Impacts of China’s Hydropower Development along Mekong River

Hydropower plants in China          

            One of the biggest inventions of human in the history is electricity. Coal, natural gas, uranium, tides, wind, and solar are resources for the generation of electricity. Hydropower first became the source of electricity back in the late nineteenth century. Water is the source of hydroelectric power which explains hydropower plants locations. Water volume and change in elevation from one to another point generate energy from the moving of water. More water flow and great elevation, more electricity (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2020). Hydropower is a valuable energy sources thanks to its low cost, almost no pollution emission, and consistent availability (Chau, Cheng, Shen, and Wu, 2012). In addition, another focal objective hydropower systems operations and management is to optimize hydro generation that fulfill various demand and constraints including power security, renewable energy utilization, economical development, and many more (Chau, Cheng, Shen, and Wu, 2012).

            The world’s first hydropower station was established in 1882 in Appleton, Wisconsin, U.S.A (Nunez, 2019). However, another research claimed that the first hydropower station was established in France (Chen, Cheng, Fan, and Li, 2018) or England (International Hydropower Association) in 1878. Today, world’s largest hydropower plants locate in China, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and Russia. Among these countries, China’s largest hydroelectric plant – Three Gorges on Yangtze River, holds the largest capacity (Nunez, 2019). Most hydropower plants, especially mega-size ones, are located in the western and northern regions (Chang, Liu, and Zhou, 2009) where there is adequate supply of water sources. On the other hand, there are significantly less hydropower plants in central, eastern, and southern regions. However, these regions instead consume largest volume of energy (Chang, Liu, and Zhou, 2009) for industrial activities.

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            Around forty years after the first hydropower plant went into operation in U.S., in the other side of the planet, China finished construction and started running its first hydropower plant in Yunnan Province (Xiaofeng) which employed advanced foreign technology, equipment, and first Chinese hydropower team and management (Chen, Cheng, Fan, and Li, 2018). After the establishment of Shilong Dam Hydropower plant in Yunnan, only in the latter half of the twentieth century (Youmei, 2004) that China observed the bloom of hydropower power plant development and construction across country due to national political reform and postponement of industrialization process. The Shilong Dam Hydropower Station still operates to date (Chen, Cheng, Fan, and Li, 2018). In order to accommodate its dense population and country area as well as economic growth, China is considerably world’s largest hydropower exploitation. Therefore, hydropower development is national backbone and controlled by the government (Li, 2002).

            The development history of China’s hydropower effort progressed in three main phases. During the first phase of 1910-1949, the country was occupied with multiple political conflicts including civil between Chinese Communists and Kuomintang, and Sino-Japanese War. The country was drained with war damage, incapable of doing much construction and any hydropower plant at the time was primarily produced electricity for military and industrial usage. This period also saw the establishment of Shilong Dam Hydropower plant. The second phase of 1949-1980 is when the country recovered from wars. With the technological help from Soviet Union, Chinese government stressed industrialization and collectivization. As the results, thousands of hydropower plants of different sizes were built. The third phase of 1980-2000 is the period of pro-hydropower institution as hydropower plants construction not only generated more electricity but provided many advantages in flood control, irrigation, water supply, and shipping. This Three Gorges on Yangtze River was also born during this phase (Xiaofeng). Nowadays, China is the largest producer of hydropower, accounting for more than one-third of global capacity (Ibrahim, Lailaba, Sahabi, and Sani, 2019).

            Starting from the early 21st century, China has been accelerating in economic growth. For instance, the gross domestic product would be expected to quadruple, which lays the foundation for the country’s long-term development (Chang, Liu, and Zhou, 2009) and consequently it contributes to secure China’s stance in global economy. The exponential growth of economy could only take place with sufficient resources, namely energy. As the result, hydropower plants have been expanding in response to country’s development. 

