. In August 2008, a mudslide near the Ludila dam killed eight people. EIAs are clearly essential when constructing dams in an area this prone to geological incidents.

At the site of the Ahai dam, in Yongsheng county, the construction I witnessed on an earlier visit in April last year was not visible, but the project was still going ahead without official approval. Construction subsidiaries of the Sinohydro Corporation started preliminary work three years ago, completing roads, spillways and abutments. On my recent trip I found that the environment authorities were still planning to visit and decide if they would approve the project. But they will be presented with a dam that is as good as built. The lack of an EIA meant the project was illegal, so work was carried out in secret. Signs declaring the site a “military zone” were erected to discourage visitors. Meanwhile, the company behind the dam project at Jin’anqiao, in Yulong county, have not bothered with an EIA at all: spillways, abutments and the dam itself are all finished and generators are being installed for testing.

A plan for a string of eight dams along Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the first hydropower projects to attract media attention, and the scheme was abandoned as a result. However, new economic circumstances have led to the project being relaunched upriver under another name: the Longpan dam. The project is essentially the same, and exploratory drilling and infrastructure construction are now taking place. If a dam is built at Longpan, 100,000 people living by the Jinsha River will be forced to relocate and 200,000 mu of farmland (133 square kilometres) will be inundated. This will mean the 40-billion-yuan (US$5.9 billion) project will also have a direct impact on the central government’s pledge to maintain a minimum of 1.8 billion mu (1. 2 million square kilometres)of arable land. The results of the EIA for this project are forthcoming.

At the site of the Saige dam on the Nu River, I saw work on tunnels and construction campsites taking place. The tributaries of the Nu River have been divided up among contractors for preparatory construction work. Despite the lack of an EIA, work has been underway for the last few years. No other project is as controversial as the Nu River: issues of biodiversity, soil loss, geological dangers, displacement and cultural heritage have all received media attention. However, journalists and the public face an uphill struggle as they struggle to protect China’s last major undeveloped river. The Yabiluo dam is planned only 5.5 kilometres from a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its reservoir extending to less than three kilometres away. The Maji reservoir is even closer: the dam itself will be just over two kilometres from a World Heritage site, with the waters of the reservoir 810 metres away. When faced with a choice between heritage preservation and hydropower projects, local governments will always find an excuse to opt for the latter.

Soil, vegetation and rivers will suffer worst from these hydropower developments, as will generations of ethnic minority peoples – Yi, Lisu, Nu, Pumi, Naxi and Tibetans – who live in the region. They are willing to sacrifice their interests for the sake of the nation and want only to be able to survive. The homes and living conditions of the Naxi people in the town of Shigu, in Lijiang – a major crossing point the during the Long March – and Chezhou village, in Shangri-La county, show that they became better-off than many others in China. However, hydropower projects may throw them back into poverty. The majority of locals are unwilling to move. If the project will benefit both the nation and the people, they ask, then why not carry out a public EIA?

Hydropower developments incur massive social and environmental costs. Reservoirs inundate huge areas of farmland and ecosystems, and construction dumps large amounts of dirt into rivers, harming irrigation works downstream. The relocation of residents puts pressure on land resources, while inundated fields release methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. Even if we ignore “soft” factors such as the impact on heritage, culture and scenery, hydroelectricity is by no means “clean” power. But in Yunnan province it seems nothing can stand in the way of these projects. EIAs have become a marginalised and decorative process, seen as just a part of the cost of doing business. Both the builders and local government know that, to date, an EIA has never managed to halt a dam project.

We can ruin all of China’s river ecosystems for the sake of profit, but we will find that the money we earn cannot offset what we have lost. Hydropower projects in southwest China need a proper cost-benefit analysis in order to ensure rational development, with full consideration of the impact of constructing and removing dams. The cost to water and land ecosystems, biodiversity, society and cultures needs to be taken into account along with the geological dangers. If the scientific view of development [pdf] were used to guide economic growth, EIAs for hydropower projects would no longer be mere decorations.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by My Hobo Soul

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怎么办?

怎么办?怎么办?
环评在水电开发项目过程当中到底扮演着什么样的角色?是环评的无奈,还是环评的可笑?环评就能够解决和缓解水电开发的影响了。
生态环境,生物多样性,这些概念对于改革者和开发者来说,没有任何意义。

What shall we do?

