China rivers on brink of collapse

With half the planet's large dams within its borders, China is the epicentre of global dam building. A new report warns that reckless dam construction has brought the country's river ecosystems to the point of collapse. 

Peter Bosshard

SINCE the 1950s, China has dammed, straightened, diverted and polluted its rivers in a quest for rapid industrialisation. Many of the projects built under Mao Zedong and his successors had disastrous environmental, social and economic impacts.

In the new millennium, the Chinese government realised that its ruthless dam-building programme threatened to undermine the country's long-term prosperity and stability. In 2004, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao suspended dam construction on the Nu (Salween) and the Jinsha (upper Yangtze) rivers, including a project on the magnificent Tiger Leaping Gorge. The government created fisheries reserves and strengthened environmental guidelines.

The growing climate crisis ended the period of relative caution in building dams. In 2009, the Chinese government committed to reducing the carbon intensity of its economy by 40-45% by 2020. As a consequence, the government launched a relentless new dam-building effort under its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15).

The current plan commits to approving 160 gigawatts of new hydropower capacity by 2015 - more than any other country has built in its entire history. It prioritises 50 large hydropower plants on rivers including the Jinsha, Lancang (upper Mekong), Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and upper Yellow. The plan also authorises the construction of five of the 13 dams on the Nu River that the government had stopped in 2004.

Dam trouble

Alarmed by the pace of renewed dam building, experts from Chinese environmental organisations have recently published what they call the 'last report' on China's rivers. The report highlights four main problems with the current wave of hydropower development:

*     Dams are seriously degrading China's freshwater ecosystems. They are drying up rivers and lakes, inundating fertile flood-plains and compromising the capacity of rivers to clean themselves. As a result, the Three Gorges and other reservoirs have been turned into waste dumps. The Chinese river dolphin, which plied the waters of the Yangtze for 20 million years, is now extinct, and other freshwater species are under threat. Fish sanctuaries created to mitigate the impacts of dam building exist on paper only, or have been curtailed to allow space for more dams.

*     Dams further impoverish poor communities. According to former Prime Minister Wen, dam building has displaced 23 million people in China. Displaced populations are frequently cheated and bullied by corrupt local officials, and the promised jobs or replacement lands often don't materialise. As dam building moves upstream into mountain areas, ethnic minorities are particularly affected by displacement.

*     Reservoirs are destabilising geologically fragile river valleys, creating frequent landslides and compounding earthquake risks. Scientists suggest that the Zipingpu Dam in Sichuan may have triggered the Wenchuan earthquake, which killed at least 69,000 people in May 2008. Dam cascades in the seismically active valleys of southwest China are a particular concern for triggering earthquakes and being impacted by them.

*     The decision-making process is in disarray, and government regulations are no match for the new dam-building rush. Integrated river basin plans and environmental impact assessments are almost always carried out after dam construction starts. Large projects such as the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams even began construction before they received final approval.

Even while energy-intensive industries continue to suffer from over-capacity, China uses energy less efficiently than other countries at a comparable level of development. A less energy-intensive development path will be required to reduce the pressure on China's ecosystems. In the meantime, the new report proposes a system of 'ecological redlines', similar to the protected Wild and Scenic Rivers in the US, which could save critical ecosystems from being dammed.

Since the report was published, activists have found new hope. In April, China's National People's Congress adopted a new Environmental Protection Law that for the first time foresees stiff penalties for violators and allows environmental organisations to file public-interest lawsuits. Around the same time, the new Prime Minister Li Keqiang expressed repeated concerns about the health of Chinese rivers.

Several destructive projects are currently hanging in the balance. Activists hope that the government will refuse to sanction the construction of the Xiaonanhai Dam, which would submerge part of the most important fish reserve on the Yangtze, and the Songta Dam on the Nu, which would impact the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site. It may still be too early to write the epitaph for China's rivers.     

Peter Bosshard is Policy Director of International Rivers, a US-based non-governmental organisation that works to protect rivers and defend the rights of the communities that depend on them. This article is reproduced from World Rivers Review (June 2014), which is published by International Rivers.

     The China rivers report is available at The China Environ-ment Forum has visualised China's new dam rush on an interactive map, which can be viewed at

*Third World Resurgence No. 287/288, July/August 2014, pp 2-3