04 Nov 2013: Analysis

China’s Great Dam Boom:
A Major Assault on Its Rivers

China is engaged in a push to build hydroelectric dams on a scale unprecedented in human history. While being touted for producing lower-emission electricity, these massive dam projects are wreaking havoc on river systems across China and Southeast Asia.

by charlton lewis

In their search for renewable electric power, China’s engineers have been building mega-dams at a rate unmatched in human history. Many far larger than the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River — which is 221 meters high and capable of generating more than 2,000 megawatts of power — are

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Xiaolangdi Dam

STR/AFP/Getty Images
Water rushes through the Xiaolangdi Dam in central China's Henan province.
being constructed on China’s greatest rivers. Best known is the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2008, which stretches a mile-and-a-half across the Yangtze and can generate ten times the hydropower of the Hoover Dam. Yet the Three Gorges is only a fraction of China’s current dam program.

The government is now engaged in a new expansion of dams in great staircases, reservoir upon reservoir — some 130 in all across China’s Southwest. By 2020, China aims to generate 120,000 megawatts of renewable energy, most of it from hydroelectric power. The government declares that such dams are safe, avoid pollution, address future climate change, control floods and droughts, and enhance human life.

These assertions are largely untrue. Instead, China’s mega-dams block the flow of rivers, increase the chances of earthquakes, destroy precious environments and shatter the lives of millions of people. Rather than benefiting populations with non-polluting power, China’s dam builders are
China’s dam builders are making a Faustian bargain with nature, selling their country’s soul for growth.
making a Faustian bargain with nature, selling their country’s soul in their drive for economic growth.

Since the 1950s the Chinese have built some 22,000 dams more than 15 meters tall, roughly half the world’s current total. During the 1990s, as economic growth surged and air pollution spurred the need for clean energy, they turned increasingly to huge mega-dams. Protests from environmentalists have helped slow some of the building in recent years. But under the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) the government seems to have cast aside restraint. Opposition has been suppressed and the dam builders are now free to move forward.

About 100 dams are in various stages of construction or planning on the Yangtze and its tributaries — the Yalong, Dadu, and Min. Two dozen more will be built on the Lancang, called the Mekong in Southeast Asia, and still more on the last two of China’s free-flowing rivers — the Nu, called the Salween in Burma, and the Yarlung Tsangpo, known as the Brahmaputra in India and the Jamuna in Bangladesh. All these rivers flow off the Tibetan Plateau, a geologically unstable region that averages 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) high. As they flow down through the soft, sedimentary rock, the rivers carve steep canyons, many deeper than the Grand Canyon. The risk of earthquakes is high. Probe International, a Canadian NGO, warned in April 2012 that almost half of China’s new dams are in zones of high to very high seismic risk, and most of the remainder in zones of moderate hazard.

Dams themselves may cause quakes. The seasonal rise and fall of reservoirs places extra stress on nearby rock formations. When the 50-story-high Zipingpu Dam was begun on the Min River in 2001, seismologists from China’s Earthquake Bureau warned that a major fault ran less than a mile away, but they were ignored. In 2007 and 2008, the reservoir filled, with major fluctuations in the water level. In May 2008, the 7.9-magnitude Wenchuan quake occurred only 5.5 kilometers downstream, killing 80,000 people. Since then, more than 50 studies have found evidence that the reservoir triggered small quakes through the fault system, culminating in the large quake.

Five years later, on April 20, 2013, a magnitude-7.0 quake occurred at Ya’an City on the same fault line. Nearly 200 died, more than 5,000 were injured, and thousands made homeless. Fan Xiao, the chief engineer of the
Should one dam fail, the rush of water could cause dams downstream to collapse like dominos.
Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, believes this quake may have been an aftershock of the Wenchuan quake, thus possibly also dam-related.

By law each proposed dam must go through an environmental impact assessment (EIA), but the process is outdated and flawed. Red tape and corruption prevail. And EIAs have generally only addressed individual projects; until recently, there have been no EIAs for dams in cascades. Since river valleys tend to follow earthquake fault lines, a series of dams down a valley may compound the risk of quakes. Should one dam fail, the rush of water could overwhelm the next dam downstream, causing dams to collapse like dominos. In 1975 the 118-meter Banqiao dam on a tributary of the Huai was breached in a heavy rainstorm. Numerous dams downstream gave way in succession to produce a lake of more than 7,300 square kilometers. Six counties were inundated. By a conservative estimate, 26,000 died in the flooding and another 145,000 in the ensuing epidemics and famine.

