Understanding China’s governance logic requires evidence-based study with the combination of explanation and interpretation. The explanation of the evidence is presented by the narratives emerging from the local realities as the storytelling. While the interpretation of such evidences is the underlying framework of the storytelling, such as mapping out key stakeholders, framing the system and dynamic of such governance, as well as the impacts toward a desired future through various actions. This article conceptualises sustainability of hydropower development through two strands of its impact. The two strands of impact are positive impact of electricity supply and economic development to China and to the Lancang valley; and negative impact of environmental and ecological concerns and remedies ranging from water system, environment, animals and plants, biodiversity to the multi-cascade effects. The research aims to shed light on understanding sustainability in an overall framework of development and applying it to present China’s transformative governance logic of delivering positive impact and mitigating negative impact.
Two major aspects of hydropower development along the Lancang River will be discussed in this section. The contribution of electricity supply and economic development by hydropower is for the common good of the country and people, and it is also the “choice of no choice” because hydropower has to be the “electricity bridge” for China’s giant appetite for power before any better alternatives become available. In respect to economic development, energy security and the power industrial chain, the Lancang hydropower development involves Yunnan and Tibet, Guangdong and indeed the whole of China. It is also associated with international projects situated downstream the Mekong at present and in the future. The discussion then goes on to the most familiar yet controversial aspect of hydropower development—natural resources, the environment and the ecosystem. The EIA and ECM of the Lancang River covered the water system, the environment, animals and plants, biodiversity and multi-cascade effects. It carefully analysed the negative impact of hydropower development on the environment and ecosystem, as well as the corresponding measures applied to mitigate such impacts.
2.1. Electricity and Economic Development
As a developing country China still prioritizes economic growth. The power industry is vital to economic development. During the 12th Five Year Plan, the power industry contributed 2.8 trillion Yuan per year to the economy and provided 2.7 million job opportunities per year [20
] (all data in this section are quoted from the 12th Five Year Plan and the Yunnan Statistical Yearbook 2013, unless indicated otherwise). Hydropower as an “electricity bridge” is able to facilitate economic growth by providing affordable, reliable, clean and renewable electricity. By 2013 China’s total hydropower generation capacity reached 280 GW, amounting to 22% of its total electricity generation capacity. Hydropower’s substantial share has obvious impacts on carbon emission reduction. In 2012 hydropower replaced 2880 million tons of coal-powered electricity and reduced CO2
emissions by 8600 million tons. Here, the following section describes the impact of Lancang hydropower on powering the economy at both the national and local level, and its role in integrating and competing in the industrial chain for socioeconomic and environmental sustainable development to serve common interest at all levels.
The power economy affects both the national and the local level. As a national energy strategy Lancang hydropower has had a profound impact on energy, the economy and development. These positive impacts are illustrated in their transformation of the industrial and economic structure, the energy framework and the power industry, together with the value added to the economy and the national overall development strategy of the GWDS and the WEET. The second section investigates its positive impacts on the local economy. Hydropower benefits Yunnan in several ways: by mitigating power shortages, by the value added to the economy and employment, by optimizing the industrial structure and by increasing fiscal contribution to local governments for improved public budgets, poverty reduction, rural electrification and rural–urban coordination. Therefore, Lancang hydropower serves the common interest by facilitating the overall development of the country, balancing regional disparity and scarcities, improving local development in various respects and balancing efficiency and equality while powering a sizeable economy.
Given the inferior economic situation in the Lancang-Mekong valley, hydropower offers tremendous development opportunities. The technically feasible hydropower potential of Lancang River has been estimated as 34,840 MW, with an annual average electricity generation of 169.03 billion kWh. Major hydropower potential is concentrated in the parent river. The Lancang River was one of the ten national hydropower development bases listed in 12th Five Year Plan, GWDS and WEET national strategies. HydroLancang planned to develop 23 multi-cascade power plants along the Lancang River in an integrated, coordinated fashion, to generate 141.15 billion kWh per year with a total capacity of 31,499 MW. Besides satisfying the local power demand, most of this hydroelectricity will supply power-thirsty Guangdong and Southeast Asia. After completion, these cascade plants could create an annual value of 42.34 billion Yuan. The downstream Mekong stretch is also under rapid construction and planning has been coordinated under the intergovernmental framework of the Mekong River Committee.
Lancang hydropower has facilitated China’s overall development in various ways. Providing affordable, reliable, clean and renewable hydroelectricity for a gigantic economy has also reduced coal-fired electricity and CO2 emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), hydropower as the largest single form of renewable energy, has contributed over 16% of the global electricity production at competitive prices in 2016. Given the size of China’s economy, this contribution is also crucial to the world. According to China’s 13th Five Year Plan, hydropower will supply 5600 billion kWh electricity between 2016 and 2020, which would reduce 1.68 billion tons of coal-fire energy portfolio, and hence reduce 3.5 billion tons of CO2 emission. According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), hydropower generally has an evidently low emissions of 28 g CO2 e/kWh, where the median value of other electricity generation ranges from 490 g CO2 e/kWh for gas-fire generation up to 820 g CO2 e/kWh for coal-fired generation. The national energy framework prioritized hydropower as the “electricity bridge” before better alternatives become available. Hydropower has also facilitated China’s overall strategic development of regional coordination, using the GWDS, WEET and NHDB (National Hydropower Development Base) to mitigate regional disparities in economic development and resource endowment. Such national coordination represents the governance of the vertical dimension of public authority and horizontal dimension of sharing in common of the commons, working together to serve the common interest.
First, Lancang hydropower contributed to hydro-powering national economy and adjusting energy framework. Over the past three decades the main challenge of energy supply was the shortage of power. Thus, increasing the supply of power was the priority. Now China has developed into the world’s largest energy producer and consumer. The installed capacity of power generation has reached 1250 GW and China has surpassed the USA to become the world’s largest generator of power in 2013. After the 11th Five Year Plan, the national energy equilibrium was even, with a surplus electricity supply in several provinces. The “New rural area, new power and new service” project solved the electrification difficulties of 1.67 million rural households. Rural electrification rose to just under 100% by 2009. Meanwhile, the growing pace of energy consumption and oil imports decreased. Energy consumption grew by only 39% in 2013. This is because China’s economic development slowed down. In addition, restructuring and improvements in energy efficiency mitigated electricity shortages. The safety, reliability and efficiency of the power system also improved. Hence, the current priority is no longer to increase supply, but to restructure the power industry, promoting technological innovation and new energies. During 2006–2009, 24% of the accumulated investment in the power system was used for renewable power generation. The 12th Five Year Plan was the crucial period for the transformation of the energy structure. The goal was to develop non-fossil energy to 11% of total energy share by 2015 (9% in 2012), mostly hydropower, amounting to 30% of the total capacity of non-fossil energy. The new energy framework prioritizes hydropower in selected whole river basins to facilitate the generation of cleaner coal-fired power with improved efficiency, and to substitute previous extensive power generation with greener alternatives. Power structure adjustment and efficiency improvement reduced the emission of CO2 by about 969 million tons in 2013.
Powering the huge Chinese economy in a sustainable manner creates enormous positive externality to the world and is a major contributor to the common good of humanity. Although the Chinese economy has slowed down in recent years, its scale of development is still considerable, and so is the power it needs. Power is vital to achieving a well-off society by 2020, as by then estimated power consumption in China will be 8 trillion kWh, almost double the current total. From 2010 to 2020, energy consumption intensity will decrease due to the transformation to a new economic mode. Secondary industry (industrial and manufacture) share of power consumption in 2013 decreased by 0.34% compared to 2012. Steel, ferrous metal, the chemical industry and construction materials, which are major electricity consumers (about 25–30% of total power consumption), might become excess capacity. On the other hand, power consumption in the domestic and tertiary and service industry have increased due to urbanization and the availability of family appliances in rural areas. In 2013, power consumption n tertiary industries increased by 10%, while domestic power consumption increased by 9%. Although industrial power consumption grew at a slower pace, it still increased by 6% in 2013, while manufacture power consumption increased by 7%. This enormous power demand determines the position by hydropower as the “electricity bridge”, and weighted among industries highlights the advantages of the low cost of hydropower. It is lower than thermal, nuclear and solar photovoltaic (PV) power. Although hydropower development in remote areas can be comparatively costly, its unit cost remains competitive. Therefore, hydropower is critical for China’s revolutionary energy restructuring without sacrificing economic growth—balancing efficiency and equity in the common interest of sustainable development.
