No Need to Sacrifice Rivers for Power

By Grace Mang 10 February, 2015

International Rivers' Grace Mang on why there is no need for China to sacrifice her arteries to save her lungs, International Rivers' Grace Mang on why there is no need for China to sacrifice her arteries to save her lungs, International Rivers' Grace Mang on why there is no need for China to sacrifice her arteries to save her lungs

Warns of prematurely celebrating China's lower coal targets as 500GW of 'clean' hydro by 2050 brings own risks
Hydro & coal are linked as coal-fired power balances seasonal variability in water availablility which can be >30%
2050 river conservation scenario (hydro=270GW) is comparable to WWF's renewable scenario (hydro=510GW)

China is trying to reduce the share of fossil fuel in its energy mix and slow down the carbon emissions whilst still trying to grow its economy. To achieve such targets, hydropower expansion seems inevitable. To  By 2015, China’s installed hydropower capacity will reach 260GW and by the end of 2050, this is expected to be 500GW. The government also set out plans to add on the additional 240GW amongst its key rivers.  International Rivers published the True Cost of Hydropower Report in November 2014. This report was supported by the Energy Transition Research Institute. Grace Mang, China Program Director for International Rivers Network, on why China does not need to sacrifice her arteries to save her lungs. 


Recently climate change advocates have been lauding China’s commitments to cut carbon pollution. The US-China climate deal was hailed as a breakthrough in the Middle Kingdom’s attitude towards global warming, with President Obama calling it “a historic agreement”.

Celebrating China’s commitments to phase out coal without asking how it will meet its targets is a dangerous game

China’s commitments sound impressive: to peak carbon emissions and source 20% of all energy consumption from renewable resources by 2030. This will almost certainly lead to a dramatic reduction in coal power production: good news for our climate. But the devil is, as always, in the detail. Celebrating China’s commitments to phase out coal without asking how it will meet its targets is a dangerous game. Because while most might assume that China will replace its demand for coal with abundant and affordable renewable energy like solar and wind, the truth is that there’s a type of renewable energy – hydropower – that brings severe risks of its own.

Real costs of dams must be explored especially when hydro expansion is promoted in lieu of coal

Right now, Chinese dam builders and energy planners are getting ready to ramp up construction of new hydropower dams on China’s rivers at unprecedented levels. The Government’s new carbon targets provide the perfect excuse.

With WWF China & NRDC supporting hydro expansion, it’s never been more important to talk about the real cost of large dams on China’s few remaining “wild” rivers

And despite the well-proven dangers of this approach, many Chinese and international civil society organizations like WWF China and NRDC are supporting this approach in the name of tackling climate change. In this context, it’s never been more important to have a conversation about the real cost of building large dams on China’s few remaining “wild” rivers. International Rivers’ new report, the True Cost of Hydropower, explores the assumption that there is no alternative to building large hydropower in order to meet China’s carbon reduction targets. The report explores the implications of hydropower’s significant seasonal variability and shows alternative pathways for China’s energy transition pathways that don’t irreversibly damage China’s valuable southwest rivers.

The report shows options for China’s energy transition pathways that don’t irreversibly damage China’s southwestern rivers

These rivers – canyons that were refuge corridors for key species and plant life during the last ice age – run through global biodiversity hotspots. Scores of different ethnic minority groups live along their banks. During late winter, they flow bright blue carrying snowmelt from the Tibetan plateau, regenerating key agricultural areas downstream in China, Myanmar and Thailand. Already, major scientific research projects have found that many of China’s freshwater ecosystems are at the point of collapse. Hydropower dams block fish migration and turn flowing rivers into stagnant pools of water more suited non-endemic species. Due to the massive exploitation of the river, the number of fish species observed in the Upper Yangtze has already been slashed from 143 to 17.

 Fish species in the Upper Yangtze has fallen from 143 to 17

Click on infographic to enlarge

Yangtze River Fisheries in Decline

>23 million people have been resettled since 1980 to make way for reservoirs

The social costs of large dams are similarly enormous. Since 1980, more than 23 million people have been resettled to make way for reservoirs in China. And despite impressive national economic growth, about one third of these resettled people still live below the poverty line. In southwest China, experts predict the largest forced migration of ethnic minorities in China’s history as a result of the dams proposed in the region. Due to changing climatic conditions, hydropower’s seasonal variability will only increase and perhaps increase China’s coal dependency.

Hydro & coal are interlinked as coal is use to balance hydro’s seasonal variability

In the True Cost of Hydropower Report, we sought to compare the contribution of hydropower and coal power production to China’s overall electrical power generation.

