Waterworks evoke debate
( 2003-12-20 01:15) (China Daily)
Editor's note: Heated discussion is raging among researchers and scholars over the potential losses and gains from constructing dams and related projects in the nation's western areas. In the following reports, China Daily reporter CHEN LIANG reveals the events leading to the dialogue.
Zhang Guangdou still remembers the time he spent more than 70 years ago in Tongguan in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
A sophomore majoring in civil engineering at the Shanghai Jiaotong University, Zhang was working as an intern, doing survey work for a mooted railway project.
He and other engineers lived on top of a hill by the Yellow River, but they had to trek down the mountainside to wash their faces and fetch drinking water. "The water was very sandy,'' Zhang recalled in his memoirs, called "The Road I've Travelled in My Life.''
In 1934, when he won a State scholarship to go and study at Harvard University, Zhang chose to major in hydraulics. He especially focused on hydraulics as a branch of engineering, which consists of the practical application of the mechanics of fluids to the control and management of water with reference to the wants of humans, including canals, waterworks and hydraulic machines.
At 92, Zhang has won renown as one of China's top hydraulic engineers, who has participated in the technical and engineering design of all of the country's major hydraulic and water management projects.
He has left footprints in mountains ranging from the Guanting Reservoir in Beijing to the Gezhou and Three Gorges dams in China's central Hubei Province, and from Sanmenxia in Central China's Henan Province to Xiaowan in the nation's southwestern Yunnan Province.
He was awarded 1 million yuan (US$120,900) in June for his life-long contribution to the construction of waterworks and advancement in hydraulics.
`Benefit the populace'
"I chose hydraulics because I believed that area of study would benefit the populace the most,'' Zhang said.
Throughout its history, China has been riddled with killer floods and droughts.
Because water resources are unevenly distributed both seasonally and geographically, the country frequently suffers from catastrophic floods and droughts.
As a result, how to control the disasters has always been a pressing concern. The answer or lack of an answer to the problem had a huge impact not only on the rise and fall of regimes, but also dynasties.
After New China was founded in 1949, Zhang and other experts, with strong support from the government, took up the same challenge to try to rein in floods and increase irrigation for farming.
Before 1949, there were only 22 large dams with heights over 15 metres, a total installed capacity of 163,000 kilowatts, an annual power production of 710 million kilowatt-hours, and an irrigation area of 16 million hectares.
About half a century later, the country is able to manage its annual flooding, Zhang says with pride. Some 400 million people no longer live under the constant threat of disaster.
By the end of 1999, the installed capacity for hydropower had increased by 447 fold, making up 24.4 per cent of the country's total installed power capacity. Power generated by the hydroelectric industry had grown nearly 300 times.
As a result, some 300 million people living in rural areas are able to have full access to power.
Also, the annual water supply increased by 5.8 times between 1949 and 2000, with an additional 210 million people receiving a steady supply of drinking water.
The irrigation area of farmland more than tripled to 53 million hectares in 2000, of which 33 million hectares is high-yield land.
With such increases, China has developed from an agricultural country with little industry into a fast developing economy which is ranked sixth in the world.
While famine was a chronic problem sometimes impacting on hundreds of millions of people in the past, most Chinese have now been able to shake off constant hunger.
All this has been achieved, in part, by the construction of over 86,000 dams across the country, the dikes stretching some 260,000 kilometres.
But the fast development has also actually caused similar problems, as Zhang earlier this year pointed out, as much of China's water is not fit for human consumption, flooding still occurs and there are water shortages.
A member of the expert team looking at the country's sustainable development of water resources, which was organized by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Zhang said the comprehensive research has enabled him to develop some fresh thoughts.
In the first decade of New China, people often talked about "rooting out floods.''
"I believed that by waterworks, that was, by building dykes and reservoirs, we could conquer nature, the floods,'' he said.
During the same time, Zhang and his colleagues also believed that opening all water resources to expand irrigated fields was the only way to increase China's grain production.
