China’s Hydropower Miscalculation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 11

Three Gorges Dam, A Symbol of China's Miscalculation on Hydropower

China’s Jinsha River, literally the “Golden Sands” River, could soon live up to its rich name. The approximately 2300-km long upstream section of the Yangtze River is the site of up to 25, planned large-scale (50 MW and above) hydropower projects (Caixun, May 4; Dongfang Zaobao, May 3). China’s state-run hydropower companies, local governments, and energy-hungry cities in the more developed, eastern provinces stand to profit from hydropower construction and electricity generation. Driven by Beijing’s energy and climate goals, this new dam building rush, however, will reduce China’s climate change adaptation capacity and hurt relationships with neighboring countries without providing the emission-free electricity Beijing is seeking.

China’s status as the world’s largest CO2 emitter has put increasing pressure—both domestic and international—on Beijing to curb national emissions (Climate Progress, December 7, 2011). In response, the government has laid out a set of binding targets in the 12th Five Year Plan: an 11.4 percent increase in the use of non-fossil fuel in primary energy consumption; a 16 percent decrease in energy consumption per unit of GDP; and a 17 percent decrease in CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 2015 [1]. Now, China is looking for sources of clean, emission-free and sustainable electricity to fulfill ever-growing demand and meet renewable energy and emission targets. More large scale hydropower is wrongly thought to be one such source. Consequently, dozens of projects are planned or already under construction on a number of rivers, including 26 on the Lancang, headwater of the Mekong, 13 on the Nu, headwater of the Salween, and 28 on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the headwater of the Brahmaputra (Atlantic Sentinel, March 10; The Hindu, June 10, 2011).

The Misguided Hydropower Narrative

Addressing China’s power sector—a major contributor to national greenhouse gas emissions—is critical to reaching Beijing’s emission targets. A terawatt hour (TWh) of electricity generated in China produces on average 70 percent more CO2 emissions than a TWh generated in the United States, and China’s power sector accounted for almost 50 percent of the country’s CO2 emissions in 2009 (International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2011). Developments in the power sector therefore will have a significant impact on the country’s emission trajectory.

The high carbon-intensity of China’s electricity is due to the sector’s heavy reliance on coal. Coal, a very carbon-intensive fuel, is used to generate around 80 percent of China’s electricity (China Statistical Yearbook 2011). Hydropower accounts for 16 percent of the country’s electricity generation with nuclear, wind and solar making up the remainder. Hydropower advocates argue that shifting the energy mix from carbon-intensive coal to more hydropower would benefit China’s emission targets.

This argument relies on the still widespread “clean, sustainable and emission-free hydropower” narrative. Even the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change tacitly supports this misconception by making reports of greenhouse gas emissions from dam reservoirs voluntary (International Rivers, December 2, 2011). Studies however have shown that hydropower can be a major source of greenhouse gas. Organic material from previously forested, but now flooded land and washed up debris, accumulates and decomposes in the dam reservoirs, thereby releasing large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This problem particularly affects hydropower projects in tropical areas, where the vegetation is generally denser and more organic material is accumulated in reservoirs. Some hydropower facilities in tropical areas emit up to twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as coal fired power plants [2]. As most of China’s planned hydropower projects are located in densely forested, subtropical southern and southwestern provinces, new dam reservoirs are likely to become significant emission sources.

Making Adaptation Harder

The 12th Five Year Plan also addresses climate change adaptation strategies. Beijing wants to strengthen the country’s “capacity to cope with extreme climate incidents,” thereby enhancing China’s climate change adaptation capacity [3]. Yet, the construction of more dams will decrease China’s capacity to cope with extreme climate incidents, which are predicted to include more frequent and more severe record floods and droughts [4].

First, the impacts of large-scale dams on wetlands and human settlement patterns limit China’s adaptation capacity—the ability to moderate potential damages or cope with the consequences of climate change—as they expose millions of people to climate change related risks. To maximize power production, dams store water during the wet season and release it during the dry season. This alteration of natural river flow patterns impacts the health of natural flood storage systems, such as downstream wetlands, lakes and marshes, often leading to their disappearance. Thus, dams reduce the frequency of smaller floods, but also decrease or eliminate wetlands’ natural capacity to absorb water and thus mitigate severe floods.

In addition, dams enable the conversion of wetlands to agricultural farmland and provide downstream cities with electricity and water for irrigation, industrial and household purposes, enabling and encouraging their development and growth. Hydropower development therefore contributes to population growth in downstream areas, which simultaneously increases the number of people at risk of dam failure as changing precipitation patterns could lead to floods that may exceed the storage capacity of dams upstream.

