The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

The Real Price of Hydro-Power Dams

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on July 5, 2011

As one of the world’s economic powerhouses, China’s electricity consumption has been increasing in tandem with its economic growth, recording a new high of over 4.19 trillion kwh in 2010. In recent years, China has repeatedly faced severe electricity shortages as the demand for electricity surges during the summer time. Consequently, the Chinese government has sought to diversify its sources of electricity. Moreover, international pressures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions forces China to focus more on the development of clean energy, such as hydropower.

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has invested over 23 billion US dollars on building the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River – the largest hydropower station in the world in terms of installed capacity. The Dam is now fully operational with the total installed capacity of 18,200 MW and the annual generation capacity of 84.7 billion KWH. It is expected to provide powerful support for China’s fast-growing economy and tame the mother river of the Chinese nation.

However, the debate over the dam has never ceased since its embryonic stage. Despite the economic benefits from operating the dam, experts opposed to the project have warned that the construction of the dam would disrupt the water system of the Yangtze River and consequently cause environmental degradation via pollution, soil erosion, landslides, etc. The controversies have been fuelled by the dramatic weather conditions in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River this year – severe drought in April and May and later floods in June, which have been China’s largest in 50 years. Some have blamed the dam as the cause of  more frequent  disasters. This has even been acknowledged by the Chinese government recently,  in which the dam is facing some urgent problems that need to be solved as soon as possible.

In addition to environmental and geologic disasters, the project has also caused negative social impacts, such as the displacement of local communities. It is estimated that over one million people have been displaced by the reservoir of the Dam, but the resettlement project has not been satisfactory. For instance, the farmers who account for 40% of the total displaced population do not have enough arable land in their new place.

The Three Gorges Dam has certainly benefited China’s economic development and efforts to curb climate change by providing a clean source of energy. However, it should be noted that the negative impacts of artificially regulating nature could be much higher than we have anticipated. The Three Gorges Dam is not a unique case, but rather the pros and cons of hydroelectric dams have always been a theme of academic and policy debate. For instance, the Aswan High Dam in Egypt has also faced similar problems as the Three Gorges. The proposal of building dams on the Mekong River is a source of dispute between countries along the river. Hydropower is clean, but it is also important to ensure that solutions to problems associated with hydropower projects are green.

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