Hydropower in Tibet: Dams & Democracy

Driving to Garze (Tibetan autonomous prefecture) over Christmas, for hours each day we passed sawn-off mountains, rock-clogged rivers, half-submerged trees and roads that disappeared into water.

Dams being built.

China is looking here, to Western Sichuan on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, where dozens of rushing tributaries of the upper Yangze surge down canyons’ steep vertical rises, for energy. The Dadu River, which we drove along for two days, is said to have 50% more hydropower potential (“exploitable installed capacities”) than the Three Gorges. Reports say there will be 22 hydroelectric power plants along the Dadu, creating flood zones, requiring the removal of something like 100,000 people from valley to high ground. One Chinese environmental group reports that no branch rivers will remain natural, but will become “cascade reservoirs.” No one knows the ecological outcome of such fundamental changes to hydrological cycles, river connectivity and dynamics.

But here’s one idea, from Fan Xiao, chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration: deadly earthquakes. He says it’s possible dam building caused the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the one that killed about 70,000, many of them children.
We were heading to Danba, a central town whose satellite villages perch on mountains, where the Dadu crisscrosses 131 other streams and rivers, apparently draining an area of 3,000 square miles. It was an ever-higher drive. Below Danba, we stopped to skim stones in the Dadu; above, to wash in hot springs (geothermal development is likely here). Dam building was everywhere. The car crawled on rutted dirt tracks past roadblocks, mountains of gravel, workers’ prefab housing, giant dust clouds. Because of the long string of dams and power stations, in some places, articles say, the loss of vegetation qualifies as “desertification.” They’ve covered cliffs above the river with a sort of cement (I think) to hold back mud and landslides. A scientific report dryly notes the area’s “partially-destroyed appearance.”

The river’s steep descent in places creates great force, bending and surging through canyons. Nearby is one of China’s two remaining virgin forests. Hydropower is “greener” than the choking black smoke of coal-fired plants. If you buy a “carbon offset” from a broker, it is investing in hydropower on the Dadu. True, there’s no coal burned. But it takes tons of steel, water, and fuel to build 2 dozen hydroelectric dams here.

Villages go under, too. And more. This eastern ‘wall’ of the Tibetan plateau (including the Hengduan mountain range, with peaks reaching about 20,000’) is “a biodiversity hotspot” (with its very own Harvard monitoring project) Wild pandas live in nature reserves here. The Dadu, the upper Yangtze region, is noteworthy for a “rare gene pool”– 342 kinds of herbaceous plants, 57 kinds of woody plants, 233 different species just in Danba, according to a recent scientific survey. Spruces, firs, hemlocks, birches, rare yew and ebony, apples, pears, walnuts, Eucommia (rubber). It’s rich in medicinal plants (227 kinds, the census found) and dozens of wild edible and medicinal fungi (matsutake, morel, yellow wire fungus, tree-ear mushrooms). Likewise, it has many rare animals, not just pandas. The Asiatic black bear, and primates like the Tibetan macaque; more than 60 protected animals.

We also passed through Tianquan, another town along the way where, I read, several generators have been built inside a nature reserve.

There’s a trade-off, with generating needed energy. Infrastructure is for the greater good. You will devastate some land, some species, some livelihoods. Local input may be ignored in the U.S., too. But from what I can tell, China, with rule-of-law and regulatory problems, with a centralized regime and yet many overlapping bureaucracies, where the rural poor have little power, the situation is much worse.

Early on driving up one of many canyons, we stopped for lunch in Luding, where tall buildings crowd the river in a steep valley. The dam there, under construction, was shut down for a while for failing an inspection. Critics say it exemplifies the power stations’ lack of integrated planning, operation, and management. That so many different agents are involved, without coordination, may help explain the “over-exploitation” – why there are too many dams, when prominent scientists say hydroelectric construction should be scattered and small-scale, not concentrated in a single river basin.
The state-owned Dadu Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., which expanded to take on the dam-building, calls it ‘the enclosing of water resources. Its corporate website explains it tapped other companies (China Datang Cooperation, China Huadian Cooperation, Zhongxu Investment Co.) to “exploit several new sections” of cascade power stations. We hit new company boundaries every few hours, marked by gates of steel poles and flapping flags.

Up until now the area was well-preserved because it was remote and transportation impractical. “The construction of many hydroelectric power stations in [eastern Tibet and western Sichuan] represents a terrible ecological disaster,” says The Decade River Project, a group of concerned scientists and citizens.

“If construction plans are followed… hardly any the species of fish found in the river will be able to survive.” That’s because reservoirs storing water along the way alter “the flow pattern, velocity, and temperature of the river. Fish can not adapt.” Fan is chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration. Fan was the first geologist to suspect that Sichuan’s Wenchuan earthquake (the massive 7.9 earthquake of May 2008 that killed almost 70,000 people) was linked with to dam-building and reservoirs, particularly the Zipingpu hydroelectric station. It’s not hydropower that’s unacceptable, he says, but this pattern of over-development.

At the Sichuan Provincial Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, Zhang Qiujin, Director of the Ecology Institute, agrees that the hydropower construction here will likely completely ruin aquatic and dry-land ecological systems–the whole riverside area’s natural environment.

Those are big names, I think.

There’s often talk about “reform” in China. When you start looking at hydropower, you hear the term “Reforming water governance.” Quickly, the focus becomes, at least for me: Dissent. Local voices, heeding scientific experts outside state-owned companies, & hearing citizens pursuing their rightful interests. The Tibetan woman whose home we stayed in, near Danba, said the destruction would take a long time to heal.

Look at dams here and the path leads, at least for me, back to the question of the government’s fear of change–fear of social instability.

Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua, a dam expert, also writes about China’s “unbalanced interests”–the lack of justice for minorities in the face of such a gigantic national infrastructure program. Reformed governance, stronger rights protection for dissenting citizens, would be powerful forces for social stability in China, not destabilizers, as China pursues energy development with dwindling arable land, clean air, water, and food. So says Guo. They would ease, not worsen, today’s conflicts and tensions.

“The greatest error in current thinking and models about maintaining stability,” Guo says, “is to put the interests of people and social stability on opposite sides.”

It’s something to ponder, as I recall how every few hours we passed under a new gate of steel poles draped with tenting and flags, flapping to announce the new firm responsible for that stretch of dam construction, & heralding the bright future with slogans in Chinese such as, “Build a harmonious society with hydropower,” with mountains razed above, the river diverted below and debris — scrap stone, waste sand, disintegrating boulders – all around..

3 comments on “Hydropower in Tibet: Dams & Democracy

  1. david says:

    Wow! great photos. So glad you guys are able to travel and bike ride (of course!). Hope all is well.


  2. […] wrote earlier, from Sichuan nextdoor, that this area’s a “biodiversity hotspot“. There are rare mammals — leopards (but the ones for sale are only dyed dog skins). […]


  3. […] bridges span the Yangtze and tunnels bore through (near Lijiang in Yunnan) mountains. (Same deal in Western Sichuan, now sealed off due to more Tibetan self-immolations and […]


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