Second, the regional coordination of the power supply and economic development is in accordance with national common interest. The major power consumers are 16 provinces to the east and inland, such as Guangdong, Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai. Their total power consumption amounted to 70% of the national total in 2009. The southwest has obtained 67% of its total hydropower potential while the rapidly developed industrial east was faced with severe power shortage. Southwest hydroelectricity is sold to the east and central regions to balance power supply, resource endowment and economic development. Coastal regions with larger power demands can afford to pay higher tariffs for power. Moreover, the coordination of large and small cascade plants can significantly enhance efficiency. It could avoid the negative externality of unsustainable competition in dispersed developments by different enterprises and also produce the large positive externality of comprehensive development and planning, as well as the bonus of a coordinated cascade operation. Therefore, 12th Five Year Plan selected 10 whole-river hydropower development bases. Lancang was one of them, with a planned total capacity of 20,350 MW by 2020. To reduce negative impacts on the environment and society, the development of large-scale plants was restricted and efficiency improved by coordinating multi-cascade plants.
Third, Lancang hydropower facilitated national development strategies. China’s Southern Grid (CSG) is the main carrier of the WEET, covering Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou and Hainan and supplying electricity to 230 million people. A total of 42% of the CSG power was hydroelectricity from western provinces. A major power consumer of CSG is Guangdong. From 1986 to 2010 Yunnan sent 101.2 billion kWh of electricity to Guangdong. In 2012, with Xiaowan and Nuozhadu in operation, CSG sent 112.7 billion kWh of electricity to Guangdong in 2012 alone. The CSG also produced a large share of power for Hong Kong (25%) and Macau (93%) in 2013. After the Xiaowan project, power from Yunnan transmitted to the outside provinces and countries amounts to 30% of its total power supply. In 2010 Manwan, Dachaoshan, Jinghong and Xiaowan together sent 35 billion kWh electricity to the WEET. Those four plants alone provided a total substitution for 70.62 million tons of coal-fired power, and contributed to emission reductions of 48.02 million tons of CO2 and 1.41 million tons of SO2. Yunnan is a major contributor to the CSG in the WEET project. In 2013, the total WEET load from Yunnan was about 61.6 billion kWh. WEET could not function without Lancang hydropower. Coastal regions such as Guangdong would suffer from power shortages, while SEAs would face more severe electrification difficulties. From 1986 to 2010, the CSG transmitted 15 billion kWh electricity to Vietnam. In 2012 alone, CSG transmitted 1.98 billion kWh electricity to Vietnam and in 2013 it sent 3.2 billion kWh. The uneven distribution of resources made long-distance power transmission necessary. UHV made it feasible. The Yunnan–Guangdong 800 kV DC transmission channel greatly enhanced the grid capacity and power supply of the WEET project. The CSG also upgraded each province’s power grid capacity to increase its transmission capability.
The developed east has a responsibility to help with western economic development. The GWDS was implemented to drive the western economy by power generation and the mining industry, so they could also benefit from growth and development. Lancang hydropower could narrow the gap between east and west in terms of economic development, infrastructural provision, improving people’s quality of life and the overall financing and institutional environment. In 2013 the whole country’s power consumption increased by 7%, and that of the western provinces in particular increased by 11%, indicating that the GWDS had started to drive the western economy.
2.1.2. The Local Economy
Lancang hydropower has contributed greatly to Yunnan’s development and has served the common interest of local people. Apart from the direct value of power generation and increased local revenue, there are other benefits: it facilitated the restructuring of industry and the coordination of rural and urban development; generating job opportunities and nurturing new technologies.
The Lancang valley is mostly rural, and it is characterized by poverty, its remoteness and its ethnic population. Although it has abundant minerals, bio-resources and hydropower, inadequate transportation and infrastructure and power shortages have jeopardized its development. In the Lancang valley GDP per capita, the annual net income of farmers, fiscal expenditure per capita and infrastructural level are lower than the provincial average of Yunnan and even lower than the Tibetan average, not to mention the national average. Its economic inferiority and ecological fragility are exacerbated by the disadvantages of inefficient agricultural production and a poor ethnic population with a low level of education. In total, 70% of the population is concentrated in the middle range of Lancang, and only 30% live in the 70% drainage areas in the upper and down stretches. The carrying capacity of the area in terms of living standards, fertility rate and production level is generally low. Simao has high population pressure and a low growth rate so their Physical Carrying Capacity (PCC) approached the survival baseline. Only if Simao’s GDP can grow by 9% by 2020 with a medium fertility level can the prefecture attain a well-off standard of living. In comparison, Xishuangbanna is much better off with higher growth and less population pressure. Thus, as long as its GDP grows at around 7%, despite different levels of fertility, it still may attain a well-off living standard by 2015 (p. 47, [22
]). Therefore, the Lancang valley is trapped by extreme poverty, a fragile eco-environment, a lagging economy and remoteness.
First, hydropower has facilitated the growth of the local economy, particularly that of industrial development. The positive impacts of economic prosperity are clear in Yunnan and Tibet, although they have a different degree of impact on different individuals. Cascade hydropower development greatly alleviated local electricity shortages. After the building of all cascade plants, Changdu (Tibet) will have 29.57 billion kWh newly added electricity per year, while Yunnan will increase its total capacity of 24,145 MW. The on-going national development schemes of the GWDS have generated an accelerated growth in demand for power in the west. In 2011 Yunnan increased its power consumption by 20% compared to 2010 (faster than the national average of 12%). The major uptake was in the mining industries, such as ferrous metal. The GWDS prioritized a hydroelectricity-mining coordinating development model for Yunnan. This model aimed to mobilize mining and smelting industries by providing reliable and affordable hydroelectricity.
Developing green hydropower could facilitate the transformation of the traditional industrial framework and energy structure. The share of renewables amounts to 76% of Yunnan’s total power generation because hydropower electricity has replaced 9.9 million tons of coal-fired electricity. Yunnan used to rely on coal to generate electricity for decades because of its model of extensive development and its endowment with adequate coal. Yunnan has the seventh largest reserves of coal in China and over 60% of its total energy production for years was based on coal. However, coalmining was mostly performed by dispersed and small-scale private developers; of which only 10% were considerable in scale. Thus, the average technological level was low and safety was a huge concern, together with the environmental pollution it caused. Under these circumstances, central government established a strategic plan to initiate a new coal-chemical industry for the future development of Yunnan, transforming the coal industry from one that was inefficient and high in pollutants to one that was less pollutant and where utilization was more efficient. However, this transformation could be realized only by turning to hydropower.
Cascade coordination of operations among various power plants along the river started to show its superiority in power generation. As at early 2013, six power plants, including two of the largest coordinating projects, were in operation along the Lancang. Manwan (1670 MW) was built in 1995, Dachaoshan (1350 MW) in 2003, Jinghong (1750 MW) in 2009, Xiaowan (4200 MW) in 2010, Gongguoqiao (900 MW) in 2011 and Nuozhadu (5850 MW of nine generator sets, partially operating with six generator sets now) in 2012. HydroLancang was operating with a total hydropower capacity of 14,283.9 MW by 2013. The largest regulating projects are Rumei, Xiaowan and Nuozhadu (with a total regulating capacity of 23 billion m3 of water), and the latter two are already in operation. About 36% of the total power supply of the Yunnan Grid comes from HydroLancang, as the largest regional power generator (2012). Regulating the capacity of Xiaowan and Nuozhadu’s large reservoirs could create a guaranteed extra 1690 MW power-generating capacity from cascade coordination. Another large planned regulating project (Rumei) would add 1510 MW to the generation of multi-cascade power.
The development of hydropower also motivated other industries to develop, such as those producing construction materials and agricultural products, as well as the transportation and service industry. The long period taken to construct a power plant could provide at least five years of stable demand for concrete. For instance, the construction of Xiaowan consumed about 85% of the supply of four nearby counties—Changning, Nanjian, Yunxian and Fengqing. The Nuozhadu project alone required at least 345,200 tons of rebar and 4.32 million m3 of concrete. Moreover, the demands of developing new energy, the smart grid, new material, and information-sharing platforms greatly accelerated the development of new industries. Other important impacts were the improvement of land and water transportation routes to increase local accessibility and decrease their transportation costs; the diversion of funds, technology and human resources to the region to nurture a sub-regional market and upgrade industrial structure. Here are two concrete cases of irrigation and shipping.
