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Chinese investors targeted in campaign against Siberian dams

Activists say hydro energy supplied to Chinese cities will come at social and ecological cost for Russia, calling it “a perfect example of environmental irresponsibility”

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If allowed to go ahead, the Nizhne-Angarskaya dam would disrupt the ecosystem of Lake Baikal, say environmental groups (Image by Petr Jan Juračka)

Russian companies want to help China quench its enormous thirst for electricity through dramatic expansion of hydropower along Siberia’s many free-flowing rivers, calling it a way for China to diversify its power supply and help solve its growing air pollution problem.

But Russian and Chinese environmental advocates are opposed to the projects, and they are targeting Chinese investors, who are essential to getting new projects off the ground. They say Siberian hydropower – far from a renewable energy source that can generate carbon credits on the international market – is an environmentally and socially destructive form of energy that puts investors' reputations at risk.

At the forefront of the hydropower expansion are two major new dams in Siberia that are in the early stages of the approval process: Trans-Siberian on the Shilka River in the Amur River basin, and Nizhne-Angarskaya on the Angara River flowing out of Lake Baikal.

The two dams represent one of the first steps in a larger plan by EuroSibEnergo, part of the private Russian energy firm EN+ Group, to set off a hydropower boom in Eastern Russia, where it estimates only 20% of potential hydropower resources are utilised.

The group scored a major victory in the expansion of hydropower in Siberia and energy supply to China late last year, by bringing the Boguchanskaya dam online.

“We are at the beginning of a long road,” Artem Volynets, EN+ Group general director, told state television channel Rossiya-24 in a February 4 interview. Volynets is encouraging China to broaden its cooperation with Russia and help finance hydropower projects that will help reduce coal use.

“Every year, China needs to add 100 gigawatts of capacity, and the basic method of producing electricity in China is coal . . . That means enormous emissions to the atmosphere, and that atmosphere is common to all of us, our whole planet, not just China,” Volynets said. “The more coal China burns, the more greenhouse gas emissions are emitted, and it will be worse for our planet's atmosphere.”

However, while EN+ makes claims about its environmental goals for hydropower supply to China, it is also supplying China with coal. On March 22, EN+, China Development Bank and Shenhua Group signed a US$2 billion agreement in Moscow in front of the countries’ deputy prime ministers to jointly develop coal reserves in Eastern Siberia.

Environmentalists target Chinese investors

Environmental activists are seeking to head off such cooperation agreements on hydropower by raising the profile of the China Export-Import Bank, China Yangtze Power and other Chinese companies in potentially financing new projects.

“We in principle hold that the mass export of electricity from the environmental, economic and social perspectives could bring Russia and the transboundary ecosystems of Russia and China very large damage,” said Eugene Simonov, international coordinator of Rivers Without Boundaries.

The coalition group Rivers Without Boundaries, which includes Russian, Chinese, Mongolian and other environmental groups, is sending letters and connecting with Chinese companies, saying they “should not support haphazard proposals for quick hydropower development in Russia.”

The group says EN+ hydro projects do not comply with Chinese law, which requires environmental impact assessments. “EN+ Group has launched a campaign and [is] promoting Siberian rivers as  sustainable energy resources, but this claim is groundless, as neither [the Trans-Siberian nor Nizhne-Angarskaya project] follows any national or international sustainable development principles,” the group's March 14 letter to China Export-Import Bank said.

For the activists, the negative environmental and social impacts of the Boguchanskaya dam, which flooded an area of forest not cleared in preparation for the reservoir, serves as a prime example of what awaits if similar schemes are allowed to go ahead in Siberia. Local and international groups said in a March 22 report on the construction of the dam that EN+ failed to carry out the necessary environmental and social protection measures.

“What is happening before our eyes in the development of natural resources in the Angara River Basin is a clear demonstration that the preferred strategy is for getting rich quick while cutting out all ancillary costs not directly related to the extraction of profit,” Aleksander Kolotov, Russian coordinator of the project Rivers Without Boundaries, said in a statement about the report.

WWF called the Boguchanskaya dam “a perfect example of environmental irresponsibility”.

Danger for Lake Baikal

Activists say the environmental and social stakes are even higher in the cases of the Trans-Siberian and Nizhne-Amurskaya dams. They say the Trans-Siberian dam would destroy a unique floodplain ecosystem in the Dauria region, along with cultural heritage sites. The Nizhne-Angarskaya dam would disrupt the ecosystem of Lake Baikal, a globally important source of fresh water, according to the environmental groups.

“At this point, no plan exists to sustainably limit and direct the development of this industry in the context of Russian and Chinese cooperation,” Simonov said. “If the killing of river ecosystems that is happening now in China is exported to Russia, no one will win.”

Activists are asking for Russian and Chinese companies to develop a sustainable development plan at the basin-wide level and measures to protect ecosystems and indigenous communities. They are also demanding the creation of reserves where hydropower plans will not be built.    

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