Activists fight hydropower, but govt says plants will help cut emissions

By Bai Tiantian Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-24 21:48:01

Photo: IC

A week ago, Wang Yongchen, founder of Green Earth Volunteers, a Chinese environmentalist NGO, received a text message from a friend working as a reporter at China Central Television.

"Good news: the Yunnan government has decided to halt small hydro-electric projects along the Nujiang River, expand the area of national conservation parks and restore as much farmland to grassland as possible. [It has also decided] to ask the State Council to suspend large hydropower projects."

At that time, Wang, 61, a journalist-turned-environmentalist, was leading a group of specialists, reporters and activists on a field trip to inspect hydropower stations in Southwest China to see how they have affected the local environment. It was part of a program Wang and her team have been carrying out for 10 years.

She was on her way to a restaurant when she received the text message. After reading it, she burst into tears.

Ever since plans to build hydropower stations on the Nujiang River were first raised in 2003, they have been strongly opposed by environmental activists, who believe the stations do irreversible damage to the local environment.

The fight between environmentalists and government planners has continued, if not escalated, over the past 10 years. The conflict and pressure to reduce emissions in recent years has created a dilemma for the Nujiang River projects.

Hydropower boom

"I have been to the Nujiang River 16 times in the past 12 years," Wang told the Global Times in a phone interview on Wednesday. On her last visit in March, she found that over 100 small hydropower plants have either already been built or are under construction along the river. There were only around 30 in 2009.

According to Wang, the average small hydropower plant in the area produces around 25,000 kilowatts of electricity, will last for 70 years and provides power not only to the local area but also to areas further afield via the network of China Southern Power Grid.

While Wang admitted that the hydropower plants bring economic benefits to the area, including increased tax income and more jobs, she argued that the damage to the local environment is not worth the money.

In a blog post, she said that building a small hydropower plant changes the path of tributaries, reduces the amount of nutrients in the river's silt, and raises the water temperature and damages nearby vegetation. All four changes can result in serious disruption of or irreversible damage to the local ecosystem, she noted.

Her opinion was countered by Zhang Boting, deputy secretary-general of the China Society of Hydropower Engineering, who wrote in a recent article in China Economic Weekly that it would be stupid to rule out small hydropower plants at a time when authorities are under pressure to reduce emissions.

Zhang pointed out that China's utilization of small hydropower plants is a widely acknowledged success, especially compared with costly solar power. Zhang said building small hydropower plants is better than building a coal plant or erecting a power transmission line, as the latter two cause greater damage to the local environment. He also believes that it is nonsense to say small hydropower plants reduce the river's flow and damage the environment, as many cities have used rubber dams to facilitate environmental protection.

Madness or sense?

According to a Yunnan Daily report, Yunnan Province's Party chief Li Jiheng said on December 6 that all work on small hydropower plants must be halted.

"A favorable ecological environment is the core competitive power of the development of the Nujiang River," Li said at the meeting, stressing that the local government should halt work on small hydropower plants and promote energy conservation and emission reduction by other means.

No official statement has been released on whether the State Council will suspend large power plants. But Zhang Jianxin, a former assistant manager of Yunnan Huadian Nujiang River Hydropower Development Co, told news portal that such a thing would be "impossible."

"[China] now focuses on developing clean energy. How can hydropower be halted? … We should strengthen our development," he said.

Wang, who has been nicknamed the "environmental madwoman," said she feels it is fundamentally wrong for human beings to treat nature as their possession.

"We should see nature as our friend. But what kind of friend are we if we only want to use what is provided by nature without giving back?"

Newspaper headline: Give a dam

Posted in: Society

blog comments powered by Disqus