Several major cascades are taking shape. On the Yangtze and its upstream stem, the Jinsha, a series of some 15 dams are planned, under construction, or completed. Among them, four huge dams above the Three Gorges — including the Xiluodu, which is 280 meters high — are expected to be completed by 2020. Along the Yalong, a major tributary of the Yangtze’s, a cascade of 21 major dams is planned. On the Dadu, which parallels the Yalong, there will be 17 dams, among them the recently approved 314-meter high Shuangjiangkou, only 10 meters lower than the Eiffel Tower. On the Lancang, headwaters of the Mekong, a cascade of 26 dams is planned. The still free-flowing Nu, or Salween, River will have as many as 13 dams. On a map, each projected cascade looks like a string of beads.

Although hydroelectric dams produce considerably fewer carbon emissions than coal-fired power plants, China’s assertions that dams provide clean energy are substantially untrue. The rotting of inundated trees and vegetation in reservoirs emits the greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide and methane, that rise from reservoir surfaces. Whenever water levels drop,
The damage dams cause to river ecosystems is immense, turning free-flowing rivers into lifeless lakes.
rotting vegetation is again exposed and methane emissions increase. Estimates of emissions vary widely, depending on the climate where the dam is built, the amount and type of vegetation flooded, and the depth and age of the reservoir. Over a projected lifetime of a dam in temperate regions, emissions could be from roughly one-third to nearly two-thirds that of a natural gas plant. In warm and densely forested areas, such as China’s southwest, the emissions could be higher, particularly in a plant’s early years of operation. Dam building also includes indirect emissions from development of a dam site, manufacture and transport of materials and equipment, waste disposal, and, eventually, decommissioning.

Nor do big dams protect from floods and droughts. They store water during the wet season and release it during the dry season, thus reversing the natural flow of rivers. Deprived of their annual inundations, downstream marshes, lakes, and wetlands dry out and can no longer absorb floodwaters. Since the Three Gorges Dam was completed, the Dongting Lake in Hunan and the Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, which once absorbed the Yangtze overflow, have shrunk dramatically, and many smaller lakes have entirely disappeared. During the record-breaking summer flood of 2010, the Three Gorges reservoir rose to 12 meters above "alarm level." To protect the dam, its operators opened the floodgates to the maximum.
Three Gorges dam

STR/AFP/Getty Images
The Three Gorges Dam, which opened in 2008, is the world's largest producer of electric power.
Downstream some 968 people were killed, 507 more were missing and economic losses totaled $26 billion. The great dam survived its first test, but its floodplain is unlikely to contain big floods in the future.

Drier floodplains intensify droughts; when rivers diminish, dam operators preserve their hydropower potential by withholding water. During the January to April 2011 drought, water levels in the Lower Yangtze valley dropped steeply, stranding thousands of boats and creating power shortages in central and eastern China. On the upper reaches of the Yellow River to the north, a string of large dams has exacerbated recent droughts on the North China Plain. In addition, as the planet warms, glacial melt will diminish river flows, reservoirs will not fill, and dams may then prove to be a colossal boondoggle.

The damage that dams cause to river ecosystems is immense, turning free-flowing waterways into lifeless lakes, killing plants and trees, blocking fish migration and breeding, driving species to extinction, and devastating established patterns of human life. A looming example of such disruption is the threat hanging over the Three Parallel Rivers area in Yunnan Province, where the Jinsha, Lancang, and Nu flow through separate gorges as deep as 3,000 meters in an area less than 75 kilometers across. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003, this spectacular region is one of the most environmentally diverse and fragile on earth. Hydropower companies are now planning some 25 dams in this zone.

The Xiaonanhai Dam, to be constructed above the Three Gorges reservoir, will sever the last remaining migratory route that fish need in order to reproduce, including rare and endemic species such as the paddlefish (the biggest freshwater fish in the world) and the Dabry’s sturgeon, whose numbers have already been drastically reduced. The Chinese river dolphin was declared extinct in 2006.

Dams also pollute. Their reservoirs capture chemicals, fertilizer runoff, human waste and all kinds of trash. During the 2010 flood, floating refuse backed up behind the Three Gorges Dam over an area of more than 50,000
During the last 50 years, 16 million Chinese have been relocated to make way for hydro projects.
square meters, so thick, according to the Hubei Daily "that people can literally walk on the water’s surface." Without annual floods, dammed rivers fail to flush contaminants downstream. As the rivers percolate into the ground, they deliver pollutants into the aquifers — this in a country where nearly 60 percent of groundwater in 198 cities has been measured as poor, according to a report this year by the Ministry of Land and Resources.

