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Don’t build dams everywhere!

With the effects of dam construction going well beyond the dislocation of people, China is waking up to its hydro legacy.

May 1, 2005
4 min read

Hydro projects are being built, planned or proposed on almost every river in the southwest, including the upper Yangtze, the upper Pearl, the Lancang and Nu valleys. No valley is being left undisturbed, and no river left undammed, in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Chongqing. Small, medium and large dams are springing up everywhere, with generating capacities ranging in size from more than 10 million kw, down to several thousand kw.

What is particularly worrying is that in most cases, no comprehensive planning for the development and environmental protection of the valleys involved has been undertaken. Each dam builder administers its own affairs, with no regard for the collective interest.

Cascades of dams are being built all over the river valleys of southwest China. In the upper reaches of the Yangtze, for example, starting from the Three Gorges project, strings of dams are planned for the main channel of the river, including 21 dams with a generating capacity of more than 150,000 kw each that are proposed for the Jinsha River (as the upper Yangtze is known).

If the current trend is allowed to continue, the Yangtze, Pearl, Lancang, Nu and Hongshui will no longer be natural rivers; they will be like staircases – a series of sections interrupted by hydro stations. So the water of the Yangtze will no longer come from heaven but from these “steps,” and our free-flowing rivers will disappear forever

The driving force behind this messy free-for-all in southwest China is the pursuit of economic gain. Driven by the profit motive, the dam builders are racing ahead with scant regard for environmental safety in the river valleys or possible changes in the power market. Such hortsighted and unchecked development could lead to endless trouble in the future.

The above situation has attracted the attention not only of ecologists and environmentalists, but also of economists, sociologists and the media. They are calling for more attention to be paid to improving comprehensive planning, scientific feasibility studies and good governance — but unfortunately nobody is willing to listen. It has become routine in China that the decision-makers and the builders of hydropower projects pay close attention to the proponents of such schemes, but turn a deaf ear to critics.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the unfortunate fact is that the construction of dams, large or small, has resulted in many “leftover problems,’ with those problems outweighing the project benefits. Over the past 50 years, more than 16 million people have been displaced by dams of various types, and as many as 10 million of those people are still living in poverty. And the reason is simple: Peasants living in hills and mountains lost the very ground on which their lives depended when the rising reservoirs flooded their farmland in the river valley.

While it is true that local governments can benefit from the project-related resettlement schemes and from the construction of new towns, it is also the case that local officials associated with resettlement operations tend to grab the opportunity to pocket some of the public funds earmarked for the schemes. Dam construction projects have become breeding grounds for corruption and degenerate behaviour.

Things have changed, however, especially in recent years. Ordinary people in China now have a growing awareness of democracy and have started to learn how to protect their interests. You know why more and more people displaced by dams are now seeking redress from higher authorities? People affected by these projects have come to realize that their rights, to survival and development, have been attacked and harmed.Chen Guojie is senior researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Translation from Probe International’s Three Gorges project : www.threegorgesprobe.org

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