Cascade hydropower development facilitated irrigation. Altogether 90% of the population of Lancang are farmers, who are mostly dependent on non-intensive and unmechanized primary agriculture for their living. However, 62% of the agricultural land along the Lancang River is dry rain-fed land. In eight counties more than 70% of the farmland in their total land reserve is arid. Reservoirs assist nearby areas through gravity-fed or mechanical irrigation. Because of the V shape of the land there is very little large-scale farmland along the parent river. Only the Lidi and Miaowei projects involved comparatively large farmland that requires diverted irrigation with a matching water supply system. There are 15,062 mu (one mu equals about 667 m2) of paddy fields and 148,390 mu (one mu equals about 667 m2) of farmland located downstream of the Lidi project. These farmlands are irrigated by two electricity-powered pump stations—Kangpu and Yezhi. The Lidi project was designed with 145 m3/s run-off water flow speed, which was higher than the minimum requirement of both stations’ water withdrawal level, to maintain an adequate supply of water for irrigating crops. There are also large areas of farmland below the Miaowei project. Although the Lancang River has abundant water, most nearby farmlands still relied on the seasonal variation flow of mountain brooks and rainwater collection. Irrigation is a challenge because of poor water supply facilities, for instance when water needs to be pumped to higher land than the river level. The Miaowei project was designed to guarantee the irrigation needs of 9884 mu (one mu equals about 667 m2) of farmland in the neighbourhood and a drinking water supply for 6100 people and 12,000 livestock. It was estimated that the Miaowei project could supply 8.496 million m3 of irrigation water per annum to adjacent farmland. Other hydropower projects also addressed the irrigation needs of nearby farms, but in an unsystematic and small-scale fashion. Besides irrigation, the large reservoirs also facilitated the domestic water supply for towns and cities. Jinghong City used to have two water utilities beside Lancang River. After the construction of the Jinghong hydropower plant its water was drawn directly from the reservoir at an average rate of 150,000 m3/day. Water supply stabilized and the costs of water was much reduced. These improvements in irrigation and water supply are good examples of serving the local people’s common interest, without which life cannot be sustained, as well as making development possible.
Another example is shipping. Shipping used to be difficult because of geological conditions. Cascade plants facilitated shipping by stabilizing river’s fluctuating seasonal run-off water volume. The Nuozhadu project constructed a trans-shipment port. The Jinghong project facilitated a vertical ship elevator. The Ganlanba project was designed to regulate the volume of water released from the Jinghong reservoir to maintain stable volumes of water downstream for shipping on the Lancang-Mekong transnational river (Jinghong’s daily regulating design would cause short-term water volume fluctuations downstream). The enormous regulating capacity of the Xiaowan and Nuozhadu reservoirs guaranteed a stable volume of water for shipping during the dry seasons. By 2014, the shipping channel between Simao port to the China–Myanmar No. 243 river boundary-tablet was renovated and is ready for the use of 300-ton ships in the high flow seasons (about 6 months/year) and 150-ton ships during the low flow seasons (the Chinese government also sponsored 242 km shipping lane improvements between the Nanla River outlet to Dong Peng). More than 200 ships operated between China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. In 2000, the governments of the four countries signed an agreement that shipping would be free of tax along an 818-km shipping channel between Simao and Luang Prabang port. The annual loads of ships importing agricultural products and timber, and exporting fruit, appliances and construction materials between China and Southeast Asia reached 300,000 and 60,000 tons, respectively, between Jinghong and Pu’er port. It is planned to build Jinghong port into a large transportation hub with a 1.5 million person/time passenger carrying capacity and a freight traffic volume of 1 million tons by 2020. Shipping can greatly facilitate Yunnan opening up as a gateway to South and Southeast Asia. Improved shipping conditions also offer trading opportunities in the large Chinese market to downstream countries. Expanding regional communication and trading are undoubtedly in the common interest of local people.
Second, hydropower helps in poverty reduction, local employment and the employability of the local population. A large rural population (83%) in Yunnan is still concentrated in the agricultural sector. Unlike in Sichuan, fewer migrant workers from Yunnan went to coastal cities to find work. There were 7.18 million migrant workers in 2012, 64% of whom were migrants within Yunnan. The service industry, the most likely sector to absorb the labour force, is unable to accommodate such a large migrant population. Tourism offers limited employment opportunities because of the limited carrying capacity of cities. Other service industries such as IT and finance were even less able to offer employment due to their lagging development. The secondary industrial sector employed only 14% of the labour force. A major reason for this uneven employment structure is the slower transformation of industries in Yunnan, compared to other provinces, and also to its lower urbanization rate (27%). Hydropower and related industries had a positive impact on employment. Besides offering direct employment, the advent of hydropower increased employment opportunities in mining, manufacturing, transportation, storage and food. The Nuozhadu construction team employed over 10,000 local people, who received free training to increase their future employability. The low education level of the labour force is a primary cause of their difficulties in finding employment, and increasing employment is the start to break the cycle of poverty. HydroLancang as a national SOE is devoted to improving education and vocational training in the area. Power plants also invested intensively in infrastructure, transportation and urbanization in river basin.
Third, hydropower has increased the revenue of the local governments. Since 2007, HydroLancang’s investment in fixed assets exceeded 8% of the total in Yunnan. By 2012 the total investment along the Lancang River reached 110 billion Yuan, generating a huge fiscal contribution of 16.883 billion Yuan in taxation, 1.2 billion Yuan in water usage fees and 1 billion Yuan in funds for reservoir maintenance. From 2003 to 2010, Dachaoshan, Jinghong and Xiaowan projects all together paid 4.266 billion Yuan in taxes and other charges. Manwan alone contributed about two billion Yuan in taxes and 510 million Yuan in an infrastructure and education surtax since it began operating in 1993 (to 2006). Before the Xiaowan project was introduced to Nanjian and Fengqing, those two poverty-stricken counties had an annual fiscal revenue of only 40 million Yuan. After Xiaowan started construction, their fiscal revenue rapidly to about 100 million Yuan, of which annual taxes of 70 million Yuan were directly paid to the two counties. This huge fiscal contribution greatly improved the local capacity for public expenditure, and hence more public goods and infrastructure could be provided. Local governments in poorer areas face a larger fiscal deficit, as the central fiscal transfer payment is totally inadequate. Hydropower in Yunnan provided effective fiscal revenue for local governments, particularly county governments, who shouldered most of the burden of providing public goods. Therefore, the development of hydropower indirectly facilitated the provision of public goods in the area.
Finally, hydropower facilitated rural development and rural–urban coordination. The Coordination of rural–urban development included building power grid and improving electrification in rural areas. After 10th and 11th Five Year Plan, the rural–urban power grid has developed substantially. However, an increased supply of power and a better transmission grid are required because of rapid urbanization. Upgrading the rural power grid could greatly improve local irrigation via electric pumping systems, permit the building of green house units and the processing of tobacco and tea. In most rural areas, the main framework is built on a 110 kV grid with a limited central network of 220 kV lines, such as Changdu in Tibet. By 2015, power supply in the rural area has reached just under 100% of all households. Thus, rural grid upgrading became a developmental priority.
As for rural electrification, the specific transfer payment from central government targeting the rural power infrastructure is distributed from provincial to county government and then to villages. This is to the avoid misuse of capital arising from too much involvement by the multilevel local governments. Furthermore, medium and small scale hydropower copes well in the mountainous topography and dispersed rural population along the Lancang. Other renewables such as solar power and biomass may also improve the rural power supply. Unlike in the flat Lancang downstream area, while the Lancang upstream areas suffer mainly from landslides. Thus, promoting electricity as a substitute for firewood could encourage people to stop cutting trees, and thereby mitigate soil and water erosion. Currently, rural power is still mainly supported by straw, firewood and biogas (more than 20% of energy supply). Substituting straw and firewood fuel with hydropower, solar power and biogas is necessary to improve energy efficiency and reduce environmental damage. Competent rural governance is the key to China’s success and that of the Lancang valley. Facilitating rural development addresses the common interest because of the large rural population and their inferior standard of living. Promoting a clean and green energy model for the rural population has a profound significance in the building of a sustainable future.
