On August 3, amidst much fanfare and media coverage, work on China's newest monster dam officially commenced. The Baihetan Hydropower Station (白鹤滩水电站) straddles the upper reaches of the Yangtze River — otherwise known as the Jinsha (金沙) — where the country's mightiest waterway forms the border between the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. The construction area sits 260 kilometers due north of Kunming, and only 65 kilometers west of Ludian (鲁甸), site of a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in 2014.
Expected to cost an eye-popping 170 billion yuan (US$24.5 billion), the Baihetan facility will be fully operational in 2022 and become China and the world's second largest hydroelectric facility in terms of output behind only the Three Gorges Dam. It will have the capacity to produce power equivalent to "two-thirds of Beijing's annual electricity use," according to online reports. More than 100,000 people must be relocated before then to make way for a vast reservoir that will stretch into Sichuan.
GoKunming recently spoke with Brian Eyler over email about the dam. He is director of the Southeast Asia program at American think tank Stimson, and an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region specializing in China's economic cooperation with Southeast Asia. Eyler also keeps keenly abreast of dam and hydropower issues inside of China. We asked for his thoughts about Baihetan, its implications for the region and China's ongoing hydropower strategy.
GoKunming: Could you frame the basic situation surrounding construction of Baihetan?
Brian Eyler: The Baihetan Dam will sit at the lower end of a cascade of more than forty dams that drain out of the Jinsha and Yalong rivers. Since there are already a few huge dams downstream, the new one in Yunnan will impact local communities much more than it will impact the rest of Sichuan and other provinces downstream. At 277 meters, it's one of the tallest dams in the world, but the two most striking aspects are the amount of power it [will be able to] produce — 16 gigawatts — and the size of its reservoir, at just over 17 cubic kilometers. To put things in perspective, this is about 12 times more water than what's in Kunming's Dianchi Lake and about the same size as Fuxian Lake, which is 18.9 cubic kilometers.
GK: In terms of impact to the river itself, as well as communities downstream, what affects do you expect?
Eyler: The dam's reservoir will flood scores of communities and towns and cause the resettlement of tens of thousands of valley dwellers. Many of these people are ethnic. The resettlement practices in China rarely consider of how the needs of upland, ethnic people are different than your average rural Chinese person. So it is very unlikely that those resettled will be able to fully recover levels of livelihood similar to before they were moved.
A cascade of dams effectively turns a free running river into a series of still reservoirs, so any migratory fish or aquatic species that use this newly dammed stretch of the river will be wiped out. A dam cascade is effective for producing lots of power, but it's also an ecosystem killer for thousands of kilometers.
GK: Why does China continue to build hydroelectric facilities of this magnitude when many completed dams lose money or otherwise don't ever reach full capacity?
Eyler: In aggregate, the dams in Yunnan and Sichuan province produce more power than can be consumed in China. So much of that power is wasted. In 2015, Yunnan's dams alone wasted US$15 million per day at 95 terrawatt hours. That's the amount of energy that a medium-sized developing country consumes! This means that Yunnan and Sichuan's dams aren't as commercially viable as anticipated and take much longer to pay off debt. In the past, Yunnan's dams could become profitable in around ten years, but now some are taking up to 20.
GK: Is it the very long-term then that drives more building?
Eyler: So it's somewhat of a conundrum as to why the dams keep going up. There's a lot of path dependency in China's energy bureaucracy. That keeps momentum going on building dams and dams are also billed as clean energy. It's important not to look at these dams as single projects, but rather as a part of an operator's portfolio. Putting up another big dam tells shareholders and investors that business is good, and the owners actually make more money off of selling shares of their stock than from selling power itself. Sooner or later, the chickens will come home to roost as the firms become less viable, but by then the major shareholders have already become filthy rich.
Also, I think these dam developers are banking on a day when China's worked out the kinks in its long-distance transmission system and more coal plants are taken offline, which will favor sending power to the country's coastal zones. But this is all up in the air since China continues to build new coal plants in the coastal areas and looks toward the promotion of other non-hydropower renewable energy sources.
GK: Does the current situation along the Mekong River relate to that of the Jinsha/Yangtze?
Eyler: The Jinsha is different because its dams are managed by many competing companies, whereas the Mekong dams in China are operated by one firm. So automatically the Jinsha is less coordinated and more risky in terms of operation than the Lancang. This would be important in the case of a seismic event where dams need to draw down their reservoirs quickly and coordinate the flushing of that water downstream. And both rivers are located in highly seismic areas.
The cascades on both rivers are overbuilt and underperforming. They've displaced way too many people and ruined too much of the region's biodiversity to be economically stagnant. When this dam-building spree kicked off years ago, local and international researchers layered on the criticism concerning these dams and at least in the short term now, we can say thesy aren't worth the risk and damaged caused, even from a simple accounting perspective.
GK: In your opinion, is this a 'green' option as Beijing bills it, or something else?
Eyler: Some argue that it's better than coal, but we're talking about destroying thousands of kilometers of rivers and the ecosystems and human systems that thrive along them. A lot of this ethnic diversity and biodiversity is what puts Yunnan on the map and makes it such an unique part of the world.
Also, previously, building dams in Yunnan and sending power to China's coast was a tradeoff made by the Yunnan government so that mass industrialization would not come to the province. However, this is changing fast as Yunnan's mineral resources are being exploited in an increasingly rapid rate and taking a toll on the environment. Certainly hydropower should be part of the energy mix, but path dependency and greed in China's energy bureaucracy has sent damming in China's southwest out of control.