China’s Domestic Dams: Hydropower not only an export for world’s biggest dam builder

first_imgChina is the world’s biggest financier and builder of dams, with projects across the globe. It also has extensive domestic hydropower ambitions.Twenty dams have been proposed or constructed along the Lancang, China’s stretch of the Mekong River.Separated from village life by deep canyons, the Lancang Jiang, whose name means “Turbulent River,” is viewed by many in China as good for little more than its hydropower potential.Further downstream, in the Mekong Basin, the river is the source of sustenance for tens of millions of people. Any changes to upstream ecology could have severe effects in downstream countries. The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang River in China. Photo by Luc Forsyth.YUNNAN, China — The building site of the Wunonglong hydropower dam is not ringed by barbed wire fences and security guards as one might expect. Instead, visitors to this remote northern stretch of China’s Yunnan province find themselves standing on a specially built viewing platform surrounded by a small but tidy ornamental garden and informative signage about the dam’s projected output. Though the dam is more than a year from completion, manicured bonsai trees and imported wild grasses have already been planted. When finished in 2018, more than 800 feet of roller-compacted concrete will span the Lancang and rise nearly 500 feet into the air in an incredible demonstration of China’s ability to bend nature to its purposes.The Lancang Jiang, as the Chinese call the Mekong, can be translated into English as “the Turbulent River,” a name that makes immediate sense to anyone who has seen it. Churning torrents of whitewater rush through the bottoms of deep canyons snaking their way through China’s Yunnan province. Here, on China’s Western frontier, the wild Lancang bears little resemblance to the lazy brown expanse that will become the Mekong once it crosses the Lao border. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that the Chinese government has unleashed the full might of its engineering prowess on the Lancang in the form of more than 20 already built or proposed hydropower dams (pdf).In a little more than a year, Wunonglong’s three gravity-fed turbines will convert the Lancang’s raw energy into an estimated 990 megawatts of electricity — enough, by some estimates, to power almost a million homes.Long before the Lancang builds enough force to generate electricity, it begins its life on the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau. As the sun pierces the thin atmosphere at 5,200 meters (3.2 miles) above sea level, ice melts into trickles of water and begins an epic journey to feed Asia’s biggest rivers.In addition to the Lancang, the Yangtze, the Ganges, and the Yellow Rivers all originate here. Ultimately, one out of five people on earth depend on the water from this part of the world for survival. The Lancang in particular, is one of the world’s most life-giving rivers, especially once it becomes known as the Mekong. Second in biodiversity only to the Amazon, and the source of sustenance for more than 60 million Southeast Asians, any disruptions in the Mekong’s hydrological or ecological balance could have disastrous human impacts.In this part of Yunnan, the Lancang is not yet the nurturing force that it will later become, and this must be kept in mind when judging China’s attitudes towards it. In the largely ethnically Tibetan mountain village of Deqin, locals say that they have little to no regular interaction with the river. “This river is useless,” said bus driver Cili Dingzhu. “It doesn’t provide anything for us here.”last_img

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