Dam reservoirs trap silt, which decreases their storage capacity and reduces power generation. Silt no longer carries nutrients down the rivers, and without protective silt, salt water encroaches on estuaries and damages croplands. Estuaries also become more vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Great dams also devastate human populations. During the past half-century about 16 million Chinese have been relocated to make way for hydroelectric projects, and of these 10 million live in poverty, according to China Youth Daily. With each new project, communities are fractured and lives disrupted. People are relocated to new towns or forced to resettle on degraded land. Often they do not receive promised resettlement money or job training, driving many to migrate again. The Three Gorges Dam alone has submerged 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages. By 2007 its reservoir had displaced some 1.4 million people.

When the two-football-fields-high Pubugou dam was built on the Dadu River between 2001 and 2010, 100,000 persons were driven from their homes. Evictions began even before final approval in 2004. Tens of thousands rioted against the dam, reportedly one of the largest rural demonstrations since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

China’s dam projects also threaten livelihoods in other countries. Of the watersheds discussed above, only the Yellow and the Yangtze are wholly domestic. Outside of China the Lancang/Mekong, Nu/Salween, and Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra flow through several countries of Southeast Asia, India, and Bangladesh. Since 1997 China’s government has declined
'These projects will be a source of permanent grief and regret for future generations,' says a Chinese geologist.
to sign the United Nations water-sharing convention that would govern its major transnational rivers, yet it continues to build dams without consulting its downstream neighbors.

On the Mekong, China’s dams are affecting agriculture and fisheries. In Laos and Thailand, crops are regularly washed away before harvest time as upstream dams release their water. Nutrient-rich silt no longer reaches the Mekong delta, which is reducing fish stocks. In Burma and Thailand, environmental groups have spoken out about the threats to wildlife and populations from dams now planned for China’s Nu/Salween. A colossal 38,000-megawatt project has been proposed at Motuo on the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet. The project would pose a serious threat not only to the Tibetan Plateau but to India and Bangladesh, where the Yarlung becomes the Brahmaputra and Jamuna rivers.

China’s unprecedented construction of dams makes a mockery of the larger vision expressed in its current Five Year Plan to develop clean energy, reduce pollution, and protect the environment. A more accurate vision may be that of the Sichuan geologist Fan Xiao in his 2011 letter opposing the Xiaonanhai Dam.

"These major projects will be synonymous with the worst excesses of this era, and the mark they will leave in history is going to be very difficult to erase." Fan goes on to warn that the great dams will become "a source of permanent grief and regret for future generations yet unborn."

POSTED ON 04 Nov 2013 IN Climate Energy Science & Technology Sustainability Water Asia 


It's sad that groups from the World Bank to The Nature Conservancy are partnering with the Chinese, and other countries, on these proposed mega dams, instead of fighting to stop them and investing in real low-impact energy projects. Too many people are looking at energy purely through the lens of CO2 emissions and are ignoring the dam-caused destruction of water quality, ecosystems, watershed health, and the fact that dams and reservoirs are actually one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases (including potent methane), not to mention the negative climate impact of clear-cutting and submerging vast forests that remove carbon from the air, for free, every day.
Posted by Matt Stoecker on 04 Nov 2013

We need to keep our rivers clean worldwide.
Posted by Rosa Caldwell on 05 Nov 2013

The damage that dams cause to river ecosystems is immense, turning free-flowing waterways into lifeless lakes, killing plants and trees, blocking fish migration and breeding, driving species to extinction, and devastating established patterns of human life. The dam does not need to be built.
Posted by Lisa Mikolich on 05 Nov 2013

The evidence is clear: China is committing suicide with its dam building and coal fired plant extravaganza. It is taking the entire planet with it.
Posted by linda petrulias on 05 Nov 2013

I would like to say the author unfortunately focuses on the negative elements of the hydroelectric projects. And some effects described in this paper are neither complete nor scientific, including the earthquake, greenhouse gas emissions, and drought. Hydropower is not flawless and perfect, nor is it completely wrong. It can create a lot of benefits for us and bring some negative impacts in natural and social aspects. We should give constructive concerns to hydropower instead of cursing it.
Posted by Xuezhong Yu on 06 Nov 2013

Before bemoaning the rise of unsustainable mega-hydro projects in China, we Western consumers must consider how complicit we are in stimulating the destruction. Did you buy that cheap Chinese toy for your son because he was nagging you in the supermarket? Then the Chinese doll for your daughter, for equity's sake? Did you forgo your local apples and pears because the Chinese ones are cheaper? Multiply those demands by millions — even billions — and consider how many dams must be constructed to power the factories that make our cheap, throw-away consumables.
Posted by Lenard Milich on 06 Nov 2013

What a great article and detailed insight into China's astounding disregard for protocols in natural environments, human values and related country relationships.
Posted by ecojag on 07 Nov 2013

It's truly ironic. A country and a civilization that has never collapsed in 5,000 years and has a millennial relationship with its land treats it in such a way now that belies any such experience. Even more ironic because Jarrod Diamond in his book Collapse talks about how civilizations that did not learn from experience collapsed, and here we have one of the very few that never yet collapsed also about to suffer the same lack of experience and perhaps the same fate.