What shall we do? what is the role EIA played during the hydropower projects? Is it powerless or foolish? Could the EIAs alleviate environmental impact hydropower projects made? Besides, the reformers and the developer have little understanding of such concepts as ecosystems and biodiversity.


kaka

我获得了环境管理与发展的硕士学位,也学了很多环评的技术。我也写过关于怒江水电项目相关的文化保护的文章。遗憾的是中国还是老样子。问题出在哪?在大坝项目中,我看不到环境保护法的强制执行。我不是这方面专家,不能对此指手画脚。但很遗憾看到为了多数人的利益,少数人不得不做出牺牲。是否有人能回答我的问题?问题出在哪儿了?环评不是什么新事物,可持续性意味着所有人以及子孙后代的长期利益。

kaka

I obtained a graduate diploma of Environmental Management and Development,have learned a lot about EIA process. Wrote an essay about cultural preservation related to Nujiang hydrapower project....sadly to see that everything is the same in China. What is the real problem? I can't see any enforcement of Environmental Law in those dam (damn...) projects. I am not a professional in this area, so can not point my fingure on this issue, but I am sad to see that for the majority's sake, the minority has to sacrifice...

Anybody answer my question? What is the real issue? EIA isn't a new thing, sustainability means long term benefit for everybody and next generation...


wxai

又见到蒋老师的文章。对于这篇文章的呼吁我是非常赞佩,按照环评法的规定,只要是建设项目,就该进行环评。环评起什么作用,就是要预测和估计项目建成后对环境的影响,以此作为是否能上马项目的考量。
环境的问题其实本身也是经济社会发展的问题。我们该深究是为什么他们不做环评,这是学者们该关心的问题。在我看来,环评及批复作为否定一个项目的程序来说,建设单位就有冒风险先斩后奏的可能性,如果环评如果只是作为项目整体评估的一个方面,在法律约束条件下,焉有不做之理?
现在的环评的缺陷,一是作为行政审批的武器之一否决项目;二是环保部管理环评的人,把环评工作和技术复杂化。其二的弊端,请蒋老师翻开一本水电环评报告书看看,那里还有环保部真该管理的东西。三是,对生态环境的评估要么非常弱化,要么非常玄虚,当环评真要非常客观的,简短的,定量的,定性的技术结论的时候,这些都是模棱两可的话。这给审批又带来难以审批,继而进入恶性循环。
我的建议,请蒋老师,认真研读基本水电环评的生态评价部分,浏览水电环评的整体部分,写一写,也许对水电项目做好环评有真的益处。
只是呼吁一下,然后环保部门走个程序,更有甚者再补票上车,文章的意义也就不够大了。

wxai

Another article from Mr. Jiang. I appreciated very much the appeal in this article. According to the Environment Evaluation Law, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should be applied to any construction project. The purpose of EIA is to estimate and evaluate the possible impact of this construction on the environment, and to use this evaluation as the feasibility checkpoint. The environment issue is actually an economic and social development issue. What we should investigate thoroughly is why they don’t conduct the EIA. This is what the scholars should focus on. From my point of view, if the EIA and its relative feedback is only a procedure to abandon some projects, then the project constructor may take the risk to start the construction without approval; but if the EIA is a part of overall project evaluation and required by the law, how can they skip this part?

The limitations of current EIA include: first, it is used as one of the political tools to abandon projects; second, those who manage the evaluation have made this work and its technology unnecessarily complicated. Regarding the latter limitation, Mr. Jiang, please read any EIA report and you will find what the relevant authorities should focus on. Third, the EIA report will be either weak or unclear. They need to be subjective, concise, and qualitative as well as quantitative. And this weak or unclear report makes the approval even more difficult, which leads to a vicious circle. My suggestion, if Mr. Jiang can read carefully the environment part of basic Dam EIA, and skim through the rest of the EIA, maybe he can write something to improve current situation of Dam EIA. An appeal may push the Environment Protection Authorities to make EIA a simple procedure or even allow construction before approval, but just an appeal may not really work.

