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Can hydro power be sustainable?

Harrison, David; Opperman, Jeff; Richter, Brian

With Three Gorges dam rapidly nearing completion1, China Three Gorges Power Corporation (CTGPC) has announced it is building a new set of dams to rival its massive and controversial namesake project. The first two of four tall dams to be located upriver from Three Gorges are now under construction on the upper mainstem of the Yangtze, known as the Jinsha Jiang. These four dams are planned to collectively provide a capacity of 36,000MW – two times the original design capacity of Three Gorges.2

Eight more dams, including a controversial dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge, are being planned further upstream on the Jinsha Jiang by the Jinshajiang Hydropower Development Corporation, a joint venture between Huaneng, Huadian and Yunnan Provincial Power Companies. The first of these dams, Jinganqiao, is now under construction. This eight-dam cascade will produce something on the order of 20,000MWof capacity.

In addition, other dam development companies are planning and constructing many more dams in the Upper Yangtze River Basin. The ErtanHydropower Development Company is completing a very high dam at Jingping I (305m high, 3600MW) and is moving ahead with the interconnecting head race tunnels to Jingping II (4800MW). These, together with the existing Ertan dam (240m high, 3300MW) are among the first wave of projects in an ambitious proposal by Ertan Company for a 21 dam river development plan for the Yalong Jiang, a major tributary to the Upper Yangtze. Total capacity of this system would be 25,000MW.3

Yet another 20 or more large dams are being planned on the Minjiang and Dadu He, tributaries of the Jinsha Jiang. Throughout the Upper Yangtze River Basin, numerous small and middle-sized dams are being planned, covering virtually every major river and tributary segment.

The cumulative effect of all this development presents a monumental threat to the ecological values of the Upper Yangtze River Basin, which is well known among ecologists for its high level of biological productivity and richness of species, including hundreds of plants and animals (including fish) found nowhere else in the world. In this context, the question of the sustainability of hydropower being developed in the Upper Yangtze River Basin takes on a very large dimension.

1 The removal of the cofferdam this past winter signaled the completion of the main concrete structure. Nine of the power units are operating; work is ongoing on the nine main units on
the right side, leading to the completion of the originally plowed 18,000MWof nameplate capacity.
2 Work is now underway on the right bank underground power house which will take the total nameplate capacity to around 22,000MW.
3 See IWP&DC magazine,May 2007 p. 20,Moving ThroughMountains.