The Green Beat

By Anna Waugh

China’s growing urban population has triggered an unprecedented need for power that has the country exploring three new large-scale developments. Three parallel gorges in the Yunnan province in the southwestern corner of the country are the locations for three proposed hydropower projects which Professor Darrin Magee of Hobart and William Smith Colleges has dubbed “The Three (Other) Gorges.” If completed, the dams along these rivers would provide what some say is a renewable energy alternative to coal. Last Thursday, Magee, who has studied dams and politics in China, spoke to about 45 students and faculty in Olin Rice 250 about China’s energy future. Her talk was a part of EnviroThursday, a weekly lecture series sponsored by the Environmental Studies Department.

“[In China], hydropower is absolutely seen as renewable,” Magee said. “If I’m honest, I’d rather see a Chinese dam than a Chinese coal plant. [Coal plants] come at a tremendous cost to the environment. Kilowatt by kilowatt, I think hydropower is less harmful, at least for human health. Ecosystems are a different story.”

Last summer China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of CO2 emissions. And though the country has half of the world’s large dams – over 20,000 in all – more than 75% of its growing need for energy is derived from coal.

The three proposed projects along the Lancang, Nu, and Jingsha Cascades, would collectively supply nearly 95,000 MW of power to the country. Each cascade would have a series of dams along it.

It is unknown how many people the flooding caused by damming the rivers would displace, but estimates are over 50,000.

“Not a whole lot,” Magee said. “In China, you have a very different perspective in terms of displacing people, damaging ecosystems.” In the Three Gorges Dam project in the Hubei province, for example, is expected to be completed in 2011, more than one million people will likely be displaced, Magee said.

The proposed Yunnan projects are controversial, especially in China, and have faced strong opposition from powerful environmental groups, Magee said. The proposed project at the Nu Cascade on the Upper Salween River would disturb the last remaining pristine river. The project drew so much criticism that the premier of China halted the construction of 13 dams on the river on April 1, 2004 for further environmental assessment.

An audible outcry against construction on the Jingsha has been heard as well because of the worry that the dams will affect a famous ecological tourist site, Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Gorge may be the deepest in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Last December, a dam project within the boundaries of the Heritage Site was abandoned. However, construction on 12 other dams on the river, that will likely affect the famous site, has already begun.

Though dams cause inevitable ecological destruction, China will continue to turn to hydropower Magee said.

“Chinese planners and engineers look at the level of economic development in the U.S. and Europe and see that they have maxed out [their hydropower supplies],” Magee said. “When I hear people talk about a place like China, before we point an accusatory finger, look at our mistakes.”

Yet he added that conservation through “curtailing energy demands” and “replacing old technologies that are energy intensive” is necessary, as well as reviewing which dams are built.

“I would love to see better decision processes about where and how big [the dams should be]. Do we really need one big dam or a few smaller ones on the [rivers’] tributaries?”

Every week the Environmental Studies department brings speakers to campus to engage students in a discussion over lunch. This semester’s theme focuses on rivers. Magee’s visit was sponsored by the Freeman Foundation.