For every large hydro plant constructed in South West China, so too is a coal fired power station to balance seasonal variability of water availability which can over 30%

The China Rivers Report published in late 2013 provided anecdotal evidence that for every large hydropower station constructed in South West China, so too is a coal fired power station to balance out variability. By comparing the contribution of hydropower and coal power based on publicly available date between 2010 and 2014, the very strong correlation between hydropower and coal was revealed. However, our research revealed also that there is high seasonal variability – higher than 30% – in hydropower and we also found that under changing climate conditions in South West China, the level of variability will only increase. Seasonal variations in water availability mean that hydropower production tends to be low in the dry season and high in the wet season. However, we found clear changes between years. When hydropower production is low, due to drought conditions, coal fired power generation is very high. For example, drought conditions during the wet season in 2011 and 2013 meant that coal fire production was usually high in the same period.

A limited hydropower expansion “river conservation scenario” is possible

The international environmental community is pressuring China meet its carbon reduction targets in ways that don’t irreversibly damage these ecosystems. The good news is that it’s possible: The True Cost of Hydropower report explores an electricity sector development model for China which only allows for a very limited increase in hydropower generation with ambitious investments in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The river conservation scenario, developed for this report, has as its key constraints:

  • limiting hydropower capacity to 270 GW by 2020 and maintained at that level until 2035;
  • before dams are decommissioned in line with 50 year life cycle; and
  • no nuclear capacity was permitted.

High Renewables & River Conservation Scenarios Even with hydropower development capped at 270 GW to preserve the remaining Southwest Rivers such as the Nu (Upper Salween), and the headwaters of the Jinsha (Upper Yangtze), and Lancang (Upper Mekong) , there is no substantial increase in carbon emissions per year or a substantial increase in investment levels to implement. Under the scenario, solar and wind constitute 33 and 30 per cent of electricity generation sources by 2050 and gas-fired power is at 31% (at a 60% capacity factor which we found was more economically and financially viable).

River conservation scenario (hydro cap at 270GW) shows no substantial increase in carbon emissions per year

Carbon Emission Projection Under Three Scenarios

A 100% renewable scenario by WWF (hydro cap at 510GW) will damage China’s fresh water ecosystems

The river conservation scenario is competitive even when examined against 100% renewable scenario prepared by WWF China, which proposes to increase hydropower capacity beyond government targets to 510 GW. Such scenarios would certainly fundamentally change and irreversibly damage China’s fresh water ecosystems. China does not need to sacrifice her arteries to save her lungs. With further study and analysis, more ways to protect China’s freshwater ecosystems through more robust energy planning scenarios can found.


Further reading:

  • China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for 2015: As China moves to re-balance its economy and environment, Beijing will shepherd the nation towards water, food & energy security. For the Year of the Goat, it is better to be the surefooted goat than the sacrificial lamb so check out our top 5 trends in water for 2015
  • Will Energy Bases Drain the Yellow River?: The Deputy Director of the Center for Water Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Prof. Jia Shaofeng shares his views on how water demand  by China’s energy bases are over-exaggerated by NGOs and explains how it can be met
  • 8 Game-Changing Policy Paths – There has been a fundamental shift in planning China’s future growth with changes in regulatory landscape due to multiple polices set & changes in law. Many come into full effect in 2015. Get on top of these policy shifts
  • Christmas Came Early – Xi’s carbon emission promise, increased regulatory risk are a few reasons why Debra Tan thinks Christmas came early for China’s waters. Industry beware; as China is expected to aggressively enforce some of these new polices
  • Avoiding Hydro Wars: With up to 124GW of planned hydropower on China’s transboundary rivers, no wonder regional geopolitical tensions over water is running high. Debra Tan gives the low down on China’s hydropower expansion, are there other options to avoid sparking hydro wars?
  • Rethinking China’s Dam Rush -Dong & Turner from the Woodrow Wilson Center review the “Last Report” on China’s Rivers. See why the 19 NGOs which authored the report are urging China to rethink its hydropower expansion plans in pursuit of low carbon development
  • China Hydro: Tough Weather Ahead – Could a shift in weather patterns mean that droughts in the normally water-rich South are here to stay? Could this derail China’s aggressive hydro expansion in Yunnan & Sichuan? Debra Tan expands
  • Dams in Earthquake Zones – China’s urgent need for clean energy means that dams may be built in seismic zones. But  with an increasing number & severity of earthquakes on the Tibetan plateau, what does this mean for China’s hydro plans?

Grace Mang
Author: Grace Mang
Grace Mang manages International Rivers' China Program. She leads efforts to strengthen the environmental and social standards of China's overseas dam builders and their global environmental footprint. Before joining International Rivers in 2010, she worked as an environment and water Policy Adviser in the Australian Prime Minister's Department on major environmental reform issues such as river basin management of the Murray-Darling basin, national environment protection laws and biodiversity protection strategies. Ms. Mang is a lawyer by training and specializes in environment and water law. She graduated from the University of Sydney with Bachelors' degrees in Economics and Law.
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