Domesticating the Nu? China’s New Leaders Face Big Hydro’s Policy Hazards

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Domesticating the Nu? China’s New Leaders Face Big Hydro’s Policy Hazards

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter on a Fulbright.

In this post I’ll revisit a fascinating subject already covered by Peak Water- the Chinese State Council decision to reopen hydroelectric dam development on the Nu river. As will likely often be the case, the coverage I’ve followed most closely on the subject is the Environment coverage of the Guardian and Peak Water’s news aggregation-perfect time for a Lily Victoria shout-out, fantastic work!

This is a particularly exemplary case of the essential tension of policymaking- here, between hydroelectric dam building-as-development and mitigation strategy on the one hand and the potentially devastating socioenvironmental impacts of such massive engineering projects on the other. Government environmental authorities here make the argument that new hydro development across China can help to offset the countries increasing reliance not just on a high proportion of coal in its energy mix but as the fastest growing component and to secure its supply of energy with domestic sources. It is true that this will be one of the greatest challenges in energy, that is the decarbonization of China, in the coming decades. As the economy continues to develop and its middle class grows, so too may demand rise exponentially. Efficiency and overall demand side management in China’s going to be essential, its not inevitable. From the sometimes crude calculation standpoint of policy, this dam building is only justified if the benefits outweigh the damage done. There is an increasing body of evidence that the 2008 Szechwan earthquake which killed 80,000 people may have been caused by the weight of water in the Zipingpu Dam reservoir. A coalition of actors has ensured since 2005 that the efforts have been forestalled. These included the scientists concerned with the southwest’s frequent seismic activity and NGOs dedicated to preserving the river’s biodiversity and indigenous cultures. In fact, that year, Premier Wen Jiabao joined these efforts as he imposed a moratorium on dam building citing geological and ecological concerns. Environmental policy saw its stock rise during the tenure of the last leadership, a greater priority for the public and in a more limited fashion the government. Since the leadership change however, it seems this coalition may be overtaken by a more traditional approach with devastating socioenvironmental costs increasingly ignored or obfuscated.

The 2011-2015 energy sector blueprint calls for 60 new hydro projects. In energy policy analysis we often talk about the degree of centralization of both an energy technology system and the policies which underpin it. Though there are examples to the contrary, hydro-electric dams tend towards titanic civil engineering feats of power and water resource concentration. They lend themselves to a technocratic (as opposed to more open, democratic alternatives) approach to resource management, one historically utilized by policymakers the world over. This is especially so in a state bureaucracy empowered by one-party rule. A return to a stronger technocracy and big hydro seems increasingly likely.

Time will tell the veracity of this assessment.

~ Miles on Water



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