Hydropower plays an important role in China and Yunnan, serving the national common interest of efficient and equal development, local common interest of poverty alleviation and capability development, and also enhancing global common interest of reducing greenhouse emission and mitigating climate change. The Cascade hydropower development has governed the of water and electricity commons via efficient coordination. Conflict and competition would have exceeded cooperation and coordination if Lancang hydropower had been developed by different private competitors or large multinationals, because they do not embrace the overall situation of sustainability.
At the macro-level, hydropower facilitated the rapid improvement in the national economy within the challenging transitional development model. It also helped with adjustments to the energy structure according to new manifestations of supply and demand. The Chinese huge economy requires an enormous supply of power, and this has a fundamental influence on the global economy, the energy structure and climate change. Thus, as a national strategic energy plan served both the national and the global common interest. Due to China’s vast territory and the great disparities among regions in their resource endowment and economic development, the regional coordination of power supply is in accordance with the national common interest. Moreover, Lancang hydropower also assisted the national development strategies of the WEET and the GWDS. It is not only a matter of electricity supply and economic development, but also one of efficiency and equality, and the overall situation.
Lancang hydropower also accelerated various aspects of local development. Cascade hydropower development reduced the local shortage of electricity and facilitated the local economy, particularly in terms of industrial development. The new hydropower-based industries in mining and smelting transformed the traditional industrial framework and energy structure. Cascade coordination showed its superiority over uncoordinated development. The development of hydropower also motivated other relevant local industries such as concrete and steel manufacturing, to release their excess capability. The cascade plants facilitated irrigation by providing a water supply system and electricity for pumping. Alongside hydropower development, Lancang-Mekong shipping developed and further facilitated local trading and economic integration with South and Southeast Asia. Moreover, hydropower helped in the reduction of local poverty and unemployment by increasing the employability and education of the local population. Hydropower developers constantly invested in the education and training of the local villagers, and in terms of fulfilling their mandate of their corporate social responsibility. Indirectly, hydropower contributed large fiscal revenue to the local governments, thus enhancing their public expenditure capability, which in turn improved the provision of education. In addition, as hydropower was mostly developed in the remote rural mountains, it contributed both infrastructure and power to rural development and accelerated urbanization and rural–urban coordination. Several cities such as Jinghong and Baoshan developed clusters of urbanized towns and small cities. Urbanization itself further facilitated the service industry by creating more job opportunities.
Development is not the question: the real question is how to develop in a sustainable manner. Lancang valley is populated by various ethnic groups with an inferior economic status and a poor standard of living, together with a lack of development opportunities. It is unrealistic to aim for the conservation of prosperity without growth. Development in the river basin is urgent and necessary. Hydropower development is an interesting case because it not only involves the governance of water but also of the energy supply, and is closely connected to the global commons in its capacity to mitigate climate change. Multilayered conflicts of interest among different stakeholders and within and among the generations made the seemingly simple common interest of sustainable development difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, hydropower continuously serves as the second-best choice for filling the power gap in China and reducing carbon emission, given its affordability, reliability, availability and sustainability. Anticipating a dramatic breakthrough that will lead to abandoning the use of traditional fossil fuel in the near future is unrealistic, while other clean energies are less promising than previously hoped.
2.2. Environment and the Ecosystem
One major concern over the development of hydropower is its negative environmental impact. The Lancang River is managed and developed on a whole-river basis. Therefore, environmental impact assessments (EIAs), the corresponding ecological compensation mechanism (ECM) and the cumulative environmental impacts of the cascade development are all based on the whole river basin. Human survival and development inevitably impact on nature. The crux is to minimize such impacts to a sustainable level for future generations, via sophisticated planning, coordination and remedies. The common interest should ensure inter-generational and intra-generational sustainability, but this also presents development needs. After all, the gigantic Chinese population does not justify depriving anyone of their right to survive and develop, and “the intrinsic worth of each Chinese person is equal to that of an American or European” [23
]. Thus, serving the common interest needs to address the development needs of the local people and together with the requirements to attain the sustainable development of humans and nature.
The EIA carried out revealed the impacts of the project on the river system, while the ECM investigated the monitoring and management of the river system, as well as suggesting technical support for specific environmental and ecological remedies. The overall objective was to develop hydropower projects selectively, avoiding ecological problem areas and vulnerable zones to balance the river system and the biodiversity of river basin. However, it is extremely difficult to do, and it is almost impossible to incorporate economic consideration and ecological concerns, local benefits and the common interest as well as dynamic efficiency, and inter-generational and intra-generational equity into a development plan. More practical thinking to balance competing interests and settle for second best, seeks to minimize negative environmental impacts to an affordable level (carrying capacity) for in undertaking the necessary development and to apply remedies where possible.
2.2.1. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
The EIA of the Lancang River’s whole river hydropower development was accomplished by HydroChina. (HydroChina Corporation, formerly known as the Administration of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design, acting as a government administrative agency responsible for engineering and construction of the water resources and hydropower projects nationwide, with a history of more than 50 years, was established in December 2002 with the approval of China’s State Council (from its website). It is the only professional corporation throughout whole China that provides technical consultancy services for hydropower and wind power.) The study was incorporated into the whole process right from the initial proposal, and implementation to the completion and operation of the power plant. It is a parallel system corresponding to hydropower development planning. In Lancang’s case, the EIA acted simultaneously with the initial investigations of the river’s hydropower potential.
The EIA aims to set up clear goals for environmental and eco-system maintenance by analysing general conditions and special features of the river system and the surrounding environment. Its suggestions for avoiding ecological problems and vulnerable zones were sent to a parallel hydropower development planning group at an early stage, so that the project engineers could incorporate their considerations. After project development plans were formulated, the EIA group would start assessing each plan and propose suggestions based on environmental considerations. Once the final development plan was selected, the EIA group had to study the selected plan in depth and recommend corresponding criteria to be used in their assessments, matching control measures and monitoring schemes. There was also a feedback assessment upon the completion of the project. The EIA for the whole river basin development also suggests the development pace and order of each project to maintain coordination among all cascade projects. Lancang EIA also included an integral downstream Mekong stretch in its assessment. Hence, it covered 4880 km of the Lancang-Mekong River system, from 1984 (first proposal of Manwan project) until 2030 (estimated development completion).
Two major components of EIA study include the water system and the eco-environment. The water system study includes water quality, temperature, hydraulic studies, sedimentation and water usage. The Eco-environment study includes the local climate, eco-diversity and the integrity of the river basin, ecological problem areas and vulnerable zones, aquatic organisms and bio-systems, terrestrial organisms and river basin eco-systems, and water soil erosion. Assessment indicators for each sub-section of those components are elaborated, such as the level of organic pollutants, carrying capacity and remedy capacity of the local bio-system, a study of fish species, and the extent of water soil erosion. The following paragraphs discuss several of these aspects: biodiversity and threats from alien species, water pollution, water soil maintenance, specific concerns for selected individual projects and a comparison between the present conditions and those before the development started in 1984.
Long before the hydropower development the Lancang valley was known to have environmental problems. These included the frequent natural disasters of landslides, droughts and floods, engineering shortage of reticulated water supply, the fragile ecological environment of upstream regions and the general deterioration of the ecology in the whole river basin, together with the human impacts on the fish and transnational river issues. These are mostly the result of harsh natural phenomena, unsustainable development and unplanned deforestation to sustain a fragile agriculture. Thus, development, though not hydropower, has existed in Lancang valley for as long as humans have lived there.
Biodiversity is critical yet extremely fragile. The Hengduan mountain ranges in Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan are endowed with great biodiversity and rare animal and plant species. The Lancang River and its catchment areas are treasures of biodiversity. More than 114 phytoplankton species, 239 zooplankton species and 80 benthonic animals are found in the river valley, as well as 186 fish species. Plant biodiversity is also abundant. Along the river there are 174 plant communities spreading from the cold, dry highland to the hot, moisture tropical zone. Among the 692 terrestrial animal species are 78 species that are classed as endangered at a national level, mostly living in downstream regions of Lancang.
One negative impact of the hydropower development was the introduction of alien species that might destroy local biodiversity. Fish, for instance, are under threat by the flourishing of alien species, the blockage of water by the dams and changes in river run-off patterns after the cascade plants came into operation. The topic of fish is always contentious in a hydropower development. A total of 186 fish species live in the Lancang River (from Changdu to Xishuangbanna), including 23 alien species; of these 90% are cypriniformes and siluriformes. The cascade river blockage had had negative impacts on the migration of fish. Subtle temperature changes in the water released from the reservoirs have an obvious impact on fish spawning seasons. Fortunately, very few of the fish in this system are long-distance migrating species, and the short-distance migrating fish are less influenced by blocking the river.