            China’s hydropower system has a mega capacity and provides huge unit compared to other countries. For example, in 2012, the capacity of hydropower in China is 2.74 times that of the one in second ranked of USA. Therefore, it is hardly ambitious to claim that hydropower capacity scale of China is expected to be comparable to the sum of one of the other top seven countries in the world by the end of 2020 (Chau, Cheng, Shen, and Wu, 2012). As mentioned above, Three Gorges is the largest hydroelectric station in the world. This fact explains the size of China’s unit generation capacity of hydropower plants. The Three Gorges station’s hydro turbine had the unit capacity of 700 WM at establishment, and it is not the only plant to achieve such figures. Besides Three Gorges, Longtan and Xiaowan also possess turbines with same capacity. For the future plan, it is to anticipate that 1000 WM hydro turbines will be employed initially at Xiloudu and Xiangjiaba, then at any new mega hydropower stations (Chau, Cheng, Shen, and Wu, 2012). In term of large-scale cascaded hydropower plants, Three Gorges unsurprisingly lands a top spot. China’s hydropower system is also known for its high-head. Many hydropower plants whose installed capacity of 1000 WM retain high head of 100 meters to 200 meters (Chau, Cheng, Shen, and Wu, 2012). This remarkable measure of high head has direct contribution to the capacity of hydropower plants. Lastly, China’s hydropower system has the ability to transmit election power over long distance. Given the fact that hydropower plants are more active in western and northern regions while central, eastern and southern regions demand more energy resources (Chen, Cheng, Fan, and Li, 2018), it is the core objective of national power strategy to make long-distance transmission possible. For example, Three Gorges and Xiluodu transmit electric power to central and eastern China using both AC and DC lines, whereas the ones in Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces transmit to Guangdong (Chau, Cheng, Shen, and Wu, 2012). As economic growth is proportional with energy demand, long-distance transmission is a requirement in medium to large scale hydropower plants, and all future ones. This observation of characteristics of China’s hydropower systems shows how fast and efficient the Chinese government was in commitment to the development of energy generation in the last fifty years of the twentieth century via multiple Five-Year Plans. Given the current scale of China’s hydropower system and its continuous development plan and speed, it is to conclude that it would be hardly possible for any country to catch up with China in the near future, at least in the next twenty years.

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            Despite having achieved economic and social benefits while putting effort in preserving the environment, China’s hydropower system does encounter some challenges. Although hydropower system enables the long-distance transmission, it also poses as challenge in term so cost. Imbalanced development of hydropower plants in different region (Jieyu, Lu, Pingkuo, Xiaomeng, and Xingang, 2012) influences the equivalence of economic, social, and environmental conditions and development across the country. Consequently, in terms of social stability and equality, in the long run, it would lead to the decrease of influence in areas with slower growth of hydropower plants given the influence of power monopoly of China (Jieyu, Lu, Pingkuo, Xiaomeng, and Xingang, 2012).

            The goal of utilizing the hydropower electricity is to produce no carbon emission to the environment and mitigate air pollution. However, the construction and operation of hydropower plants in fact disturb the ecological environment of reservoir, erode soils, and may contribute to trigger earthquakes. Moreover, it also influences food control, irrigation, shipping, tourism, humanity, and society (Jieyu, Lu, Pingkuo, Xiaomeng, and Xingang, 2012). The construction of hydropower plant is only possible after completion of emptying the area. Yet this raises another problem of immigration (Jieyu, Lu, Pingkuo, Xiaomeng, and Xingang, 2012). First of all, it requires funds for compensation and supporting immigration and settlement activities, which respectively increases investment cost. Secondly, it could change current living customs, culture, religions, social norms, which stimulates a stir to community. Lastly, having large volume of immigration at once may affect stability of the overall society.

            Because hydropower system is fully controlled by Chinese government and such practice has become the norm of society, there will be the lack of platform for fair competition. The effect of this problem is “feed-in difficulty, low price, and higher loan threshold, [and even tax free]” (Jieyu, Lu, Pingkuo, Xiaomeng, and Xingang, 2012). At that point, hydropower could create no returns while companies still have to pay taxes to maintain the operation of plants. As the result, it would discourage the investment and development of hydropower plants. Furthermore, hydropower system itself also faces the problem of financial difficulty. The cost of construction and required equipment for generation and transmission of hydropower plants is higher than coal power or thermal power, specifically 40 percent higher (Jieyu, Lu, Pingkuo, Xiaomeng, and Xingang, 2012) than thermal’s. High cost of investment together with no returns, government’s power monopoly, unfair competition, and compensation for immigration would dissuade any plan to step into this industry. It is too risky to invest, and even take out loans for investment, on a business that generates little revenue.

            Large number of hydropower plants construction and operation could lead to many risks including but not limited to violations of policies and procedures, scarcity of resources, public security, contamination and disruption of ecological system, excessive exploitation (Jieyu, Lu, Pingkuo, Xiaomeng, and Xingang, 2012). These risks could also be prompted by high cost low income problem discussed above.

The Mekong River

            Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia and the twelfth longest river in the world. With the length of 4,350 kilometers, Mekong river flow begins in southeastern Qinghai province (China), through Tibetan autonomous region eastern part, Yunnan province (China), Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before draining into South China Sea. Approximately three-fourths of the drainage area Mekong rivers belong to four countries where the river travel across in its lower course—Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam (White, Owen, and Jacobs, 2019). In short, the Mekong river passes by five countries on its way from the Plateau of Tibet to South China Sea which are China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Mekong River is hot spot for biodiversity (Fan, He, and Wang, 2015) and considered as lifeline and link of these five countries by providing physical and economical connections. The Mekong river has extremely high ecological, economic and sociological values (Fan, He, and Wang, 2015). The ecological system of Mekong river is abundant and diverse which produces natural resources, fishery resources, and food to feed millions of people (Olson and Morton, 2018). Population residing along Mekong river are mainly involved in agricultural productions. Mekong river’s waters are vital supply to agricultural production, especially cultivation of rice in South East Asia during dry period.      

