Conservation group Friends of Nature has asked courts to halt construction of a hydropower plant on a tributary of China's Red River. The facility is known as the Jiasa Hydropower Station (戛洒江水电站), and litigants filed their injunction to protect the last major habitat of the endangered green peafowl. The case opened in August at the Kunming Intermediate People's Court.
Many international rivers flow through Yunnan province in China's southwest. They include the Mekong, Salween and the Red River, which flows onto Vietnam. The rivers contain large amounts of potential hydropower because they drop sharply in elevation. However, dam building in the province has been dogged with controversy over regional politics, environmental impact worries and the relocation of local residents.
The lawsuit in question is the first environmental public interest case in China aimed at preventing the loss of an endangered species. It highlights the environmental risks of more hydropower development in one of China's major biodiversity hotspots.
Peafowl versus big dams
The 3.7 billion yuan (US$532 million) Jiasa Hydropower Station falls under the jurisdiction of the Yunnan city of Yuxi (玉溪). Upon completion, it will generate 270 megawatts of power. Filling the plant's reservoir will inundate large expanses of land upstream, including core habitats of the green peafowl.
Concerned about the risk to endangered species and damage to surrounding tropical rainforests, Chinese environmental groups Friends of Nature, Shan Shui Conservation Centre and Wild China brought an environmental public interest case against the dam builders. The construction company is a local subsidiary of China Hydropower Engineering Consulting Group. The lawsuit demands a halt to construction, with no blocking of the flow of the river or felling of trees in the proposed reservoir area.
Publicity surrounding the lawsuit has led to a temporary halt in construction. Secretary-general of Friends of Nature, Zhang Boju, said that "the requests in our lawsuit are simple and clear. We're not asking for any compensation, just a halt to infringement, the removal of risks, and no restart of construction".
Alone and endangered
The green peafowl — Pavo muticus — was once common in China. Yunnan's ethnic Dai people call it the golden peafowl because the bird's feathers change color from green to blue from copper and gold, depending on the angle of the light. In 2009, the green peafowl was listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list. Eight years later, Yunnan provincial authorities listed the green peafowl as critically endangered.
Habitat loss is a key reason for the birds' slow demise. Its ideal habitat is in the broad valleys of tropical deciduous forests. However, these areas have been shrinking, replaced by farmers with commercial crop plantations growing rubber, tea, coffee, bananas and mangos.
New research by Chinese scientists published in the journal Avian Research showed that the distribution of the bird has plummeted by 60 percent over the past few decades. In the 1990s, there were an estimated 800-1,100 green peafowl in Yunnan alone. Kong Dejun, associate professor at Kunming University's Department of Life Science and Technology, and co-author of the paper, now estimates there are only 500 of the animals left across China.
The construction of cascades of hydropower dams has shrunk green peafowl habitats considerably. As dams on the Lancang River (澜沧江) have been completed, expanses of tropical rainforest become inundated. This leaves the valleys of the Red River and its tributaries as the largest and most intact remaining habitats and corridors for genetic exchange for a vast array of endemic Yunnan animals.
The lawsuit brought by Friends of Nature has again highlighted the conflict between species conservation and hydropower development in the province. Opponents of the Jiasa hydropower project say it reflects an "outdated view of development".
Wen Cheng, chief scientist with Beijing Jinglang Environmental Technology, said that Yunnan is a national leader in biodiversity protection. As an example, he sited Yunnan forestry authorities funding four small reserves to protect the green peafowl that cover more than half the population of the birds living along the Red River.
In September 2018, Yunnan became the first provincial government to pass regulations on the protection of biodiversity. The province was also the first to create a list of all endemic species in 2016, a list of all endangered species in 2017, and a catalogue of all types of ecosystems in 2018. The Jiasa project could damage the progress Yunnan has made in terms of biodiversity, while also possessing only limited development value, said Zhang Boju.
The dam will almost exclusively serve two mining firms, Zhang added. Dahongshan Copper and Dahongshan Iron both signed deals with dam developers which will see the two firms buy 98 percent of the generated electricity. The case also highlights the darker side of the hydropower sector. It is hard to build power networks in Yunnan's mountainous terrain, and local demand for electricity is limited. Local governments therefore opt to attract polluting and power-hungry investors to utilize locally-generated electricity. Zhang describes this situation as "building for the sake of building".
But here are alternative ways to develop the local economy. Both the Xinping (新平县) and Shuangbai (双柏) county governments — where the dam and reservoir are located — have stressed green development in local planning aimed at attracting ecotourism. This is another challenge to traditional economic approaches that often stress the construction of dams and mines. For example, Feng Chun, a top Chinese rafting expert, has said the area is ideal for his sport, and this would be a greener option for development.
Hydropower construction: the endgame
Hydropower companies are struggling to make a profit in China, as the growth in demand for electricity eases. In Yunnan, this lack results in frequent and massive wastage. Statistics from the provincial grid company show a provincial demand of about 100 billion kilowatt hours in 2016, with an additional 90 billion kilowatt hours slated for power exports. Over the same period, power plants in the province have a combined generating capacity of more than 300 billion kilowatt hours.
Grid access issues and price controls have left hydropower investors in Yunnan to face tremendous losses. In July 2016 Yunnan halted the development and expansion of medium and small-scale hydropower plants — all of those generating 250 megawatts or less.
After years of intensive hydropower development, the remaining potential locations also feature the biggest environmental risks. A provincial government document points out that 80 percent of potential hydropower resources have already been developed. Those remaining are in environmentally sensitive areas, and issues have arisen with a number of existing hydropower plants. The local government is now at the point where it must reassess the cost of any new hydropower development endeavors.
An uncertain fate
"The precondition for all conservation efforts is a full and complete halt to construction of the Jiasa hydropower project. This must be coupled with the removal of small hydropower plants already present in green peafowl habitats," Zhang Boju said.
There are still uncertainties over the lawsuit, in particular, these include shifting official attitudes towards more strict environmental measures. The central government has recently softened its approach on the enforcement of many environmental rules. One company that built eight small hydropower plants in the Nanyue Hengshan Nature Reserve in central Hunan province was ordered to pay compensation rather than dismantle the dams. This approach may be copied in Yunnan. ChinaDialogue understands that courtroom arguments have focused on whether construction of the dam should be halted versus builders being ordered to pay for better environmental protection measures.
But Xi Zhinong, founder of Wild China, believes China's 'ecological civilization' — the Chinese Communist Party's long-term vision of a sustainable future — will remain the guiding principle in the courts. With construction of the Jiasa facility already halted, he thinks the court will not permit building to restart.
Zhang Boju says that NGOs using such lawsuits will force commercial investors and government departments to take a more cautious approach to development in biodiversity hotspots, with more attention given to site selection and honest feasibility studies.
However, Yunnan is still poor, so improving living conditions and local economies is a priority. Peng Kui, an expert on ecosystem conservation in China, said the biggest challenge is improving conditions for local communities while also ensuring sustainable development. Conservation measures such as protection of endangered species, setting ecological red lines and setting up national reserves must also help to meet the needs of local people, he argues. Managing the relationship between those people and the land is key to successful conservation in the long run, and will help combat the impulse to develop anywhere at any cost.
Editor's note: This article was originally published November 20, on website ChinaDialogue. It was authored by Feng Hao under the title Green peafowl lawsuit exposes dam damage. The article and its associated images are reprinted here under the Creative Commons license, and have been edited to fit GoKunming's format.© Copyright 2005-2022 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.