Water pollution is the major concern for all river systems in China. Lancang River is comparatively better off because it does not have many industries in the river basin and agriculture is dispersed along the banks of the river [20
]. The Lancang catchment’s mountainous geographical conditions determined that there are very few farmland and industries along the riverbanks. This is further hindered by the engineering difficulty of water supply both for drinking and irrigation, and the risks of seasonal floods. Therefore, most communities locate in highland further away from the river. This is particularly typical in the upstream valley where the arable land ratio is as low as 10%. There is no large industrial development upstream of Lancang, even TVEs (Township-village Enterprises) were falling behind, and agriculture was also underdeveloped, so water pollution is not serious in those areas. However, there is still some water pollution generated by the small-scale industries, together with agriculture and the discharge of domestic wastewater. Changdu in the upstream region is the centre of small-scale industries in the Tibetan region, including a concrete factory, a printing factory and a leather manufacturer. However, these factories are too small to have a significant impact on the Lancang River. Comparatively, the downstream area of Lancang is at a more developed phase, where mining and smelting have become the main source of water pollution. Yunnan has more industries than Tibet. There are 33 large and medium industrial companies along the Lancang River in Yunnan, mostly concentrated in Dali, Baoshan, Lincang, Pu’er and Xishuangbanna. For instance, Dali City’s industrial companies discharge about 7.45 million tons of industrial wastewater (2002 data). Other prefectures such as Nujiang are less development industrially, and hence they discharge a limited amount of industrial wastewater. Overall, agricultural water pollution in the Lancang River is not significant because farmland along the riverbank is limited. It is estimated that 541,600 tons of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants are discharged into the river each year via pesticides and fertilizer residue. There are about 22.66 million mu (one mu equals about 667 m2
) of farmland in the river basin and the annual pesticides usage is calculated according to the proportion of the Yunnan provincial average level, which is about 23.9 kg/mu, and the pesticide pollutant discharge rate is around 20%, therefore it is estimated that the whole river basin’s agriculture discharges about 541,600 ton of nitrogen/phosphorus pollutants. The Tibetan area is underpopulated so domestic pollution is insignificant. Yunnan, for its part, has more than 10 million people living in the river valley. However, the medium and large towns and cities are mostly located far away from the river. The only big city along the Lancang is Jinghong City (downstream in Xishuangbanna). In general, domestic wastewater discharge is about 23% of the industrial wastewater discharge along the Lancang parent river. However, the tributaries are intensively populated, and the domestic wastewater pollution there is correspondingly greater. This also explains why the quality of the mainstream water is much better than that in the tributaries. Over the years, wastewater discharge in the river basin has risen by an annual average increment of 5.9 million tons. The good news is that the main pollutant, COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand), has decreased since 2006 (after fluctuating between 2001 and 2006). However, the discharge of polluted water from the tributaries to the parent river has become a rising problem.
Water soil conservation is the priority for the region due to deforestation. The loss of soil by water run-off has made the river valley vulnerable to landslides and mudslides. Forest conservation is the priority for both upstream and downstream areas of the entire river. Although the population is small in upstream areas in Tibet, population density is still comparatively high due to the limited land carrying capacity in this area. There are enormous conflicts between development and conservation in these regions because extreme poverty converges with a rich biodiversity. Arable land is limited, the supply of water for both drinking and irrigation is inadequate, and the high altitude and severe weather condition greatly compromise the existing poor transportation access to the region. Sustainable substitutions for production, living, energy supply and development are essential to solving the conflicts. Deforestation is severe in downstream areas of Lancang, where the precious tropical rainforests are mainly concentrated. The illegal hunting and trading of wild animals prevail in these areas. Because of favourable climate conditions, agriculture develops much better in the downstream region of Lancang. However, some ethnic groups still practice slash-and burn agriculture, which damages large swathes of forestland. The development of mass tourism has become a huge threat to both regions in recent years, where quantity has been prioritized over quality. Many tourist resorts along the Lancang River exhibit the same tendency for to develop similar unsustainable mass tourism since Yunnan became popular as a tourist destination.
Each project has distinctive conservation priorities. The Rumei project is located close to the Mangkang snub-nose monkey nature reserve, so its priority is to preserve the habitat of these beautiful creatures by keeping tourists at bay. The Jinghong and Ganlanba projects have prioritized the conservation of the tropical rainforest and the corresponding preservation of biodiversity. Altogether, 75 rare plant species are concentrated downstream of the Nuozhadu project and 78 precious animals live south of the Xiaowan project. Thus, their priorities differ accordingly.
At present, six cascade hydropower plants are operating and more are under planning and construction. In the EIA environmental changes between present conditions and the 1984 pre-development conditions were compared, with the following results. The first impact was the change of hydraulic condition and sedimentation. The largest three regulating projects, Rumei, Xiaowan and Nuozhadu, have altered water run-off patterns throughout the year. While the Total water volume has not changed its seasonal distribution has greatly changed, so the volume of water stored is now more even throughout the year. The variations between the rainy season and dry season the lower reaches have decreased. When the Water temperature was monitored no significant changes were found after the development of hydropower. The water quality of the parent river remains at grade III, with no eutrophication. In the Lancang River the volume of sedimentation increases with the volume of water. Thus, near Changdu the river carries 22 million tons of sediment annually while in Xishuangbanna it rises to 139 million tons per year. The annual average sedimentation rate is about 0.6–1.8 kg/m3. Cascade plants help to hold back sedimentation, but each plant is also facilitated with sediment flushing device to release sediment going down the river to release the sedimentation pressure of the plant.
The second impact is on the aquatic ecosystem. One obvious impact of cascade plants is their segmentation of the holistic eco-system of the river basin. The most obvious impact is on fish including reducing the size of the fish, the significant spatial relocation of the fish and the invasion of alien species. A sophisticated river system was divided into sections of simpler reservoir bio-systems, and the distribution pattern of fish species changed accordingly. Although the change in the numbers of fish species was insignificant, the relocation of fish whose habitats is running water was significant in the new reservoirs, mostly in downstream stretches of Lancang. The slowing down of the river flows also influenced the aquatic ecosystem. The population of slow-flow fish greatly increased but numbers of torrent-inhabited fish shrank dramatically. Because dams slow down the flow of the river, the fish migrated either to the upper stretches of Lancang or to nearby tributaries. Their concentration made them more vulnerable to human activities, such as fishing and netting. Fish that live inside of the reservoir prospered but there was a tendency for them to get smaller. The introduction of alien species also increased the risks to indigenous species. Seven fish spawning sites in the parent river will be flooded after all cascade plants have been constructed. These widely dispersed spawning sites were sticky sinking spawning sites with smaller scales. Instead, the cascade reservoirs provide large feeding grounds with abundant food sources for fish. Fish communities (from the riverhead to Gongguoqiao) and downstream fish communities (from Xiaowan to the Mekong) maintain their habitat, but the biggest change has occurred on transitional stretch between Gongguoqiao and Xiaowan. Impacts on the terrestrial ecosystem were small.
From the EIA analysis, we can conclude that the water system and aquaculture are two of the areas mostly affected by the introduction of hydropower. There are also other impacts and pre-development environmental issues. The whole-river cascade development has limited large-scale projects to minimize their impact, and projects were selected to balance development advantages and environmental disadvantages. Such a dynamic system is devoted to bringing negative impacts to the possible minimum, because to completely avoid influences is unrealistic as long as humans live in Lancang valley, even without hydropower development. It seems, overall, that planned and coordinated development can better serve the common interest of sustainability than dispersed uncoordinated development.
2.2.2. Ecological Compensation Mechanism (ECM)
Hydropower development cannot avoid having negative impacts on the environment and eco-system. The ECM is intended to mitigate these negative impacts. The main components of ECM are water system remedy, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem compensation, monitoring and information sharing, and whole river management. Those components are built up of many concrete measures.