"In those years, industrial development was still in its very initial stages and the excessive use of water by industries was not a problem,'' he said.
Today, the rigorous development of water resources is still needed, as per capita water holding in the country is only a quarter of the world's average.
Over the past decade, the annual water shortage for the country's irrigated areas has increased to more than 30 billion cubic metres.
Though China has the most potential for hydropower in the world, its utilization ratio is still very low -- only 12 per cent of its potential has been exploited.
At the 20th Congress of the International Commission on Large Dams, held in Beijing in September 2000, Premier Wen Jiabao, who was then the vice-premier, said: "The Chinese Government will continue to give priority to the development of water recourses in the course of national economic development... to constantly raise the level of development and dam construction.''
Zhang said over the years, he and his colleagues have learned bitter lessons from building dams and undertaking water management projects.
"I now realize that it's just impractical to think of rooting out floods,'' he said.
"We must learn to live with them and learn to co-ordinate our lives with them.
"There will also be a natural limit to the development of irrigated farm fields. The frugal use of water should be encouraged both for farming and industry.''
For Zhang, ecology and environmental protection is now a major issue when constructing new waterworks and in the country's overall water management.
Last month, Zhang hit the headlines as he proposed that the Sanmenxia Dam and its hydropower facilities should be abandoned because its environmental, ecological and social impacts were not taken into consideration during its initial design and construction more than 40 years ago.
Completed in 1960, the Sanmenxia Dam was once the largest dam in the country and the only dam appearing on the banknote of renminbi.
Serious land erosion has plagued the Yellow River, in Central China's Henan Province, around the poorly-designed Sanmenxia Reservoir. Sanmenxia, the country's first reservoir, 300 metres in height, lost 40 per cent of its storage capacity in 1966, only six years after its completion. Early in the autumn of 1966, the common flooding up stream of the reservoir led to a disaster in Shaanxi Province as it had lost ability to soften the blow of flooding.
Debate still continues about the fate of the dam.
Projects builders think green
Zhang Guangdou has not been soul-searching alone.
Recently, Chinese media, which often creates a big hoopla for any launching of important water management and hydropower projects, have also raised environmental and ecological issues surrounding some of the large-scale dam projects.
Fighting the projects
The media campaign started with the news about the Zipingpu-Yuzui Water Control Project.
In August, Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend revealed that the project's proposed dam could threaten an age-old engineering marvel in Sichuan.
Under the terms of the proposal, a 23-metre-high, 1,200-metre-long dam will span the Minjiang River at a site only about 1,300 metres upstream from core areas of the historical Dujiangyan irrigation and flood-control system.
Only 57 kilometres from Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Dujiangyan is a massive irrigation and drainage system completed more than 2,200 years ago. Ever since, it has irrigated the vast Chengdu Plain and protected it from droughts and floods.
One of the oldest man-made engineering projects in the world, the waterworks network has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The proposed dam project risks damaging both the beauty of the ancient waterworks and the ability for the piping in place to function as an effective irrigation and flood-control system.
When journalists and researchers investigated, they uncovered a few more projects that they claim would cause environmental and ecological damage.
In fact, Fan Xiao, a geologist, and 31 other scientists and scholars from such fields as geology, geography, environmental sciences, ecology, economy, culture and tourism in Sichuan Province wrote a joint report in August this year, expressing their grave concern for several waterworks projects now under discussion or planning.
They suggested that extra consideration should be given to the possible environmental and ecological effects before any large hydropower projects are launched in Sichuan and all of west China.
They pointed out in their report that big power companies have competed with each other to carve up the hydroelectric potential from almost all of the river systems in west China.
So far about 76,000 hydroelectric projects and 9,270 reservoirs, most of them small, have been built in Sichuan Province.
In the drainage basin of the Daduhe River, one of the main tributaries of the mighty Yangtze River, 356 hydropower stations are proposed.
On the Jinsha River, the upper section of the Yangtze River, 14 large hydropower stations have been proposed.
Fan Xiao told China Daily that many are in ecologically fragile and sensitive areas.