The controversial Three Gorges Dam is a case in point. With a capacity of 22.5 GW, the dam can generate up to 84.7 billion kWh of electricity for cities in central, southern and eastern China, including the downstream metropolis of Shanghai (Xinhua, October 26, 2010). While its reservoir supplied the population in the middle and lower Yangtze with a steady source of water, it also contributed to the drying up of Dongting and Poyang Lake, two of China’s largest freshwater lakes, during the 2011 drought (Shanghai Daily, June, 2, 2011; China Three Gorges Corporation, August 7, 2009). Although the dam withstood its first major flood test in 2010, whether the Three Gorges Dam will be able to contain future, possibly worse, floods is uncertain (Xinhua, July 20, 2010). If it fails, downstream residents will not be able to rely on natural floodplains to mitigate the impact with possibly disastrous consequences for life and property.

Second, the operation of large-scale dams exacerbates droughts in downstream areas. In theory, reservoirs could provide short-term drought relief, by releasing stored water for use downstream. Yet, below a certain water level, the primary objective of hydropower operators—maximizing electricity generation—suffers. The fact that the central government had to order the China Three Gorges Corporation to release water from the reservoir to alleviate the severe drought downstream in 2011 suggests that hydropower operators are likely to put power generation ahead of drought relief (South China Morning Post, May 25, 2011).

Third, dams make it harder for coastal cities to adapt to rising sea levels. As freshwater is held back in reservoirs upstream, natural water outflows at river deltas are reduced, contributing to a fall in coastal groundwater tables. Combined with rising sea levels, this makes coastal delta regions more susceptible to saltwater intrusion, which contaminates coastal freshwater aquifers and makes water unfit for human consumption [5]. More dams could exacerbate future saltwater intrusion challenges for many coastal Chinese cities brought on by rising sea levels. Shanghai, located in the Yangtze River Delta, is already experiencing saltwater intrusion, which research has linked to variations in water discharge from the Three Gorges Dam (Scientific American, October 13, 2009) [6].

Lastly, the expensive and long-lasting nature of hydropower infrastructure makes it difficult or impossible to adapt them to future changes in the environment, agricultural and economic activities and human settlement patterns.

Large-scale dam construction is very costly. The record-setting Three Gorges Dam cost approximately $25 billion. Even smaller projects like the planned Xiaonanhai Dam on the Upper Yangtze cost up to $5.6 billion (China Dialogue, March 9, 2011). China Post Securities analyst Shao Minghui estimates the hydropower sector will need around $136 billion in infrastructure investment by 2020 (Shanghai Daily, January 6, 2011). The sheer size of this kind of investments often prompts path dependency—the preference to continue even if better alternatives are available—as investors look to realize promised returns on investment, and local governments are unwilling to admit that there may have been better development alternatives.

Furthermore, the design of hydropower dams is based on historical and current river flows. While their lifespan ranges from 50 to 100 years, climate change is likely to alter future river flows within decades. Modifications to existing large-scale dams to accommodate these changes, however, are either technically infeasible or very expensive. Dried up rivers or changing river courses could turn dams into stranded assets, because they, unlike solar or wind installations, cannot be moved. A drought in 2011 caused a 28 percent reduction in hydropower output, resulting in 1000 factories and companies in Guizhou suspending operations and showing even temporary reductions in water flows can result in significant power shortages (Xinhua, August 24, 2011).

Damming International Relationships

China’s dam building rush will have negative impacts on relationships with neighboring countries. Furthermore, national hydropower companies’ overseas venture may harm China’s international reputation.

China’s territory encompasses parts of 18 of Asia’s major international river basins. Moreover, China’s position along these river basins is predominantly upstream, and, in the case of the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, and the Salween, at the source. Hydropower development in China therefore has international impact, and affects China’s relationships with its downstream riparian neighbors, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The construction of cascades of large-scale hydropower dams along rivers in China’s territory affects the water quantity and quality downstream. While the exact extent of these dams’ negative impact on water availability, fish populations and consequently downstream populations may be unknown, the existence of such effects is certain.

