Dam Water in China: Water Losers

Along the Keriya River, one of twelve waterways in western China where dam construction began last year, the mood is weary and palpably tense. For those on the bank, what the dams will bring remains uncertain; what they have taken away is already great.

Construction camp along the Keriya River

New York Times journalist Jim Yardley writes, “[Large dams] lie at the uncomfortable center of China’s energy conundrum.” The construction of dams reduces the nation’s reliance on coal-fired power plants, yet it creates enormous human and environmental upheaval. None know this discomfort more than the millions of riverside peoples displaced by dam construction.

“I am a farmer,” a wrinkled man says in Uygur, the local language, “But now I work construction.” Like many of the men sleeping in canvas tents, he once grew millet and herded sheep downstream. His grandfather settled alongside the Keriya, furrowed trenches for irrigation, and eventually passed on the right to water, as is traditional among the Uygur, as a form of property to his son. (He inherited the water from his father.) However, as the river’s conquest by the hydroelectric project began, the water supply downstream dwindled, and the trenches grew clogged. No longer able to sustain his fields, or himself, this man joined on, instead, as a construction laborer with the project. Read More >

Dam Water in China: Is It Worth It?

In western China, massive dams are being built along 12 waterways. The dams are supposed to aid economic development—but experts are saying it’s likely that the dams will do more harm than good.

Reservoir created by dam, the Pamir Mountains

When China pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45 percent of the 2005 levels at the Copenhagen Summit, the latest in a series of UN Climate Change conferences held in 2009, its energy agenda rested on the construction of dams. These dams are emblems of economic development. They create hydropower and control floods. They spread irrigation and, according to their advocates, they increase the nation’s agricultural production via increased irrigation water supply. They are touted as technological marvels, a point of national pride.

Under the New Socialist Countryside program, the Chinese government has pledged $62 billion (U.S.) to construct 12 large dams on China’s western, alpine rivers. In a 2010 paper for the Chinese Journal of Geotechnical Engineering, government engineer Ming-Jiang Deng describes the construction as “an effective measure to control and regulate rational allocation of water resources.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry adds that China is “carrying out [all dam construction efforts] according to the principles of sustainable development.” Dams promise the export of food and power to the heavily populated eastern coast, and therefore the sustained maintenance of the nation. And while all China’s populations deserve food and power, the Ministry’s aerial view fails to acknowledge the ways in which dams degrade riverbeds. Read More >