The comment was translated by Fangfang CHEN


拜托

同志们啊,能不能实际一点。这些事情水电环评怎么可能挡得住。修水电站难道只是为了经济原因吗?中央决策者难道不知道这里巨大的生态环境的价值么?那他们为什么“不阻止”建站呢?这几条河都是国际大河,上游建站与否能控制下游的安危,而不论中国还是其他国家,所有的行为都必须服从政治。估计水电站的领导讲话都应该是“我们要克服一切困难,吃苦耐劳,不怕牺牲!”,小小的塌方泥石流他们当然不放在眼里。(而美国的统治者会疯狂地宣传三江源不能开发。)想解决西部山区水电的问题,还得从政治角度出发,比如联合国或美国从中调停,让中国和中南半岛上的国家签定水资源分配协议。否则一切免谈

Please be more realistic

Comrades, ah! Can we be more realistic? How can Hydropower Environmental Impact Assessments stop these occurrences. Is it only for economic reasons that we repair hydropower stations? Don't central decision-makers know the immense value of the ecological environment in these place? So why don't they stop building hydropower stations? These are international rivers, and hydropower station construction upstream will greatly influence the lower reaches. No matter whether in China or in other countries, all actions must adhere to political demands.
It is thought that hydropower station leaders should be saying, "We must overcome all difficulties, bear hardships and work hard, and not fear sacrifice!" So of course, they think nothing of landslides and falling debris.(However, the US leaders will vigorously maintain that the Sanjiangyuan river area should not be developed). If we want to solve the hydropower problem of the western mountain area we should look at it from a political point of view, such as how mediation from the UN or US can allow China and Indochina Peninsula countries to sign water-sharing agreements. Otherwise, there is nothing worth discussing!


中国人眼中的中国地理

绝大部分中国人,尤其是中国有知识有文化的(主要是汉族)人是生活黑河腾冲线以东南,他们眼中是没有怒江澜沧江这些美丽河流的(当然也很少有黑龙江),更提不上热爱珍惜她们。他们眼中的西北是沙漠与荒原,不适宜生存的地方,和当年他们看待北大荒一模一样。

China's geography in the eyes of the Chinese

Most Chinese people, especially intellectuals (mainly Han people), live to the southeast of the Hei River-Tengchong line. They turn a blind eye to beautiful rivers, eg. the Nujiang and the Lantsang,(and of course, the Heilongjiang), let alone love and cherish them. In their eyes, the west of China is desert and wilderness. They look upon it as the Great Northern Wilderness, which is not fit to live in.


wxai:话题在转移

开发水电的方式到底如何环境影响评价是本文的主体。也就是在开发中,如何协调环境与经济的关系,我支持的是有限开发的观点,但在开发中仍要做好生态环境的保护。如何搞好水电产业的生态环境保护,也即环评阶段该怎么办,是非常技术的问题,不用夸大,就是提出问题和解决问题的方法,共大家讨论,激荡出更好的策略加以实施。妄谈国际问题,水源分配等等,我们没资格,也没技术,当然更不懂政治。

wxai:the topic is changing

The subject of this article is how to consider the issue of increasing hydropower development as well as the assessment of its environmental impact. As global development proceeds, it poses the question of how to coordinate the relationship between environment and economy. I agree with the limited development position and believe that development should aim at effective environmental protection. As such, how to deal with environmental impact assessment is a technical issue that should not be exaggerated. Together experts should consider solutions toward to the effective implementation of hydropower. We lack the qualifications, technical skills and political understanding to speak of such international issues and water allocation.


写文章要以事实为依据

不管发表什么样的评论,都应以事实为依据,如果不是专业人士,不可道听途说就妄加评论。
1、水电站的前期工作很多,包括进场道路、工程勘察都属于前期工作,这些工作一样有很多作业面,疑似开工,但没有真正开工;
2、本人就在上述某水电站工作,我们电站的环评早于2007年已通过国家环保局评审,谁敢不管不顾?

Writing must be based on facts

No matter what kinds of comments one posts, the comments should be based on fact. If you are not a professional in this industry, you should not make presumptuous comments based on rumours. First of all, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before a power-station can be built. Such work may include clearing the way for construction and conducting geo-technical investigations. These jobs are carried out on different sites, which may lead people to think that the project has started, where in actual fact it hasn't. Secondly, I myself work in the above-mentioned power-station. Our environmental evaluation has been conducted and approved by the National Environmental Appraisal Committee in 2007. Who would dare to ignore these matters?


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