Upstream dams also provide some control over the timing and amount of water flow in the rivers affected. People downstream therefore may feel that Beijing rather than nature controls their water and their welfare. Admittedly, upstream China does not control the entire water flow of these rivers as water volumes generally increase along the river. Yet, as river basins are highly complex, and the precise amounts of water inflows at particular sections are hard to measure, citizens of countries downstream may perceive China to be in full control. Indian newspapers, for example, write of China’s “superior upper riparian positions” and “unique position of controlling international rivers,” and suspect the country of secretly diverting water from the Yarlung-TsangpoRiver (Hindustan Times, March 2; India Today, August 19, 2011). In 2010, when severe drought hit the Mekong, farmers and fishermen in countries downstream blamed China and its hydropower stations for the disaster, despite China’s assurance that it collected only “four percent of the river’s water” (China Daily, April 9, 2010; New York Times, April 1, 2010). Regardless of the validity of these suspicions, given China’s geographic position, more hydropower construction will further strain relationships with already apprehensive neighbors and nations downstream.

Furthermore, for about a decade now, Chinese state-run hydropower companies have increasingly looked abroad to market the experience and technology gained in domestic projects. More domestic dam building is likely to make these companies even more internationally competitive as they gain further technical expertise and financial resources. Yet, the nature of many of these overseas ventures may harm China’s international image.

As Europe and North America have turned away from the construction of large dams, Chinese companies armed with newfound skills have sought projects in other Asian, African and South American nations—many of which lack strong legal and political institutions, environmental and regulatory oversight and suffer from corruption and instability. Chinese banks and companies currently are involved in about 300 projects in 66 countries, including Angola, Burma, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Iran, Sierra Leone and Sudan (International Rivers, May 1). Due to these problems, many of the projects are high risk, involve human rights violations by local governments and fail to be built according to international environmental and safety standards. In the long run, this reflects negatively upon Chinese companies and ultimately the country as a whole.

The Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy in Burma illustrates this point. Located in Kachin State, home to a strong separatist movement and site of frequent, armed clashes between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army, the project was supposed to be financed and built by the China Power Investment Corporation, before President Thein Sein suspended it in 2011 (The Irrawaddy, September 21, 2011).Myitsone holds a special cultural and religious significance for the Kachin, who revere the area as the birthplace of their culture. Should construction move forward, the result is likely to be viewed as a symbol of China’s lack of cultural sensibilities and disregard for local minority groups (China Dialogue, March 28, 2011).

Conclusion and Recommendations

Beijing’s focus on hydropower to achieve energy and emission targets largely ignores or downplays large-scale dams’ negative impacts on the climate, the country’s adaptation ability and relations with neighbors as well as China’s international reputation. Yet, there are a range of alternatives to large dams.

Greater focus on energy efficiency could provide huge energy savings. For example, China’s cement industry alone could achieve primary energy savings of 23 percent through the implementation of international best practices [7]. In the power sector, the government could accelerate its efforts to replace small, inefficient power plants, with more efficient supercritical and ultra-supercritical power plants, as well as combined heat and electricity cogeneration plants. More efficient appliances and lighting could reduce household electricity consumption, a growing part of China’s total consumption. This could be achieved through programs similar to Energy Star in the United States.

Additionally, all existing alternative energy infrastructure should be connected to the power grid. As of 2011, 30 percent of China’s wind power capacity, for example, was not yet connected to the grid (Xinhua, February 24). At the end of 2008, small hydropower plants numbered 50,000, many of which were  built decades ago and are equipped with outdated, inefficient technology (China Daily, January 7, 2009). Prior to building new projects, existing infrastructure should be surveyed, and where necessary retrofitted with new technology to be more productive.

While less impressive in scale than highly visible mega-dams, these alternatives could alleviate expected energy shortages, and help Beijing achieve its targets without the negative consequences and future risks associated with large scale dams.


  1. Twelfth Five Year Plan, available in Chinese and English, respectively, and
  2. William Steinhurst, Patrick Knight, and Melissa Schultz, Hydropower Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Cambridge, MA: Synapse Energy Economics, February 14, 2012.
  3. Ibid.
  4. China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change, Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, October 2008,
  5. Lester Brown, Eco-Economy: Building and Economy for the Earth, New York : W.W. Norton, 2001, especially Chapter 2.
  6. Qiang An, Yanqing Wu, Shauna Taylor and Bin Zhao, “Influence of the Three Gorges Dam on Saltwater Intrusion in the Yangtze Estuary,” Environmental Geology, No. 56, 2009, pp. 1679–1686.
  7. Lynn Price, Ali Hasanbeigi, Hongyou Lu, and Wang Lan, Analysis of Energy-Efficiency Opportunities for the Cement Industry in Shandong Province, China, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, October 2009