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    Energy-Rich Sichuan Demolishes Dams to Protect Parks

    Provincial government cracks down on small hydropower projects built as investments by private companies.

    One of China’s most hydropower-reliant provinces is saying goodbye to small dams because of the hazards they pose to nature reserves.

    In a Tuesday video report by The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, a demolition team is seen setting explosives to a small hydropower (SHP) station in Jinkouhe, a district in the southwestern city of Leshan. The razing is the latest since the Sichuan Development and Reform Commission released a notice in August 2017 calling for SHP stations with installed capacities of 50 megawatts or less to be dismantled.

    The provincial government also said in the notice that all SHP stations in “core areas” of national and provincial nature reserves should be demolished by the end of 2017, while those located outside of those areas or in lower-level reserves should be assessed and demolished by June of this year if they did not go through the proper approval channels. According to the notice, the explicit purpose of the move is to protect the environment.

    Over the course of one week in mid-March, seven SHP stations in Jinkouhe District were entirely or partially destroyed to allow water to flow unimpeded, a government official says in the video. “Some stations have been operating for around 20 years,” says a local resident. “The river has dried up, and the fish have disappeared.”

    Both experts and laypeople believe the dams are responsible.

    “Many SHP projects have a negative impact on the local ecology because they destroy and block habitats for aquatic animals,” said Zhang Boju, secretary-general of Friends of Nature, a Beijing-based NGO. Zhang told Sixth Tone that the projects limit the number of species in their surroundings and impede natural water flow.

    Another problem, Zhang added, is overcapacity: Many of the dams were built by private investors hoping to sell electricity to the state grid — but in the absence of regulations, so many SHP stations were built that the province now has more electricity than it knows what to do with. To cope with the power glut, some areas have begun introducing energy-intensive industries such as chemical plants and cryptocurrency mines.

    Last July, after several unapproved mines and hydropower stations were discovered within a nature reserve in the northwestern province of Gansu, the national environment and water ministries conducted inspections of the country’s 446 national parks.

    Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan are rich in water, and as such have the highest installed capacities in the country. But the governments of both provinces last year announced their intentions to curb SHP, citing mounting environmental concerns. Sichuan even banned all future SHP projects outright.

    SHP has been an important energy source for rural China since the 1950s, when the central government began encouraging the construction of small dams to supply villages with electricity. Today, China is a hydropower giant, accounting for 51 percent of the world’s total installed capacity, according to a United Nations report.

    Apart from being a clean source of energy, SHP is also viewed as an important part of China’s poverty alleviation campaign. In 2016, the central government invested 300 million yuan ($48 million) in hydropower development in Hunan, Shaanxi, and other provinces. According to this pilot project, a portion of the income generated by these subsidized SHP stations would be given to impoverished households.

    In The Paper’s video, a Jinkouhe resident says that the government began encouraging hydropower development to bolster the local economy after logging was banned in 2002.

    “SHP is not a bad thing: It plays a significant role in supplying electricity to areas in need of energy,” said Zhang. Still, he added, the mentality of tackling problems retroactively rather than proactively remains prevalent in some places. In February, Friends of Nature sued the companies responsible for developing a hydropower station near a nature reserve in Yunnan because of the risk it posed to the environment.

    In December 2016, the central government introduced stricter criteria for hydropower environmental impact assessments — a crucial step in their approval process.

    “I hope the government can stick to the principle of scientific development and prioritize the ecosystem as it assesses these projects so that ‘green SHP’ would be more than just a slogan,” Zhang said.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: An exterior view of a small hydropower station in Jinkouhe District, Leshan, Sichuan province, March 2018. Xu Hui for Sixth Tone)