Wringing China dry

Reservoirs and hydropower stations are sprouting up all over China, damaging ecosystems and causing conflict. It’s time to leave the rivers alone, says Feng Yongfeng.

Last December, 160,000 residents living along the Qingzhang River in Hebei, north-east China petitioned local government over the construction of a new hydropower station in neighbouring province Shanxi, complaining that it was cover for a new reservoir. They wanted the authorities to call an immediate halt to the project, saying that the Qingzhang River – the lifeblood of the county and its 400,000 inhabitants – would, otherwise, be cut off.

The Qingzhang is part of the Hai River system. It rises in Shanxi, then flows through Hebei and Henan and its waters are shared between the upper and lower reaches. Since the 1950s, various water-storage projects have been constructed in Shanxi. In the two decades leading up to 1965, the river’s annual average flow was 1.96 billion cubic metres. But, from 1980 to 2000, it was only 356 million cubic metres – huge quantities of water were being retained upstream.

Meanwhile, Hebei has been busy building its own reservoirs. Since 1949, more than 1,000 reservoirs of different sizes have been constructed “for flood protection”. This took reservoir capacity across the province to 10 billion cubic metres of water, 6 billion of which could be supplied to cities. But a mixture of economic growth, a rising population and years of drought left parts of Hebei suffering from water shortages. And so reservoirs originally intended to prevent flooding were gradually used to supply water to the cities.

Hebei has another grievance. Even during times of extreme water shortage, it is obliged to provide a constant flow to Beijing to ensure the capital’s water security. The Hebei to Beijing section of the South-North Water Transfer Project has already been completed. Should Beijing suffer a water crisis, Hebei’s four major reservoirs – Wangkuai, Xidayang, Gangnan and Huangbizhuang – will be expected, come what may, to turn on the taps. When water levels at Beijing’s Miyun reservoir fall below one billion cubic metres, the Hebao and Yunzhou reservoirs, over the border in Hebei, are also forced to provide water – even if they themselves are nearly dry.

But even Hebei and Shanxi are not enough to satisfy the capital. In the 1950s, Beijing built the four billion cubic metre Guanting reservoir on the Yongding River, a tributary of the Hai River in north-east China. But, by 2009, water levels were hovering around the 100 million cubic-metre mark. Water expert and leader of Beijing-based NGO, Green SOS, Wang Jian, blames the 270 reservoirs built upstream for the low levels.

Currently, local governments are fighting to hold onto any water that passes through their borders. Hebei is also vexed about a project planned in Shaanxi, central China, that will divert water from the stretch of the Han River in the south of the province, through the Qinling mountains and into the Wei River, where it will raise water levels and reduce pollution. With such large quantities of water being taken at the upper reaches – and another 10 billion cubic metres from the middle reaches earmarked for Beijing – nobody can predict what kind of conflict will arise.

Per capita water resources in the north of China are inadequate, giving rise to protectionism and hoarding. But south of the Huai River, where flows are plentiful, a different kind of water war is under way. Hydroelectric firms want to turn water into electricity. For them, it is “liquid oil”, but all the hydropower stations and water distribution hubs they are putting in place will end up destroying the rivers’ ecosystems.

China’s major waterways flow down from the Tibetan Plateau, with differences in altitude providing the potential for energy generation. So power firms are particularly smitten with the hydropower possibilities in the south-west of the country. After the year 2000, investment in hydropower was liberalised, leaving both major power firms and smaller private companies free to build hydropower stations.

Within a few years, tributaries of the Jinsha, Yalong, Dadu, Lancang and Nu rivers had been developed; as soon as water left one power station, it flowed right into the next. The actual rivers themselves are also unlikely to escape their fate; there are plans for numerous dams on almost all of them. And while the public is paying attention to the hydropower fever that has taken hold in the south-west, similar developments are taking place on some rivers in the east. The counties of Jinzhai, Yuexi and Huoshan in the Dabie mountains of Anhui province, eastern China, all have plans to “enrich the people” and “boost the economy” through small-scale hydropower projects.

The first hydropower station on the Jinhua, or Wu River, system, the largest southern tributary of the Yangtze, was built in 1950, at Huhai on the Qiantang tributary. By 2005, 183 stations had been built, generating more than 61,000 kilowatts of electricity. Fujian’s Min River, in the south-eastern corner of China, was not far behind. Figures from 2004 indicate the river had 29 large or medium-sized hydropower stations and a large number of smaller stations. The city of Nanping, in central Fujian, was alone home to 183 stations that were completed, under construction or in the pipeline. Environmental assessments or approvals had not been obtained for the majority of these.

The density of hydroelectric development is shocking: the water outlet from one station feeds directly into the dam of the next. On the Min River, the outlet for the Shuikou station flows into the dam for the Shaxi station, while the outlet for Shaxi flows into the dam for the Xiayang station. And so it goes on. As a result, these stretches of river are left without flowing water – they and their tributaries become a series of lakes.

On December 12 last year, the State Council issued an environmental and economic plan for the Poyang lake region, indicating the area had become a part of national-level strategy. This plan includes the construction of a water-distribution hub, roughly where Poyang Lake and the Yangtze River meet, to control the level of the lake. When the lake is full, water will be returned to the river and, when levels are low, water from the Yangtze will be fed in. The level of the lake will not, therefore, fluctuate so much across the seasons.

Almost the entire global population of 3,000 white cranes spends the winter at Poyang Lake. “For a long time, the white cranes have found the habitat and food that they need at Poyang,” says wetlands expert Lei Guangchun. “If the water level during the winter suddenly increases, they and other wintering birds won’t be able to forage and populations will plummet.”

The idea of a lock controlling the water level also worries dolphin experts. Wang Ding, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Wuhan-based Institute of Hydrobiology, says that, like the already extinct baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin, the originally populous finless porpoise could also be lost. There may already be fewer than 2,000 finless porpoises in the wild, divided into two main populations – one in the Yangtze River and one in Poyang Lake. Bridges over the entrance to the lake and frequent shipping have already virtually cut these two groups off from each other and there is an emerging consensus that this is resulting in genetic degradation. This “ecological lock” will completely remove any chance of genetic mingling and means that, in the not too distant future, the finless porpoise could follow the baiji into oblivion.

Ma Jun, a well-known environmentalist, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and chinadialogue author says: “Full-on building of reservoirs and hydroelectric stations are not only the spark for frequent water conflict but also cause loss of ecological function by breaking the rivers down into sections. We need to let the rivers flow and keep their ecosystems healthy. We need to let people live in harmony. The best way to do that is to reduce the exploitation of rivers and let them recover.”

Feng Yongfeng is a technology journalist at Guangming Daily.
Homepage image from Wetland China shows white cranes at Poyang Lake, south-east China.