For example, all power plants are built with an automatic system to monitor the ecological development of the river system. Both industrial wastewater and domestic sewage water from all power plants are reclaimed and processed for reuse, and solid waste is collected and transported to the landfill. The Nuozhadu reservoir built a selective water withdrawal structure. The non-economical Ganlanba project is designed to regulate water volume against the Jinghong reservoir. Most projects adopted wet processing to reduce dust and greening projects along roads to purify the air. The Gongguoqiao project planted 45,000 trees along the Huajiuzhou road in 2011. Labelling rare plants to protect them is also effective. The Nuozhadu project constructed a rare plant garden in 2008. Its wild animal rescue centre was built in 2009. A comprehensive centre to introduce knowledge about biodiversity, wild animals and plants was constructed. Some projects set up fish protection zones to forbid fishing and netting and to prevent alien fish species spreading in the river. The Gongguoqiao project built a fish breeding plant and hatchery in 2010. Nuozhadu’s fish hatchery was introduced in the same year. Introducing clean energy facilities in resettled towns and living quarters of hydropower projects was a standard practice. The Dachaoshan project included a biogas unit and domestic solid waste collection in resettled towns.
All projects along the Lancang (constructed and planned) took into account the issue of fish migration. Remedial measures included building passage channels for fish, establishing fish habitats and reproduction bases on nearby tributaries, and building fish breeding and nurturing stations as an integral part of the power plant. Providing man-made flood peaks is one method of catering to the spawning needs of fish in the downstream of the reservoirs. The discharge of water in the cascade plants initiated by people may produce artificial flood peaks during fish spawning seasons, as in the Ganlanba project, for instance. Because there are fish spawning sites downstream from the Ganlanba plant, the project was designed to stabilize the fluctuations from the Jinghong project to mitigate changes in the water level, flow speed and run-off volume so the fish were able to spawn. Additionally, Ganlanba is also able to create artificial flood peaks to meet the fish spawning needs. The Protection of the tributaries that have substantial fish populations is also important. For example, the Yongchun River is first-grade tributary of the Lancang River. Schizothorax species like to live in the Yongchun River because it has rapid torrents. All existing power plants across the Yongchun were therefore demolished to maintain the habitat for these fish. Projects such as Cege, Yuelong and Ganlanba were designed with passages for fish. Projects such as Rumei were supplied with a fish hoist because of their narrow river valleys. Projects such as Gushui and Dahuaqiao were built with fish transportation facilities. Seven fish reproduction stations have been planned with cascade projects. The Ganlanba fish reproduction station is a joint project undertaking in collaboration by HydroLancang and the Xishuangbanna aquaculture bureau. One major obstacle of ECM is the lack of professionalism and expertise. Reproduction of fish and artificial assistance to fish passing through the dams both require high-level expertise on each fish species. Any mistake might result in damage to the fish and hence threat the species.
In addition to protecting fish, the ECM performs other functions. Land and forest areas occupied during the construction of the dams paid compensation and restored. To restore the local ecology requires the careful nurturing of indigenous species, taking the complete local food chain into consideration. Thus, ECM is a complicated and long-term process. For instance, to restore a river valley plantation one has to choose among different options according to the specific local conditions. The Lancang upstream highland has an extremely harsh climate so the best option is artificial plantations using indigenous soil and seedlings, which are then replanted in the wild when they are sufficiently sturdy. In the middle stretch of Lancang closed mountainsides facilitate reafforestation in situ. The downstream regions have the best natural conditions so the best choice here is to protect and replant trees on the site.
Controlling the invasion of alien species, both animal and plant is also crucial. Wildlife rescue is important. The wildlife rescue centre upstream is in the Tibetan Mangkang snub-nose monkey national park, specifically aiming to protect snub-nose monkeys, clouded leopards, forest musk deer and other endangered animals. The wild animal rescue centre is built within Baima snow mountain national park in the middle stretch. The downstream rescue centre is located in Xishuangbanna, aiming to protect the Asian elephant, the wild bull and other tropical animals. Other ecological compensation schemes include building a wildlife corridor connecting animals on both riverbanks and establishing an endangered plant garden.
Dynamic monitoring of flagship and endangered species is one way in which the regional eco-system is managed. Comprehensive coordination is important, and the ECM intends to set up a permanent eco-system monitoring and renewal institute along the whole Lancang-Mekong river basin, with a corresponding eco-system foundation jointly held by all stakeholders. Currently, the environmental monitoring system in China addresses ten different aspects: water temperature, water quality, TDG (total dissolved gas), water pollution, local climate, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, water soil maintenance, resettled communities and geological disasters. There are 16 hydraulic monitoring stations along the Lancang River that collect dynamic data on water temperature and quality. TDG is an important indicator in large dam projects, because water released from a large dam generates higher levels of TDG, which then cause gas bubble disease and sometimes even death, in fish. TDG monitoring is carried out every year between June to September (currently in five monitoring stations) to prevent oversaturation. Aquatic ecosystem monitoring takes place along the parent river and its tributaries to add to existing information on the fish and their habitats. Remote sensing monitoring technology is used for the terrestrial ecosystem and water soil conservation monitoring, combined with regular in-field investigations. Resettled communities are included in the monitoring system for the purpose of disease control and follow-up of human activities.
The current monitoring system is still under development, and in the future three sub-regional centres at Rumei, Xiaowan and Nuozhadu will be established to coordinate all the projects’ monitoring stations (each project of which has an environment and ecosystem monitoring capability) and those of the professional institutes such as the hydraulic stations and the geological disaster monitoring bureau. The objective is to produce a digitalized online monitoring system to cover the whole Lancang basin. This system can also share information with downstream MRC countries. The “digital Lancang” concept has been proposed by HydroLancang to apply comprehensive, high-end technologies such as remote sensing, satellite surveillance, GIS, GPS, the Internet, and computerized modelling to monitor the Lancang valley and to build up an overall database for the environment and ecosystem. Digital Lancang phase-I was accomplished by June 2014. Upon completion of the project, Digital Lancang would be a sub-system of China Digital Hydropower, but still operates independently of it.
Manwan is a prime example of the effects of ecological compensation schemes, which it has been implementing for 20 years ever since the construction of the dam. According to the data from downstream hydrometric stations, the water run-off change but this was statistically insignificant, from −20 to 26 m3/s. About 14% of sediment was held back by the reservoir. The water temperature change was insignificant (1.0–1.6 °C). No eutrophication was found in the water quality test but Cyanophyta (blue-green algae) significantly after the construction of the power plant. The 52 fish species discovered in 1984 pro-project are still all present, but their distribution pattern has changed greatly. The reservoir reduced rapids and fast-flowing water and nurtured a large amount of nutritious plankton, so more slow-water fish flourished and the rapid-water fish migrated upstream. The aboriginal coniferous forests flourished (increasing by about 140 km2 until 2009) because the dispersed villages were removed from the site. The total had forest coverage increased by 9% after the ECM, mitigating water soil erosion. However, the newly reclaimed farmland for the resettled farmers contributed about 0.8% toward annual water soil erosion.
There are 11 rare reptile animal species living in the region, mainly snakes, and their living environment has not been disturbed. However, there have been impacts on birds, since the reservoir flooded parts of their habitat and the ECM could not provide as many habitats as there originally were so their habitats shrank.
Both before and after hydropower development natural disasters have been common in the Lancang valley. These are mostly landslides, floods and droughts. Because of uneven distribution of rainfall between upstream and downstream, more frequent floods in the downstream reaches of the river than the top. Flood control facilities in downstream areas are inadequate. For instance, Jinghong City, the largest city along the river, has the ability to cope with a five-year peak flood discharge only, which places the whole city at huge risk of flooding. At present, Nuozhadu locating on the upper river from Jinghong City has shouldered the task of flood control for the Jinghong residents. The flood-control reservoir capacity of Nuozhadu was therefore designed to be large and cope with 2 billion m3. This has greatly increased the flood resistance capability of Jinghong and its surrounding areas. Lancang River flows in a V shape through Yunnan, which makes it difficult to flow over the riverbanks in a flood. In addition, the river basin is in mostly mountainous areas or semi-mountainous areas, and farmland is too sparsely distributed to suffer from huge flood damage unlike the Chengdu flatland basin. Flood damage to upstream regions is further reduced because of the small population there.
