Rinsing Away the Failures of Hydropower

By staff reporter Liu Hongqiao 05.24.2012 15:17

Villagers in Qinghai saw their livelihoods sold down the river, only to be bought back up again by the local government with public funds. This year, one municipal government quietly rolled out policies to shut down tens of small hydropower plants, although details are sparse on how much and who will be funding a policy about-face on small hydropower in the region.

On April 10, a hydropower station on a tributary of the Huangshui River in Qinghai Province was shut down after operating for 68 years. Part of a program launched by the government of Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, and the power plant was just one of nearly 20 which are slated to be purchased back by the government and then closed.

Of these 20 small hydropower stations, eight have been in use for less than ten years. The Shancheng hydropower station, built in April 2009, generates only 7.6 million kilowatt hours (kwh) annually. China counts those with installed capacity of less than 10,000 kilowatts as small hydropower stations.

Wan Haifeng, director of integrated watershed management for the Huangshui River, said the 20 hydropower stations in the Xining segment of the river are diversion-type hydropower stations which “severely damage the ecological environment.”

Diversion-type hydropower stations use canals to lead river water away and generate power at a relatively low water level. Small hydropower plants on the Huangshui have always received the support of provincial and prefectural governments. A 1971 plan on hydropower states that “The hydropower reserves of the Huangshui and its two main tributaries are 452,400 kilowatts. There are 50 proposed small hydropower stations recently with total installed capacity of 2,575 kilowatts.”

Environmentalists have attacked this type of small hydropower station because the large amounts of water diverted from the river often result in downstream water shortages and sometimes transform the landscape by choking off rivers and killing wildlife.

Qinghai moved to close the small hydropower stations in the Huangshui watershed due to environmental degradation. “The shutting down of hydropower stations in the Huangshui watershed is for pollution control, and for the landscape,” said Wan.

The Huangshui River, also called the Xining River, is 374 kilometers long and the largest tributary in the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The region is home to 60 percent of Qinghai’s population, 52 percent of its arable land, and more than 70 percent of its industrial and mining enterprises. Consequently, the Huangshui is known as the “Mother River” of Qinghai.

With rapid urban development in recent years, the Huangshui’s water quality has deteriorated rapidly. The latest test data from the Qinghai Province Department of Environmental Protection show that water quality in most river segments are classified as Category 4, indicating it has several chemical pollutants and is not suitable for human contact.

“In the 1990s, there were still many naked carp and crucian carp in the river and you could still fish. Not now. It stinks and it’s dirty, like stagnant water,” a Xining resident said.

International water and environmental scholars say that a utilization rate of above 30 percent for a river’s water resources for hydropower affects the river’s self-purification abilities and leads to a slew of ecological problems. Public materials from the Qinghai Environmental Protection Bureau show that due to a lack of water, the water resource development and utilization rate for the Huangshui watershed exceeds 65 percent. In Xining, it is 72.9 percent, far beyond the bright line for safety. Small hydropower plants are contributing to this over-exploitation of water resources.

Since the 1990s, Qinghai authorities say they have carried out pollution treatment policies. The government has not released exact figures on pollution or studies on the effects of small hydropower in the region.

However, in July 2011, Qinghai Vice Governor Ma Shunqing said at a Huangshui watershed pollution control work conference, “There will be no more approvals of hydropower plants in the Huangshui watershed.”

The local government says that by shutting down small hydropower stations on the upper reaches of the river, the landscape features of the river can gradually be restored, and the river will can recover its self-cleansing capabilities.

On April 11, 2012, the Sichuan provincial government announced that it would stop construction of small hydropower stations on a portion of small and medium waterways. In August 2011, Shennongjia in Hubei Province announced that it would no longer approve small diversion-type hydropower stations.

These local governments have only declared that they would stop construction or prohibit construction of small hydropower plants in some areas but experts say that barring an explicit policy to ban small hydropower plants, more could still be built in the future.

The “2011 Qinghai Provincial Government Work Report” still designates small hydropower station construction as an important part of agriculture and animal husbandry infrastructure. Statistics show that Qinghai has theoretical hydropower reserves of 23.4 million kilowatts. Of this, small hydropower station resources are 13.2 million kilowatt hours, accounting for half of the total.

Guo Jingshi, director of the Qinghai Health Department Pollution Control Office said that compared to upstream provinces with abundant hydropower resources like Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, Qinghai’s hydropower resources are “very few.”

Qinghai’s differing policies regarding small hydropower stations reflect the controversy surrounding small hydropower stations.

Since 2003, the Ministry of Water Resources has been actively promoting “small hydropower stations to replace fuel.” The ministry says that as a clean form of energy, hydropower can replace traditional rural heating methods such as wood and coal and reduce the destruction of forests to promote the modernization of rural areas.

According to the “Summary of Rural Hydropower Work” released by the Ministry of Water Resources in July 2007, 1,600 county-level cities nationwide have small hydropower stations with the total number of small stations reaching 45,000 for an installed capacity of 51 million kilowatts. As of 2008, 300 million rural residents without electricity had begun using hydropower.

The construction of small hydropower stations in rural areas is still accelerating. According to Ministry of Water Resources plans, by 2020, nationwide rural hydropower installed capacity will reach 75 million kilowatts.

Weng Lida, who has been following the problems of small hydropower stations since 1999, said that small hydropower stations are a double-edged sword.

Theoretically, sound planning and construction of small hydropower stations can adjust river hydrology and be beneficial to the improvement of the ecological environment in addition to resolving the electricity issues of rural border areas. But at this stage, the disorderly, excessive development of small hydropower stations has caused very serious damage to the ecological environment.

“Over the past decade, the development of small hydropower stations has intensified. The government must do something to the chaotic development of small hydropower stations while at the same time re-discussing the relationship between energy needs and the environment,” said Weng.

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