Hydropower in China: Public Participation & Energy Diversity Key

Since its founding in 1949, modern China has implemented hydropower as a priority strategy for its rapid economic development. In a country where the history of hydraulic innovation dates back to the 590s BCE, China’s recent dams are a source of national pride and, according to the Chinese National Committee on Large Dams, “symbolize the further greater progress of dam construction in China.”

In addition to upholding dams as a symbol of modernity and progress, China’s leaders are now promoting hydropower as a source of “green” energy in an increasingly carbon-conscious world. Already home to nearly half of the world’s dams, China intends to almost triple its hydropower generating capacity by 2020. Increasingly, however, a strong civil society voice is arguing that the social and environmental costs associated with dam construction must be taken into account. Yu Xiaogang, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize and leader of the Kunming-based group Green Watershed, argues that hydropower must be considered against other energy options and developed only through careful planning and scientific surveys. “China’s energy profile will require a combination of many different approaches,” Xiaogang says. “No one energy source is the answer; they all have limitations and strengths.” He argues that planning in China needs to be of “higher quality” in order to develop energy plans that have low environmental and social impact as well as the highest economic efficiency for a region. It is widely recognized that dams, particularly large-scale projects, can flood important habitat, damage river ecosystems and surrounding flora and fauna, and destroy the livelihoods and cultural heritage of river peoples. According to the World Commission on Dams, these social and environmental costs often outweigh the benefits from hydropower, especially when compared to alternative energy sources. In China, according to International Rivers Network Campaigns Director Aviva Imhof, dams have displaced more than 10 million people, and “most have ended up worse-off as a result.” Since 1972, dams and diversions have regularly — and increasingly — kept the Yellow River, China’s second longest, from reaching the sea. Despite these serious concerns, hydropower is not likely to disappear anytime soon in China. Ma Jun, water policy expert and director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, argues that in a country with energy scarcity, rapid economic growth, and a rapidly rising standard of living, hydropower cannot be excluded from the energy mix. “We know that we need to make trade-offs….But we want to make the most informed trade-offs, where all of the stakeholders can be involved,” says Jun. It is this awareness of informed decision making that has led environmentalists in China to argue for a more transparent and thoughtful planning and construction process. To civil society, this means increasing public participation and information sharing on the impacts of hydropower. Wang Yongchen, Beijing journalist and co-founder of Green Earth Volunteers, has been researching and advocating for people and ecosystems along China’s rivers for more than a decade. She points to the problem of “developing rivers randomly” as the central issue of concern. “We are not objecting to all dams. But some dams don’t obey China’s own environmental impact assessment laws and many of the larger projects have no public participation,” says Yongchen. Although Chinese law now requires careful environmental impact assessment (EIA) of all development projects, including public participation in the planning process, interpreting and implementing the law has proved challenging. Many rural residents are not aware of their participation rights, and those who are aware often lack information about how to exercise them. Moreover, those who do try to exercise them are sometimes shut down. One villager in the Nu River region of Yunnan province, an area that has been surveyed extensively for dam development, told Wang Yongchen that he assumed the public participation law was meant “to protect the interests of ordinary people and allow you to participate in the decision.” But when the developers came to his village, he explained, “they just started to make announcements, and before construction started some people were organized to go and have a look. But when they came back, they weren’t allowed to talk about what they had seen.” Similarly, Wang Lingzhi, a 41-year-old resident of Nu River, describes a public hearing on a dam project where the villagers were not allowed to participate. “There was a meeting. But…we were not supposed to say much. Not a single person dared to speak. We were not allowed to.” These tensions stem in part from a conflict of leadership styles between the local and central governments in China. While much of the central leadership recognizes that public participation in the development process is crucial to maintaining a stable and healthy nation, multi-stakeholder decision making remains a new and radical concept for most leaders, particularly at the local level. As a result, environmentalists tend to focus their attention on messages coming from the center. “The Chinese government is no longer promoting development at all costs,” Ma notes. “There is now a philosophy of sustainable development. The government is talking about harmony between humans and the environment.” Many activists find hope in recent examples of dam projects that have been shut down following poor EIAs. “The government now lends an ear to dissenting voices, and it stops some of the worst projects,” Ma explains. Despite this progress, much work remains to be done. The process is, according to Ma, “still not perfect.” The strategy of China’s civil society movement, then, is to focus on helping the central government strengthen the public’s capacity to engage in and use the EIA law. Yu Xiaogang is working to research government relocation policy and to introduce higher standards into the planning process. “We must include not only environmental impact assessment but also social impact assessment, including impacts on building a local sustainable economy and a harmonious society and on protecting human rights,” he argues. Similarly, Wang Yongchen is working with environmental journalists and others to improve information-sharing and outreach for people and ecosystems affected by dam projects. And Ma Jun’s organization is working to develop a strong platform for public participation in China, including better access to information on environmental pollution and the EIA laws. While activists in China are not opposed to dams altogether, they argue that more careful assessment needs to be done as hydropower projects are considered, including hearing the concerns of local people and other stakeholders and considering alternative energy sources. Yu Xiaogang and others also advocate for better energy efficiency and bigger-picture analysis from China’s energy policymakers. Lila Buckley is assistant executive director of the Global Environmental Institute, a Worldwatch Institute affiliate based in Beijing. This article was reprinted with permission from the Worldwatch Institute.

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