Instead, the real threat comes from the frequent landslides and mudslides triggered by heavy rainstorms. Water soil erosion and subsequent landslides are major concerns. Deforestation in the surrounding mountains worsens the situation. Because of arable land shortage, local farmers have no choice but to reclaim mountain slopes and burn down forests to expand the available farmland. Landslides kill people, ruin farmland and block roads. Water soil erosion and landslides further damage land fertility and large amounts of soil enter the river, speeding up sedimentation (such as the Yellow River). The estimated water soil erosion area along Lancang River in Yunnan territory was 25,800 km2, which amounts to 29% of the total catchment area, of which 320 km2 was intensively eroded. Over the years, intensive ecological remedies have been applied to the region and a strict ban on logging was implemented in the river basin but the result was unsatisfactory. Compared to 1987, the water soil erosion area has decreased, but the intensity has actually increased. Therefore, the preservation of forests and the prevention of water soil erosion are still priorities. Furthermore, landslides have aggregated rocky desertification, which finally damaged water lifeline along with severe deforestation. Landslides became more frequent and destructive because of the unlimited and unplanned logging, mining, and the burning of vegetation for land reclamation. However, blaming the local people is not helpful, because most people still depend on primary agriculture due to the lack of other livelihood opportunities in the area.
To produce enough food, the local people have to reclaim the mountains and even the slopes for farming. However, irrigating this land is a huge challenge. It is ironic that there are water shortages in Yunnan because it is one of the most abundant regions for water in China. However, the shortage is not of water itself but of irrigation technology. A Mountainous topography results in higher land dominating the water source. This creates great difficulty in transporting water to the farmland, and it is uneconomic even if it is feasible. Furthermore, it is impossible to build a water supply network that covers all areas due to the sparsely distributed population and the high mountains in the region.
Another extreme natural disaster in the area is drought. Due to the climate change and other causes, there is an “increasing concurrent drought events” that occurred in China challenging China’s water management and grand water diversion project [24
]. Under such general context, both Yunnan and the other southwest provinces have already suffered from severe water shortage (engineering shortage) during normal regular times, not to mention the dry seasons. The Xiaowan reservoir alone released 840 million m3
water during the severe drought of 2010, greatly easing the impact of the drought downstream. Facilitated by cascade regulation, downstream river run-off reached 504 m3
/s in Jinghong during the dry seasons in recent years, which was 49% higher than usual. In summary, as a result of its natural endowment of abundant water and rich rainfall frequent floods have occurred in downstream areas of Lancang, while the reclamation of forestlands has aggravated water soil erosion, repeatedly resulting in devastating landslides. The severe shortage of land and water has prompted the local people to engage in further deforestation, which has triggered even more severe droughts. Poverty and natural disasters repeated strike the region and people, and they reinforce and exacerbate each other. This leaves us with the contradictory picture in which farmers in extreme poverty struggle to live in a place with such superabundant resources. Yunnan has thus become one of the typical regions exhibiting poverty with abundant natural resources, which are common in southwest and northwest of China.
ECM aims to remedy the negative impacts from hydropower development and also pre-development problems and natural disasters to maintain environmental and ecological sustainability. Dynamic monitoring is crucial in achieving ECM, and is the grounds of possible cooperation along whole Lancang-Mekong river basin. Manwan’s long-term ECM proved its effectiveness and also demonstrated its shortcomings. The ECM is the key to sustaining the common good, so introducing more effective measures and dynamic monitoring are equally important for the future.
2.2.3. Effects of Multi-Cascade Plants
Lancang hydropower development aims at the development of the whole river via comprehensive planning and the use of cascade plants. Thus, a specific study was carried out by HydroChina to investigate the effects of the cascade plants. Hydraulic data and information were collected from Changdu, Liutongjiang, Jiuzhou, Gajiu and Yunjinghong national hydraulic monitoring stations (this research mainly studied the Rumei (Tibet, annual regulation), Guxue (Yunnan-Tibet junction, daily regulation), Gushui (Yunnan-Tibet junction, seasonal regulation), Gongguoqiao (Yunnan, daily regulation), Xiaowan (Yunnan, multi-year regulation), Nuozhadu (Yunnan, multi-year regulation), Ganlanba (Yunnan, counter-regulation) and Mengsong (close to the borderline, run-off-river) projects), covering the river course from Tibet to where it leaves Yunnan in the south. The study is mainly based on 2009 data, with information tracing back to 1972 and predictions to 2030, and comparisons of non-development natural conditions and the situation with respect to cascade plants in years of high, median and low flows, respectively.
After all the cascade plants have been built, the river basin water area will increase hugely, but the V shape valley pattern will remain. There will be another 675.2 km2 of additional water area on top of the original 129.8 km2 natural watercourses, as estimated (if the 23 cascade plants are all built). As the two largest reservoirs on the river Xiaowan and Nuozhadu contribute 67% of the new water area. Before the construction of the cascade plants, the loss of water surface are by evaporation decreased from as it flowed downstream in the natural watercourse. The river run-off increased rapidly along with the expansion of the water surface from June to October (high flow season) and concentrated in the downstream stretch during the low flow season (November–May). After the cascade plants begin operation, the expansion of water surface area will increase water evaporation, although the power plant and its operation do not themselves consume water. If all the proposed cascade projects are built, there will be an annual loss through evaporation of 358 million m3 of water along the whole river, which is approximately 0.56% of total annual run-off of the Lancang River. Thus, the impact of these projects on river run-off is insignificant.
The biggest change is that the timing has changed because of the cascade regulation system. The Upstream plants with a smaller water flow will regulate a limited volume of water run-off, but the downstream plants will have a much larger impact because of the two largest regulating reservoirs (Xiaowan and Nuozhadu). Those two plants regulate water volume over the year, which means water run-off is controlled during years of high flow and released in years of low flow. Thus, the general impact of the cascade plants on river run-off is the regulation of the levels between high and low flow years. As estimated, after all cascade plants are in operation, water run-off will increase by 40–101% during the low flow season (dry season, November–May) and decrease by 10–29% during the high flow season (rainy season, June–October). In Nuozhadu, for instance, the change in water release (compared to the natural watercourse) in a high flow year is −119 m3/s, in a median flow year (normal year) it is −6 m3/s and in a low flow year is +209 m3/s.
Additionally, river flow speed is another factor that will be greatly altered by cascade plants. The speed of flow of the river between the cascade plants will hardly change at all, compared with the natural watercourse, but the flow speed in the reservoirs will change greatly. For instance, large reservoirs such as Xiaowan and Nuozhadu have slowed down the river flow to an average speed of 0.02 m/s. However, other projects such as Ganlanba would still maintain average flow speed of 0.4 m/s in their reservoirs. This is because the dams block the river flow and thus slow down the flow speed, also because of the controlled regulation of water volume by the cascade plants.
The sedimentation of the Lancang River has the most positive correlation of the features measured with respect to water volume. Projects with large reservoirs have significant impact on holding sediment. The Rumei project could decrease sediment by 7.53 million tons, which amounts to 47% of the total sediment in the natural watercourse. Daily-regulated projects such as Gongguoqiao have a negligible influence over sedimentation. Upstream plants’ sedimentation control will greatly decrease the sediment flowing into downstream plants. Sedimentation will also change if all cascade plants are functioning. The Annual sediment deposited in the natural watercourse was about 120.14 million tons up to where the Lancang River flows away from China and enters Laos and Myanmar, with a sediment concentration of 1.84 kg/m3. After all cascade plants are in operation, the estimated annual sediment will be reduced to 17.51 million tons and the sediment concentration ratio will be reduced to 0.27 kg/m3. Furthermore, the Lancang River located within the mountains, so its riverbed is mostly bedrock. Water erosion effects on the riverbed and riverbank are limited.
The cascade plants have an impact on aquaculture and the ecology. The power plants regulated daily will change the water volume and flow speed downstream, and thus influence fish spawning in those stretches. This is particularly true of the Gushui-Lidi stretch and Ganlanba stretch, where most concentrated fish spawning sites are located, so water control and release have to take its impact on fish spawning into consideration.
Moreover, blocking the river course will obstruct fish migration. Long-distance migratory fish species are rare in the Lancang River. There are still stretches of Natural river courses between the power plants that are a suitable habitat for short-distance migratory fish. However, the completion of all cascade plants will have a negative impact on fish biodiversity. Because the dams cut the river into sections, crossbreeding between different fish will be difficult, and as the time goes by, small groups might lose their genetic diversity.
