In Pursuit of Renewable Energy, China Risks Environmental Harm

February 18, 2014 

Host: The Stimson Center

Event: The Political Economy of Chinese Hydropower Development in Yunan and Southeast Asia


Dr. Darrin Magee, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Hobart and William Smith College

Ms. Yun Sun, Fellow, Stimson Center

Dr. Richard Cronin, Director of Southeast Asia Program, Stimson Center

For over a decade, China has been riding a wave of strong economic growth in order to position itself as a future global leader – dedicating large amounts of resources to developing the country’s infrastructure, establishing a sophisticated military, and pioneering new sources of energy to match the country’s increasing demand. By 2020, leaders have pledged that 15% of the country’s consumed electricity will come from renewable sources. Though the country has also pledged to double its capacity for wind energy each year up until 2020, the majority of newly constructed wind towers are not connected to the country’s power grid and so a large part of this 15% are expected to come from hydropower – namely dams. With the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers flowing through the country’s Southwest mountains, the combination of strong currents and steep incline makes the area ideal dams to produce hydroelectricity. The countries has already built seven large-scale dams and have made plans to construct over ten more dams domestically while it also helps neighboring Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia develop their own dams further downstream.

At a glance, these projects can seem like a win-win proposition for China and its neighbors. Establishing numerous clean and renewable energy plants will address domestic energy needs and, potentially, raise revenue through exports. However, as Dr. Magee pointed out, for China, building these dams is not an environmental project, it is an economic one. Therefore, the government’s concern is not the long-term social and ecological costs of the dams but rather the revenues and energy that they will produce in the near-term. Though the dams will provide China and Laos with greater energy security, and also allow Laos to export energy to the needy markets in Cambodia and Vietnam – fulfilling Laos’ ambition to be the “Battery of Southeast Asia” – the impact it would have on fisheries and farms, particularly in those countries located downstream of China can lead to long term damage and incite social instability.

Of particular concern to Dr. Magee and Dr. Cronin are the daily sediment levels found in China’s upstream dams. Dr. Cronin estimated that as much as 80% of the upper Mekong’s sediment could, hypothetically, be caught and held by Chinese dams, preventing sediment from flowing downstream where it naturally reinforces the rivers’ mouth, preventing the South China Sea from flowing inland. The lack of sediment could also have an adverse reaction on the Mekong’s fish population. Without sediment the naturally murky river water will become clear and leave fish more heavily exposed to predators. Any negative impact to the region’s fish population could have drastic ecological and social consequences. In Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, fisheries are not only a major source of jobs; they are also many people’s only source of protein. The problem though is that these fears can neither be confirmed nor denied, as officials refuse to divulge daily sediment measurements and instead only provide researchers with monthly averages. The lack of transparency and public discourse surrounding these dams leaves Dr. Magee and other experts helpless to make any meaningful inferences about the dams’ long-term impact. Without detailed and reliable scientific data, experts can only hypothesize what the potential outcomes of the project will be.

Making matters even more ominous is the fact that this is the first project of its kind. In the past, technology was too limited for large-scale, mountainous projects like this to be feasible anywhere in the world. The approach China is taking now is one of an innovator; the country is pushing the boundaries of what was previously conceived as impossible. This fact should only increase the need for transparency and peer review; experts and scientists from around the world should have access to this project as it unfolds, using it as a model for future energy projects. The secrecy that surrounds the projects prevents experts and the public from learning vital details and raises further concerns that these projects will fuel ecological and social instability. What is needed is for local, provincial, and state leaders in China to assess the project in its entirety, recognize the importance and magnitude it will potentially have on the region, and release previously classified data, and allow this project to receive the attention and scrutiny it deserves on the world stage. China is attempting something historical, and its potential should be shared with the world – both the good and the bad.

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19. February 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: East Asia, Energy | Comments Off