Posted by Jon Kohl on 07 Nov 2013

The article leaves out one important statistic: One ton of CO2 is produced for every ton of cement produced. Half the CO2 comes from the calcination process and half from the fossil fuel used in the calcination process.

Apart from self-destruction from induced earthquakes and structural collapse, dams are temporary features due to siltation behind the dams. The bigger the dam the longer it takes, but the weight of the silt itself can be a factor in causing collapse.

China seems intent on self-destruction and taking the rest of us with it.
Posted by Herb Curl on 07 Nov 2013

Outstanding article. Most of those dams would not pass a rigorous least-cost-and-risk utility planning methodology. For details, see MP Totten et al, Non-Dam Alternatives for Delivering Utility Services at Least Cost and Risk, Water Alternatives Journal, http://independent.academia.edu/MichaelTotten/Papers
Posted by Michael P Totten on 07 Nov 2013

Yes. China leads in hydroelectric power. Of late Chinese believe in "big is bountiful," as seen in wind energy.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India
Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 08 Nov 2013

My question is what other viable and real — economically and environmentally — option does China have to satisfy its energy needs? Nuclear? (Taking into account that other renewable resources will not provide the amount of energy needed by its economy.)
Posted by Pablo Astudillo on 18 Nov 2013

Let us not “forget” our dam building spree along the Columbia River. There are 14 dams — 3 in Canada where the headwaters are, with the remaining 11 in the United States. This work began some 80 years ago starting with the Grand Coulee Dam. Pick another large river anywhere in North America and a similar story appears.
Posted by Bob Valen on 24 Nov 2013

Right on, Lenard Milch. Part of our economic decline is due to purchasing cheap products from China. Pay a little more and support your own country by buying American. We also increase our carbon footprint every time we purchase products from other countries by paying for the transport costs and using up their land for production.
Posted by Nanette on 05 Dec 2013

China pollutes the rivers flowing down to central Asian countries as their population at the borders regions is also increasing. There's no possible way to negotiate these issues with Chinese authorities.
Posted by CA visitor on 02 Jan 2014

This was very good.
Posted by alexa on 05 Mar 2014

In a country with 1.2 billion souls choking on coal-fired air pollution, of course hydro power seems clean, as it does to us in the pacific Northwest. Focusing on these specific horrendous problems is key to limiting further dam excesses. The deaths and earthquakes seem essential to document and publicize. Thank you for your astute reporting.
Posted by David Moore on 06 Mar 2014

It's sad that groups from the World Bank to The Nature Conservancy are partnering with the Chinese, and other countries, on these proposed mega dams, instead of fighting to stop them and investing in real low-impact energy projects. Too many people are looking at energy purely through the lens of CO2 emissions and are ignoring the dam-caused destruction of water quality, ecosystems, watershed health, and the fact that dams and reservoirs are actually one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases (including potent methane), not to mention the negative climate impact of clear-cutting and submerging vast forests that remove carbon from the air, for free, every day.
Posted by on 28 Apr 2014

In a country with 1.2 billion souls choking on coal-fired air pollution, of course hydropower seems clean, as it does to us in the pacific Northwest. Focusing on these specific horrendous problems is key to limiting further dam excesses. The deaths and earthquakes seem essential to document and publicize. Thank you for your astute reporting.
Posted by on 28 Apr 2014

Staggering that all those deaths go largely unreported in the West. Thought-provoking piece.
Posted by Single dad on 30 Nov 2014

I am a Chinese American working on how to save the
great rivers like Nu River your articles mentioned. If
any of you are interested in knowing more about it or
even wanting to get involved, please contact me at
Haipei@aol.com Thank you for your interest and

Posted by Haipei Shue on 07 Jun 2015


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charlton lewisABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlton Lewis taught Chinese history at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York for 35 years. He has traveled and studied extensively in China. In recent years, he has turned to the study of China's environment, focusing on the developing water crisis and the effects of hydropower on Chinese society and the natural world.



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