Without serious consideration and concrete measures to ensure the preservation of the ecology in the surrounding areas, these projects may endanger wildlife and cause land erosion, among other environmental damages, Fan said.
The hydroelectric exploitation plan of the Nujiang River has also become the subject of media focus. The debate centres around the question of whether a free-running river should be preserved.
Rising in the Tanggula Mountains, the Nujiang River passes through China's Tibet Autonomous Region and Yunnan and flows into the Indian Ocean from Myanmar where it is known as Thanlwin (or Salween). It runs through the Three Parallel River area (including Jinsha, Nujiang and Lancang rivers) in northwestern Yunnan, which was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in July this year.
With more than 20 per cent of the country's alpine plants and over 25 per cent of wild vertebrates, the Grand Nujiang Gorges is in the heartland of one of the world's 25 bio-diversity hot spots known as the "Mountains of Southwest China.'' It is probably the most biologically diverse place in the world's temperate areas.
Besides that, the river is one of only two dam-free rivers in the country, the other one being Yarlung Zangbo River.
The project encountered widespread criticism among scientists and environmental conservationists. Several symposiums opposing the project have been held in Beijing and Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, since September.
The researchers and scholars opposing the project maintain that the proposed hydropower works will inevitably spoil the ecological integrity of the area, causing disastrous results to species native to the region. They call for more transparency and public participation in the decision-making process for the project.
Fan said that he and the co-authors of the report are encouraged that their voices are being heard in the media.
Some of the proposed projects, such as the Muge-tso Lake dam and the Renzonghai Lake dam in the western part of Sichuan Province, have been postponed as a result of this campaign.
A balancing act
Finding a way to balance the need to develop hydro-electric power with the need to preserve the local ecology and environment is a thorny issue that will continue to challenge decision makers, hydraulic engineers and environmentalists.
"It has been of vital importance to the country, especially to the west, to develop hydropower,'' Ma Hongqi, chief engineer of Yunnan Lancang River Hydropower Development Co Ltd, said in a telephone interview with China Daily.
The country is still facing serious power shortage, which has led to widespread limits on the power consumption this winter.
Compared with thermal power, the power source most often used in the country, Ma said, hydropower is regenerative and much cleaner and has a bigger development potential.
China's hydropower exploitation potential ranks first in the world, but its utilization ratio is still very low at about 20 per cent.
"In developed countries, the figure is often more than 60 per cent and even amounts to 80 per cent,'' he said.
More than 80 per cent of the country's hydroelectric sources are scattered in west China, he said. But the exploitation ratio is below 10 per cent of its potential.
Compared with other regions of the country, the western regions have a smaller population and areas of farmland, Ma said. So hydroelectric exploitation in the western regions will cost less than that in the other regions.
"Also compared with all of the other ways to narrow the gap between the western and eastern regions, I think it is the most realistic way,'' said Ma.
"The Nujiang area is one of the most undeveloped areas in Yunnan,'' he said. "The project will certainly improve the economy and infrastructure in the region.''
As a developer of hydropower stations, he said that raising environmental awareness and the Chinese press' growing interest in environmental protection in the past decades have actually helped bring about great advances in the design and construction of various hydropower and water management projects.
"While designing and constructing a hydropower station, we have paid more and more attention to environmental issues,'' he said.
"In the 1960s and 1970s, we didn't consider environmental protection. In the 1980s, we launched the construction of a project first and then conducted work related to environmental protection,'' he said.
"Since the 1990s, we usually complete this work during the construction phase,'' Ma said.
An often sited example is the Xiaolangdi Dam, also in Central China's Henan Province. The workers, in co-operation with local farmers, have turned the almost barren hills into woods and pastures.
Zhang Guangdou has also called for extra care to be given to any water management works and schemes.
"Utilization of water resources is related to flood control, use of water, pollution treatment and environmental and ecological protection, and all of those affect the lives of the people and the interests of all social sectors,'' he said.
"If we don't do it well, the results will be unthinkable,'' Zhang said.
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