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NGO sues Yunnan dam developer over environmental degradation

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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".

Image credit: YouTube
Image credit: YouTube

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.

The Red River near the Yunnan city of Gejiu (image credit Wikipedia)
The Red River near the Yunnan city of Gejiu (image credit Wikipedia)

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.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Image credit: Wikipedia

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 2005-2024 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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I know nothing about peafowls, but it's great to see that such issues can get into court, no matter how it all turns out.

Geologically, the Yangtze (Jinsha) river used to flow in this valley until the upwards thrust of the yunnan plateau diverted the Yangtze towards shanghai where it presently flows. Sediments cores provide an 11 million year date for the divergence.

Great news. Wish them luck.

A bit of devil advocacy in the second half of my post.

Firstly, @mike's geological history is fascinating. It explains the eastward bending of the river system.

Yunnan only receives the tributaries, while the actual Yangtze River cuts through our northern provincial neighbors like Sichuan (e.g. Jiuzhaigou National Park) and snaking through Chongqing's central district.

The breadth of Yangtze is remarkable. Flowing down from Tanggula Mountain of Tibet at peak elevation of over 5,000 meters. This river not only has erected cities & civilizations like the flow of collective "tired and poor" hands of ruralites... but cultivated the ecology for forests and wild life prior to the dawn of humans.


That said, it's promising that China is reducing coal-fired power plants with renewable hydropower energy in an effort to curb climate change. Yet when hydropower plants are excessively built to overcapacity for profit-driven energy exports at the expense of local ecology, the amount of oversight from Beijing comes to question.

Below is a simple chart showing "Share of global hydropower capacity, by country:"


Yes, China leads in hydropower capacity by a huge margin. A surplus over consumption for the time being. However, the bigger picture of greater precedence over peafowls is untold by above piece.

Neighboring nations facing power outages like Pakistan, Laos, Myanmar, and even Russia are in need of electricity imports from China.

China's State Grid adopts the UHV (ultra high-voltage) cable technology to transfer said electricity to energy deprived regions in not only Asia, but to Africa, and as far as Germany.

The State Grid's long-game is to deploy world's first "global electricity grid" standard. Potentially expanding regional power grids of clean energy to more remote corners, such as in South America and Africa. In an effort of consolidation, China has already invested heavily in numerous power utilities overseas. From Portugal to the Philippines.

This grand ambition is not only a win-win in tackling global warming while vying for industry dominance as offshore hydroelectric projects are built by the Chinese. But expanding access of clean energy to remote regions lacking in infrastructures also serves a global humanitarian purpose: the betterment of societies and lives.

The balancing acts between global warming & local environmental protection, and between profit and diplomacy. Unfortunately, peafowls won't have a say in all of this.

if yunnan 'recieves 'the tributaries the river is running backwards

@bilingual: nice post, but 'global humanitarian purpose' won't work if the environment is all screwed - that wouldn't be what I'd call humanitarian. I think maybe 'balancing acts' is not the right way to see it - profit and diplomacy are problems the nature of which we haven't yet been able to deal adequately, and that dealing with 'Nature' is often rooted in the idea that somehow 'Nature' is different from 'us' and our projects. Leads to never-quite-taken-seriously-enough discussions of what Progress and Development mean, as some people seem to think that they are necessarily good - but what are we talking about here, really? I doubt that the answer is simply profit and imaginary harmonious national relations.

What's your interpretation of progress & development?

66 million 农民 Chinese were lifted out of poverty within the last five years. 500 million within the last three decades.

Some would argue that is progress. The benefits of development.

Granted President Xi would be the first to admit mission is far from accomplished.

I'm not saying there are no benefits to what are called progress and development, I'm saying that what is called progress and development is not NECESSARILY beneficial. 'Lifting people out of poverty' is beneficial in itself, yes. I'm just not at all sure that that's all that goes on. For one thing, there's the opinion of the peafowls...

Limited transmission capacity is another issue facing these hydro renewable power sources.

Local transmission companies would rather take on cheaper, coal-fired power providers in lieu. Leaving low grid connectivity for these hydropower resources. "Curtailment" is the industry jargon for their poor access to the power market. Clean hydropower wastage ensues.

Beijing announced today to setup renewable power quotas. Mandating local governments to give renewable electricity sources priority grid access. The goal is to reduce wastage rates by 12% in 2019. 5% in two years.

Would it be entirely far-fetched to assume this lawsuit was somehow funded by competing coal industries as a mean of regaining leverage in the regional power market? Using own EPA-kryptonite to fight against their nemesis? Not so much peafowl as foul play. When it comes to business, murky policies sometimes flow with the money stream.

Sounds far-fetched to me - no suspicion that Friends of the Earth are in bed with coal companies.

No bed was shared. They merely picked up the breakfast tab in a tree-hugging hippy attire.

"The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist." -Charles Baudelaire

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