            Over the years, Mekong river has been enduring many environmental issues. The water has been contaminated and polluted by pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers (Nguyen, 2010), sewage treatment and dumping from human and industrial activities.

            Recently, lower Mekong Basin was claimed to be entering a critical period owning to hydropower development, industrial expansion, aftermath of excessive fishing and economic growth (World Wide Fund for Nature). Among them hydropower dams are an increasingly heated concern of Mekong river conditions. Dam constructions on the Mekong River to support a booming hydropower industry and demand are increasing. Dam to generate hydropower has the advantage of mitigating global energy crisis and ease the risk of climate change (Fan, He, and Wang, 2015). However, it can negatively change ecological, agricultural, and cultural systems of the river and the people living along its banks. Dams along Mekong river affect seasonal pulse of river, trap sediment that acts as nutrient source for fish, change fish diversity, migration, and abundance, impact downstream water flows and availability, cut down the amount of sediment deposited in Mekong Delta, impact rice cultivation, and ground water degradation (Olson and Morton, 2018). These changes are potentially becoming permanent if no action is taken in the effort of preserving the river.

            The first dam having been constructed is Xayaburi Dam which was quietly underway (University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, 2018) and completed in 2018. This construction has raised worldwide opposition, even outrages, protests and violence in the region. In China region, there are eleven dams (Eyler, 2020) with six highly-active ones along Lancang River: the Manwan, Dachaoshan, Jinhong, Xiaowan, Gongguoqiao, and Nuozhadu dams (Fan, He, and Wang, 2015). Scientists argued that Chinese dams are wrecking the Mekong river (Eyler, 2020).

            A record revealed that for six months of 2019, China’s upstream dam received high rainfall and snowmelt, but China decided to restrict its flow to the downstream, while countries in the downstream were suffering devastating droughts (Eyler and Weatherby, 2020). Only until April 2020, such data came to light with much surprise as it showed the flow of water that China’s upstream dams blocked, especially during monsoon seasons (Eyler, 2020). Given that the country is where Mekong River initiates, China is taking the “driver’s seat” (Citowicki, 2020) and “donates” Mekong river water to downstream countries as it pleases. It is also reported that China’s scheme of holding water from the Mekong was to fill local reservoirs for backups and long-term storage (Citowicki, 2020). On foreign policy platform, China has been acting mysteriously and maliciously by refusing to disclose water management data and independently blocking water. However, as there is yet any water treaties and agreements in being transparent with water data (Citowicki, 2020), it is impossible to hold China liable.

            In terms of environmental conservation, China’s massive dams in upstream Mekong river poses many problems, including but not limited to land inundation, sediment trapping, reservoir-triggered seismicity, geological instability, habitat fragmentation, and resettlement (Fan, He, and Wang, 2015). With China’s holding water and activities in the upstream, the outcomes would be affecting the hydrological system of the reason. More specifically, it will alter flood or low-flow hydrology. The low flow might lead to lower rainfall and speeding the expedite the rate of deforestation (Fan, He, and Wang, 2015). The aftereffect of sediment trapping is the influence on land-ocean sediment fluxes ((Fan, He, and Wang, 2015). Consequently, it will reduce the sediment need for cultivation. Trapping sediment along with the increase buildup of sea water in the downstream, it will change the water quality, specifically salting the water. Thus, it negatively reduces the amount of food produce for people in Mekong downstream.

            Mekong river plays a crucial role in Vietnam because it equips 42 percent of land irrigation and acts as providers for many farmers and fishermen. Among the five countries along Mekong river, Vietnam is the most impacted from the activity of China’s dam in the upstream because it is the last countries, especially the province of Ca Mau, that the river passes before flowing into South China Sea. In the article by Citowicki (2020), it is reported that China intention of blocking water is to export generation to Vietnam. This statement is backed up by China’s hydropower plant challenge which is high investment cost but low income. By exporting generation, it can bring in the return for the expensive investment of hydropower plant construction. Being world’s second largest coffee producer and third largest rice exporter (Citowicki, 2020), blocking water and trapping sediment could badly hurt the agricultural production. Furthermore, the article also revealed that China’s hydropower dams prospectively cause major disruption to migratory fish flows and droughts to the country. Ca Mau is the receiver of all damages caused by China’s hydropower plants and without any solution, the consequence would be unimaginable.            

Scientific data disclosure has little to no impact on regional and global policymakers and therefore, there is lack of effort and progress in dealing with the problematic Chinese’s hydropower plants. This discussion points out that China is behaving for its self-interest in the upstream of Mekong river and ignore the damage it may cause to environment, economic and society of other countries. To summarize, China’s hydropower plants is causing many permanent environmental disasters to Southeast Asia. Thus, these warning signs should be taken seriously and instant actions should be taken to stop these harmful activities. States should be more vocal in complaining about China’s mismanagement and destructive behaviors towards the use of water from Mekong river.

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