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    Electricity scheme lights up the lives of rural residents
Liang Chao
2004-05-12 06:10

Fan Quming, a 68-year-old farmer living in Xiangtou Village in Rucheng County, Central China's Hunan Province, now uses electricity for cooking.

"Three of my married sons and a daughter are also preparing their meals using the electricity supplied by a mini-hydropower plant in the village," he said.

What impressed visitors most was the clean and tidy kitchens, in stark contrast to the situation when firewood was used for cooking and heating.

Years ago, Fan had to climb hills at least four kilometres away from his home to gather firewood. "It was a hard job for me," he sighed.

"I started picking firewood on the hillside when I was only seven years old," Fan recalled. "I have done that for more than 40 years. It is time-consuming and labourious as the firewood has been increasingly scarce."

Pointing to a hill near the village with newly grown trees and grass, Xiao Xiancai, head of the village, said: "It had turned into a barren land years ago as firewood cutting damaged all of the vegetation."

Fortunately, such days are now over in some villages in Central China's Hunan and Southwest China's Sichuan provinces, now that mini-hydropower plants have been put into operation.

Today, accessible electricity has freed many locals from the heavy labour of firewood collection, thus reducing the chronic damage to the local ecosystem. At the same time, it has also helped improve the livelihoods of locals.

Electrical appliances for cooking and heating, including electric cookers and electric heating carpets, have become popular among the villagers.

"Payment for electricity consumption is not a problem for us as we can earn money by doing transport business or being transient workers in urban areas," the village head said.

Firewood cutting

Today, China has at least 700 million rural residents, mostly living in areas where a logging ban has been in effect since 1998 - particularly the impoverished western regions plagued by fragile ecosystems.

In these areas farmlands on steep hills have been converted to woodland or grassland to halt further soil erosion, which contributes to the eroding of one-third of China's total territory and causes land to become valueless for farming.

Although the logging ban, coupled with massive afforestation and rehabilitation of woodland, has brought many of these problems under control, firewood cutting still remains a threat.

The logging ban has been broadening forest conservation areas on the upper reaches of major river valleys like the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.

Using firewood for cooking and heating has been a tradition for poor rural residents, including many from ethnic minorities.

In China, cutting firewood for cooking and heating, farming in steep hillsides by rural dwellers and massive over logging by State-run forestry enterprises are believed to be three major causes of forest depletion.

Annually, 5.6 million hectares of forests were burnt by about 112 million rural residents who had no other source of fuel for cooking and heating, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Water Resources.

In 2001 alone, 171 million tons of twig bundles - the equivalent of about 228 million cubic metres of timber or about 3.7 times higher above the quota set by the central government for firewood cutting during the 2001-05 period - were burned throughout the country, spelling a major consumption of the nation's forests.

"This not only destroyed local eco-systems, but also seriously polluted the environment," stated the latest official report from the ministry.

Mini-hydropower plants

A group of experts headed by Xu Qianqing, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, urged the ministry to launch a hydropower programme for millions of rural residents living without electricity for generations, as soon as possible.

Xu and many other scientists urged rural people to use the environmentally friendly energy and hopefully further reduce damage to forests and the ecosystem.

In an attempt to further cut the use of firewood and fossil fuels, a project to build more mini-hydropower plants has been boosted.

It encourages farmers to use hydropower for cooking and heating instead of burning firewood or fossil fuels in China's rural areas.

As a pilot effort of the plan, 26 mini-hydropower plants will be completed by the end of this year in five selected locations - Shanxi, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, said Cheng Huizhou, head of a department in charge of rural hydropower supply and electrification under the Ministry of Water Resources.

During the pilot projects, the government will provide subsidies to cover up to half the total investment for each plant, which is designed with an installed capacity of two to three thousand kilowatts. The rest of the funding will come from local governments.

Average prices of the electricity from the such hydropower plants can be limited from 0.18 yuan (US$0.02) to less than 0.30 yuan (about US$0.04) per kwh for rural people.

Cheng hopes that "such a low price would be affordable for most rural dwellers throughout China, including those living in the impoverished western regions."

Unlike large hydropower stations with high dams to be built and thousands of locals to be relocated, mini-hydropower plants usually don't have much adverse impact on local environment.

A small hydropower plant generates electricity by only using annual runoffs of local rivers with only a lower diversion dam built on them.

"The operating reliability of such plants will be much better for users all year round if they can be connected to the regional power grid for adjusting power supply in different seasons," said Liu Xiaotian, chief engineer of Cheng's department.

Under the overall long-term programme for the mini-hydropower plants unveiled by the ministry, it is expected that 104 million farmers will have access to electricity by 2020.

Experts estimate the programme will help save 22.67 million hectares of forest and reduce the discharge of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide by 200 million tons and 920,000 tons, respectively.

Under the scheme, small hydropower stations with a combined capacity of 24.03 million kilowatts will be constructed over the next 16 years.

It will mean 104 million people living in 886 counties across 25 provinces and autonomous regions will have an electricity supply to meet their daily fuel needs.

This clean source of energy will not only be a plus for the environment, but also boost the rural economy through the development of township enterprises and by-products processing.

China's total exploitable hydropower potential is estimated to be at least 87 million kilowatts, ranking first in the world, according to the ministry.

The exploitable hydropower potential in western China's impoverished region is estimated at more than 58.2 million kilowatts, or 67 per cent of China's total.

However, only 29 per cent of the country's total hydropower resources have been exploited, far less than in some developed countries. On the other hand, around 75 million rural people still have no access to electricity. Most of the potential resources are in China's mountainous areas and foothills, the key areas where substitute energy is badly needed to protect ecosystems damaged by firewood cutting.

Since the 1980s, China has turned to large-scale construction of small hydropower stations with installed capacity of up to 50,000 kilowatts to deliver electricity to millions of rural households.

By the end of last year, the ambitious rural electrification strategy had succeeded in giving about 800 counties key power supplies with hydropower delivered to most rural households.

To date, some 20 million rural households have used electricity from small hydropower stations for cooking, which has reduced the cutting of more than 1.3 million hectares of forests per year.

(China Daily 05/12/2004 page5)