Jinsha River

China’s Mammoth Plan to Double Hydropower Generation by 2020

Water-rich southwest region, though, is getting dryer.

Originally posted on the CSRwire website.

By Rachel Beitarie, Circle of Blue

The hydropower dam construction program in southwest China has no equal anywhere in the world.

Here in Suijiang County, a remote and mountainous region on the border between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, the immense scope of the most aggressive dam-building program in history is immediately apparent. Near the county’s center, an army of men and equipment is building the Xiangjiaba Hydropower Dam, a wall of concrete and steel 909 meters (2,982 feet) long and 161 meters (528 feet) high. When it’s completed in 2015, the dam will house eight turbines capable of generating just over 6,400 megawatts. It will be the fourth-largest hydropower plant in China and one of the 20 largest power plants of any kind in the world, according to industry figures.

Immense as it is, the Xiangjiaba Dam is just one of a dozen hydropower projects of similar size that have been approved for the Jinsha River. Taken together, the 12 Jinsha River dams will be capable of generating 59,000 megawatts, or nearly as much power as all 4,000 hydroelectric generating stations in thee United States.

In the latest chapter of Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: China series, Beijing-based Rachel Beitarie writes about China’s mammoth program to, by 2020, double the amount of electricity produced from flowing water, as well as the consequences this program is having on communities, families and the environment. Along the upper Yangtze River and five tributaries that drain China’s midsection, 100 big dams are in various stages of planning, engineering and construction. Additionally, at least 43 big dams are in the same stages of development on the Lancang, Nujiang, Hongshui and Jiulong rivers in southwest China.

Big Risk, Big Reward

The stakes for China’s dam-building campaign encompass every sector of the economy, and it marks a historical and ecological heritage that spans seven southern provinces. The provincial and central government leaders who support China’s program to tame wild rivers behind concrete, steel and stone assert hydropower provides considerable benefits to reduce air pollution, rein in coal consumption and generate electricity for fast-growing cities and industries.

Opponents say dams are wrecking treasured canyons, ruining fisheries and displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. Some critics worry too many of China’s new big dams are being built in a seismically active region that has experienced a number of big earthquakes, including one in May 2008 that killed 80,000 people in Sichuan Province. Just as significantly, opponents note China is counting on generating a considerable portion of its energy from rivers in southern China that, because of climate change, say scientists, are experiencing longer and more numerous droughts that are lowering water levels.

Read more about China’s hydropower development on Circle of Blue.

About Rachel Beitarie

Rachel is a Beijing-based Israeli reporter. This is her article for Circle of Blue.

For Circle of Blue’s complete coverage of China’s water-energy challenge, check out the Choke Point: China page on Circle of Blue.

Photographs by Toby Smith/Reportage by Getty Images for Circle of Blue

Talkback Readers: Will this big risk reap big rewards - or will Mother Nature root against China’s ambitious hydropower development? Dive in and share on Talkback!

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