Written by Christopher Dent.

Hydropower remains by far the world’s dominant renewable energy source for producing electricity, still well over twice the combined installed global capacity of wind and solar. China accounts for over a quarter of worldwide hydropower installed worldwide, having embarked on the world’s most ambitious large dam-building programme since the 1990s. By 2013, the country’s total installed hydropower capacity was 260GW: to put this in context, the total power generation capacity Britain’s electricity grid is around 100GW.

China’s Three Gorges Dam (TGD) on the Yangtze River is the largest of numerous 1GW-plus rated dams the government has commissioned to be built during the last two decades. It may be viewed as both hero and villain of the country’s renewable energy development (Dent 2014). Becoming fully operational in May 2012 with an installed capacity of 22.5GW, the TGD has been a flagship project of Chinese economic development generally. Its annual ‘clean energy’ saving of 31 million tonnes of coal and 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions makes a significant contribution to de-carbonising China’s energy sector. Yet the huge socio-economic and environmental costs arising from both the TGD’s construction and operation have made it highly controversial, and a target of much criticism inside and outside the country.

The initial idea for the TGD was first proposed by the Nationalist government in 1919. Much later, the Mao government started to conduct feasibility studies on the dam in the 1950s but in the 1960s China still lacked the technical capability to build it, and in the 1970s the money to finance it. Only by the mid-1980s was the government able to put together a viable plan for the project (Fearnside 1988). In 1992, this plan was approved by the National People’s Congress but with a record number of delegates (32 percent) either voting against or abstaining support for building the dam, which began in 1994 and was structurally complete by 2009. The last of hydroelectric turbines (32 of 700MW rated capacity, plus two at 50MW) were fitted in the 2,335 metre long, 175 metre high installation in 2012. Each one of these large 700MW turbines can alone produce around three to four times more electricity than Britain’s largest windfarm. The dam cost an estimated US$25 billion and created a 600 km long reservoir upstream. At 22.5GW, it is by far the world’s largest power station by capacity rating.

The TGD’s hydroelectric function was the primary motive for construction but other functions are also important. Over the last century or so, major catastrophic floods on the Yangtze River occurred in 1911, 1931, 1935, 1954 and 1981, resulting in over 300,000 deaths and millions of displaced people. A later flood event in 1998 killing over 4,000 people, inundated 25 million hectares of farm land and caused material damage estimated at US$36 billion provided stronger justification for the TGD. The dam is also situated in a critically important area: the Yangtze River basin is home to one-third of the national population, around 70 percent of the country’s rice fields, and roughly 40 percent of Chinese industrial output (Liu et al 2013, Tullos 2009). Building the dam would spur economic development in this key riparian zone by improved navigation: the maximum ship size on the river increased from 2,000 tons to 10,000 tons and thereby considerably strengthened commercial transportation links between major interior cities such as Chongqing to the east coast (Jackson and Sleigh 2000).

While the TGD has delivered many benefits it has also incurred considerable environmental and socio-economic costs. Its construction necessitated the inundation of two cities, 11 counties, 140 towns, 326 townships, and 1,351 villages covering 23,800 hectares and the resettlement of an estimated 1.5 million people (Liu et al 2013). Although around 35 to 45 percent of the project’s budget was allocated to resettlement and compensation for affected local communities, according to International Rivers (2014) there were reports of this process being badly mismanaged and subject to notable levels of corruption by implementing local government officials, with around 12 percent of funds embezzled. Filling the TGD reservoir is thought to have destroyed a number of archaeological sites of important cultural interest. Ecological costs and geological risks associated with the TGD’s development have included (International Rivers 2014, Solidiance 2013):

  • Undermining the Yangtze River’s rich biodiversity, as the dam is located in one of its conservation areas where 25 endangered fish species exist, such as the Chinese sturgeon, river sturgeon, river dolphin and paddlefish.
  • Stagnant water forming in the TGD’s long reservoir where industrial effluents discharged by factories upstream into the river has accumulated, creating regular algae blooms. Reservoir siltation has too accumulated to notable levels. In addition, silt-free water released from the dam is causing significant erosion of river banks downstream, thus counteracting some of the TGD’s flood control benefits.
  • Soil erosion is affecting more than half the reservoir area, causing frequent landslides and an estimated 178 kms of river banks thought to be at risk of collapse. If this transpires, another 530,000 people will need relocating by 2020 as a result of this risk.
  • Seismic activity in the TGD reservoir zone has increased since its filling process was substantially completed by the late 2000s.

China’s national government agencies have exhibited growing concern over the high socio-economic and environmental risks associated with the dam’s construction and operation, these closely connecting with key challenges it faces generally with its large-hydro development strategy. In September 2007, Beijing acknowledged the need to strengthen environmental impact assessment procedures applied to the TGD, and later in May 2011 conceded that its installation has posed notable environmental, geological and socio-economic welfare risks (International Rivers 2014). Despite the adoption of stronger environmental protection laws and regulations introduced by the government since the early 2000s, weaknesses in their design and implementation (e.g. on punitive fines for non-compliance, and regarding stakeholder engagement) has given more scope for the adverse impacts of China’s large dams like the TGD to go unchecked. The resultant problems arising from the Three Gorges Dam project has thus caused many doubts concerning the future of other large-hydro developments in progress, not just in China but also worldwide. The Chinese government currently has no plans to introduce any new large-hydro dam projects beyond 2020, and is instead concentrating its renewable energy policy on wind, solar and other dynamic sectors where it too is emerging as a world leader.

Christopher Dent is Professor of East Asia’s International Political Economy at University of Leeds. Image credit: CC by Pedro Vásquez Colmenares/Flickr.

References

Dent, C.M. (2014) Renewable Energy in East Asia: Towards a New Developmentalism, London: Routledge.

Fearnside, P.H. (1988) ‘China’s Three Gorges Dam: “Fatal” Project or Step Toward Modernization?’, World Development, Vol 16(5), pp 615-630.

International Rivers (2014) International Rivers: Dam-Building Database, available at: www.internationalrivers.org

Jackson, S. and Sleigh, A. (2000) ‘Resettlement for China’s Three Gorges Dam: Socio-Economic Impact and Institutional Tensions’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol 33, pp 223–241.

Liu, J., Zuo, J., Sun, Z., Zillante, G. and Chen, X. (2013b) ‘Sustainability in Hydropower Development: A Case Study’, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Vol 19, pp 230–237.

Solidiance (2013) China’s Renewable Energy Sector: An Overview of Key Growth Sectors, Shanghai: Solidiance.

Tullos, D. (2009) ‘Assessing the Influence of Environmental Impact Assessments on Science and Policy: An Analysis of the Three Gorges Project’, Journal of Environmental Management, Vol 90, pp 208–223.