Hydropower plans in China’s Nu River ignite controversy

The backdrop of the Nu River in the South western province of Yunnan, China is a majestic scene. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East” it is no wonder that this sacred vista has become an internationally acclaimed world heritage site. Covered by the UNESCO World Heritage site status, this is a location of much debate as China’s hydropower industry aims to build a 21.3 gigawatt dam on the river with the help of power company Huadian Power International Corporation Limited (“Huadian”).

The Nu River is approximately 3,059 kilometres from the Tangula Mountain which is located in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. The river is surrounded by the picturesque Gao Li Gong Shan range on its west and the Mei Li and  Bi Luo Snow Mountain Ranges on its east side. The river flows throughout the Yunnan Province and makes its way to eastern Burma.

The debate builds

The controversy over the dam not only stems from the potential damage to a natural heritage site, but also because of the estimated 50,000 people that will lose their homes due to its construction. Without a resolution to this many inhabitants are protesting against the dam’s build.

Huadian plans to build 13 hydropower plants along the lower and middle area of the river. These plans have been in the works for years, originally suspended in 2004 due to public protests and reconfirmed in 2009. Permission has now been granted to move forward with the power plants proposed.

In 2004—due to pressure from environmental groups and the media—Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wrote in the State Reform and Development Commission report on the Nu River hydropower development project that, “given the high level of social and environmental concerns over the large scale hydro project, further careful research is required in order to reach a scientific decision”.

The plans currently seem very much underway, having gained crucial support from officials including Shi Lishan, the Deputy Director of New Energy at the National Energy Administration (NEA).

“We believe the Nu River can be developed and we hope that progress can be made during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015)” Lishan told Chinese radio broadcasters.

The development of the 13 hydropower plants would also threaten a number of endangered species including snub-nosed monkeys and snow leopards. In January 2011 there was a proposal to lessen a reserve for rare fish on the upper ranges of the Yangtze River which threatens a number of existing species. Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO, requested a public meeting with environmental authorities in China but requests were turned down.

As well as endangering animals it would also threaten the water source for Burma and Thailand. The Nu River is one of China’s last free-flowing rivers and flows through another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Three Parallel Rivers. This area is highly protected and an area of biodiversity.

Despite the public outcry some Chinese officials believe it to be the best route for China. “My belief is that development is a must. Because the Nu’s upper and lower reaches are already built up, in the past some people have said that it is necessary to leave a stretch of free-flowing river. I believe that putting that theory into practice is not realistic,” said Lishan to press.

Projected plans

The 13 hydropower stations would produce an estimated 102.96 billion kilowatt hours of power and when built the value of the generated electricity could reach 36 billion Yuan. It would generate 8 billion Yuan in tax revenue for the government annually.

The Chinese government has made a commitment that by 2020 it will be getting 15 per cent of its power from renewable sources. The decision to move forward with the dam plans are  directly associated with these goals. The country also has goals to reduce the carbon intensity of its emissions by 40 to 45 per cent due to its 11th five-year plan period. The 12th plan will be out in March this year.

According to the National Energy Agency, China plans in the next five years to build an additional 140 gigawatts of hydropower capacity. It could expand to hydropower plants in Sichuan, Tibet and Qinghai. In March 2011, The National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) which are two government bodies, will meet to discuss the 12th Five-Year Plan. The Five-Year Plan targets concerns on emissions reduction, energy efficiency and hydropower exploitation. From this the country will know more about the plans to execute the power project on the Nu River. Until then, environmental supporters and residents wait in protest and the project’s contribution to China’s renewable energy generation targets hangs in the balance.

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