Another concern is the blockage of fish migration from the Mekong River downstream. There are many more fish species downstream compared to upstream. There were only 186 fish species living in the upstream stretch (from the riverhead to near Lanping, but they migrate down to Manwan), but downstream the species exceed 600 (from Lanping to Mekong, but they migrate up to Gongguoqiao). The Ganlanba project will block the Mekong fish migrating upstream, and hence damage fish biodiversity. These projects are designed as run-off river plants to minimize impacts on fish migration. In general, two fish zones (the upstream cold water fish and the downstream warm water fish) will remain after the construction of the cascade plants because their zoning boundaries are distinctive. The biggest change will occur in the transition stretch between Xiaowan and Gongguoqiao, where the trend would for each zone to recede in opposite directions. Fish migration and crossbreeding within the zone will be maintained, but fish migration and habitat in the transition stretch might be influenced and thus would be moved to more suitable habitats in other stretches of the river. Most fish in the transition stretch are short-distance migratory fish so they may still accomplish their life cycle within a comparatively short stretch of the river. However, the shrinking of their spawning sites has a huge impact on fish and the cascade plants will flood a large part of their original spawning sites.
Although the extinction of any fish species is highly unlikely, the cascade projects will still greatly alter the distribution pattern and size of each fish species. Repeated investigations over the years have confirmed that this pattern of change is likely. Repeated EIAs on fish and other animal and plant species along the Lancang River and the impacts of cascade plants on the environment and biodiversity have been carried out by various scientific institutes, including the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Fishery sciences, the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Hydro-Ecology MWR & CAS, Huazhong Agricultural University, Yunnan University and the Yunnan Academy of Natural Sciences intensively in the 1990s and 2000s (from 1984 to the present). On-going fieldwork research is carried out almost every year to have time-based data on species biodiversity and environment changes. The fish species will not decrease but their distribution and habitat patterns will change significantly. On the other hand, the cascade plants provide a better environment for hatcheries and overwintering, with a wider and deeper water environment and a rich supply of plankton.
As for animals and plants, the most important natural reserves are the snub-nose monkey habitat near Rumei, three-parallel rivers region near Guishui, and tropical rainforests and Asian elephant habitat in Jinghong. There are 36 natural conservation zones in the Lancang valley, of which nine are national. Guxue, Bangduo, Baita, Xiaowan and Jinghong will flood a portion of the land belonging to the nature reserves. The largest influence may be that of the Guxue project, which will flood part of the core (0.29%) and buffer zones (0.03%) of the national snub-nose monkey nature reserve. The Xiaowan project has flooded part of the buffer zone (3%) of the Jinguang temple provincial nature reserve and 143 hm2 of the buffer zone (13%) of the Weishan mountain provincial Qinghua Green Peacock nature reserve. The Jinghong project has flooded the largest area a nature reserve, 825.69 hm2 (0.34%) of the Xishuangbanna national nature reserve (mostly, the buffer zone and part of the boundaries of the core zone). The bio-system of whole river basin is complicated, as it covers 13 latitudes, ranging from an altitude of 477 to 6740 m. From north to south, the river basin includes a plateau temperate zone, a north subtropical zone, a central subtropical zone, a south subtropical zone and a tropical north-fringe zone. As estimated, there are about 75 rare plant species, mostly in the area with 2000 and below altitude (river basin beyond of Huangdeng project). Rare animal species living in national nature reserves are scarcely affected by the cascade plants. Take the Asian elephant as an example. About 236 elephants live in Xishuangbanna, mainly in the Xishuangbanna nature reserve and in sub-regional reserves such as Mengyang, Shangyong and Mengla. The direct impact of cascade plants on the elephant population is the flooding of their habitat. The estimated flooded area of the rainforests and bamboo forests amounts to 4% of the total area. However, the rubber tree plantations in Xishuangbanna are a more serious threat. Many natural rainforests were reclaimed for rubber tree planting because of their high return. This has placed significant pressure on the Asian elephant habitat, as well as the environment and ecology. Rubber plantations were introduced into Xishuangbanna in 1948. The state promoted large-scale state-owned rubber plantations in 1950s and 1960s. The rubber plantations grew rapidly in the 1990s, particularly around 1998. Until 1998, rubber production amounts to 27% of Xishuangbanna’s GDP. However, they eroded tropical rainforests and triggered water soil erosion. The natural forest coverage was reduced from 70% to 13% in the 1990s. The plantations threated the habitat of the Asian elephant, and because rubber trees consume large amounts of water, water soil erosion worsened in the region. The situation became so severe that the government started to realize that the development of rubber plantations was unsustainable and hence implemented a series of policies to restrict them.
The impact of the cascade plants on the downstream Mekong River is also a hotly debated topic. As a review study indicated, “the current literature and observational data suggest that” the damming of the mainstream Lancang-Mekong River has “only had small unfavorable effects on downstream environments and ecosystems outside of China” (p. 77, [5
]). The Water supply to the Lancang River relies mainly on rainfall, replenished by melting snow and ice and underground water. The Mekong stretch is also mainly supplied by rainfall, supplemented by underground water. The annual mean run-off in upstream Changdu, Tibet is 482 m3
/s, rising to 2058 m3
/s along the China-Myanmar river boundary, and reaching up to 4397 m3
/s in Vientiane, Laos. When it flows into Kratie, Cambodia the annual mean run-off rises 14,000 m3
/s. Take Guanlei, located on China-Myanmar border as an example. The run-off of the natural watercourse was 3576 m3
/s in the high season and 974 m3
/s in the low flow season. After the cascade plants are in operation, the figures will change to 2639 m3
/s in the rainy season (−26%) and 1626 m3
/s in the dry season (+67%). The change in the volume of the annual average run-off is −0.49%. As the river flows downward, the impact decreases. The variation in run-off will be reduced to −12% in the high flow season and +34% in low flow season at the Vientiane hydraulic monitoring station, with an annual rate of change of −0.23%. The large reservoirs at Xiaowan and Nuozhadu will greatly reduce risks of floods between June and September for downstream countries. According to the data collected at Chiang Saen in Thailand, sedimentation will be greatly reduced after the operation of the cascade plants, amounting to an 80% reduction compared with the natural watercourse. However, the largest impact is upon the river stretches between Guanlei, China and Luang Prabang, Laos. This is because the downstream stretches beyond Luang Prabang have low levels of sedimentation compared with the upstream stretches (based on a comparison of the sediment composition of Guanlei and Luang Prabang). The downstream, long-distance migratory fish swim upward to Mengsong area in the rainy season, so their migration route extends far beyond the last cascade plant—Ganlanba. Therefore, the impact of the dam on those fish species is limited. However, because of the large run-off alteration in high flow seasons, downstream fish spawning will be influenced. However, correspondingly, when the run-off increases greatly in the dry seasons the fish downstream will have a larger and better overwintering water habitat. Nevertheless, the general impact is not significant because the total run-off of the Lancang River only contributes to 13% of the Mekong River’s total run-off.
Cascade development brings multiplied benefits and also has chain impacts, as illustrated in aspects of hydraulic situation, sedimentation, fish, animal and plants, and the downstream stretches of the Mekong. The key to overcome those impacts is comprehensive management and cascade coordination, besides ECM.
Essential measures to reduce environmental impacts and maintain ecological balance are strict project control using EIAs, continuous and effective ECM and the overall coordinated management of the cascade plants. Some of the environmental problems described here are common in hydropower development, such as fish migration. We cannot deny there are negative impacts of hydropower development along the Lancang, which include those of the natural water situation, the fragmentation of the river course and fish migration. It is exceptionally important to take remedial ecological measures to mitigate these negative impacts.
As a transnational river the Lancang River has to develop within a framework of transnational coordination because of whole river development impacts on downstream countries. China has coordinated with GMS, ASEAN, MRC and each involved countries to negotiate potential conflicts. Transnational conflicts of interest plus the “threat” of China have led to some exaggerated condemnations of the Lancang hydropower development. Some have even ascribed all environmental and ecological changes in the river to the development of hydropower, while others are concerned that China’s control over such a major watercourse might threaten the security of downstream countries. These claims have hindered transnational cooperation along the Lancang-Mekong and may not be helpful for serving the common interest of the people living in the region. Moreover, there are complex geopolitics at lager scale in the region, not only among Southeast Asian countries, but also between “China’s new-found assertiveness” and the United States’ regional security concern, which determined subtle relationship of energy and power along the Mekong [25
]. The Mekong geopolitics reflects global geopolitical changes, and the logics to understand this shard river’s development process continue to be geopolitical [26