Dam Nation

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Originally published in Foreign Policy magazine

When Beijing counts hydropower as “green energy,” it’s doing the environment – and its economy – no favor.

Next week, China’s National People’s Congress, which is now meeting in Beijing, will formally adopt the country’s next five-year plan. The document will define the country’s vision for the next half-decade, including an increasingly desperate balancing act between economic growth and environmental protection. At least 200 million Chinese will join the urban middle class by the end of this decade, and the government sees continued rapid growth as the best recipe for the preservation of social stability. But at the same time, the country bursts at the ecological seams. Lush forests have given way to dust bowls and industrial wastelands. Plant and animal species are going extinct at a rapid pace. Millions of people are being displaced from lands that can no longer sustain them. Birth defects — likely related to exposure to polluted air, water, or food — in some places reach 20 times the global average.

At first glance, the next five-year plan (or what has so far been shared with the public) appears to be the greenest in China’s history. On Feb. 27, Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized the new priorities in a well-publicized Internet chat session: “We can no longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid development and reckless construction…. These will only lead to overcapacity in production, increased pressure on environmental resources, and unsustainable economic growth.” The five-year plan’s expected provisions include targets and financing to promote the rapid expansion of alternative energy, and tighter limits for toxic pollutants, among other measures.

The new plan comes in the wake of notable environmental reforms that Beijing has adopted in the last few years. At the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, the Chinese government committed to reducing the carbon intensity of China’s economy, even though its greenhouse gas emissions per capita are much lower than those of industrialized countries. The government has funded the development of cheap, innovative renewable-energy technologies. (Western countries could learn something from the determination with which the Chinese government has lately focused on developing the clean-tech sector.) The new five-year plan proposes further financial incentives and technical improvements. Yet this approach will not be sufficient to overcome the country’s environmental crisis.

China’s great rivers illustrate the challenge that the country faces. Chinese rulers have always seen controlling water as part of their heavenly mandate. During the last 60 years, they have diverted rivers to feed inefficient irrigation systems, abused them as sewage canals for polluting industries, and choked them with more than 20,000 large dams. As a consequence, rivers, lakes, and wetlands have dwindled, fisheries are collapsing, water supplies have become unfit for human consumption, and China’s coastal areas are engulfed by toxic algae blooms every summer. Moreover, dams have displaced at least 23 million people, and according to Chinese-American scientists, one particular project, the Zipingpu Dam, likely triggered the devastating earthquake that claimed 80,000 lives in Sichuan in 2008.

In response to the growing water crisis, the Chinese government has successively strengthened its water protection laws and regulations over the past 20 years. Yet the reality has not kept pace with such legal changes. In collusion with local government officials, project developers routinely flout environmental protection measures when they impinge on economic growth. Jiang Gaoming, a professor of botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has charged that environmental impact assessments for hydropower projects have become a “marginalized and decorative process, seen as just a part of the cost of doing business.” In recent years, construction projects started at several large dams on the Yangtze River even though their impact assessments had not yet been approved. And this year, a government body simply redrew the boundaries of a vitally important fish reserve on the same river to allow a midsize hydropower project to go forward. The decision may sound the death knell for the majestic Yangtze sturgeon and other migrating fish species. According to an official of the local environmental protection bureau, the dam was necessary “for the sake of economic growth.”

The technical and engineering solutions that the new five-year plan proposes will not bring relief for China’s freshwater resources. For instance, China’s National Energy Administration has already announced that new hydropower projects, which it considers a source of green energy, will be approved to the tune of 140 gigawatts under the new plan. (In comparison, the United States has installed just 80 gigawatts of hydropower capacity in its entire history.) If the dam projects go forward, they will destroy areas that even the government has called “epicenter[s] of Chinese biodiversity.” In addition, many dams are scheduled to be built on the earthquake-prone fault lines that mark the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates.

The Chinese government hopes that the massive expansion of hydropower will allow it to sustain rapid economic growth while it gradually shifts away from fossil fuels. Yet the country already pays a high price for the collapse of its freshwater ecosystems. Its dams have destroyed and degraded freshwater resources on which hundreds of millions of people depend. Around the world, rivers, lakes, and wetlands have undergone more dramatic changes than any other type of ecosystem. The U.N. Environment Program warns that “natural systems that support economies, lives and livelihoods across the planet are at risk of rapid degradation and collapse” and that it would be arrogant to “imagine we can get by without biodiversity.” If China’s unprecedented dam-building spree is approved by the National People’s Congress, it will undermine the foundations of the country’s long-term prosperity.

China’s new five-year plan essentially proposes to sacrifice the country’s arteries to save its lungs. This impasse illustrates that China will not be able to engineer its way out of a mounting environmental crisis. “Really improving the environment in China will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms,” writes Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Civil society groups and the media should be free to report on the state of the country’s environment. Courts should be allowed to go after well-connected companies that violate environmental regulations. Schools should encourage the creative thinking that the country needs to move away from polluting industries at the bottom of the value chain. And as China’s leaders chart their course for the next five years, they should embrace the wider social reforms that are needed for the protection of the environment.


Peter Bosshard is policy director of International Rivers, an environmental and human rights organization. He works from Beijing and Berkeley, California.