Tag Archives: dams

The Unquenchable Thirst

South-to-North Water Transfer Project. image from wikipedia

Most of the drinking water consumed in Beijing has travelled 1,432km (895 miles), roughly the distance from New York to Orlando, Florida. Its journey begins in a remote and hilly part of central China at the Danjiangkou reservoir, on the bottom of which lies the drowned city of Junzhou. The water gushes north by canal and pipeline, crosses the Yellow river by burrowing under it, and arrives, 15 days later, in the water-treatment plants of Beijing. Two-thirds of the city’s tap water and a third of its total supply now comes from Danjiangkou.

This winter and spring, the reservoir was the capital’s lifeline. No rain or snow fell in Beijing between October 23rd 2017 and March 17th 2018—by far the longest drought on record. Yet the city suffered no supply disruptions, unlike Shanxi province to the west, where local governments rationed water. The central government is exultant, since the project which irrigates Beijing was built at vast cost and against some opposition.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project—to give the structure its proper name—is the most expensive infrastructure enterprise in the world. It is the largest transfer of water between river basins in history, and China’s main response to its worst environmental threat, which is (despite all the pollution) lack of water.

The route between Beijing and Danjiangkou, which lies on a tributary of the Yangzi, opened in 2014. An eastern route opened in 2013 using the ancient Grand Canal between Hangzhou and the capital. (Jaw-dropping hydrological achievements are a feature of Chinese history.) A third link is planned on the Tibetan plateau, but since that area is prone to earthquakes and landslides, it has been postponed indefinitely…

Downstream from Danjiangkou, pollution has proved intractable. By diverting water from the Yangzi, the project has made the river more sluggish. It has become less able to wash away contaminants and unable to sustain wetlands, which act as sponges and reduce flooding. To compensate for water taken from their rivers, local governments are also building dams wherever they can to divert it back again. Shaanxi province, for example, is damming the Han river to transfer water to its depleted river Wei….Worst of all, the project diverts not only water but money and attention from China’s real water problem: waste and pollution.

Excerpts from Water: Massive Diversiion, Economist, Apr. 7, 2018

Series of Unfortunate Water Events-1- water shortage Vietnam

Mekong Delta, Vietnam. image from wikipedia

2016: Drought is plaguing much of mainland South-East Asia, including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Thailand’s shortages are the worst for two decades,  Vietnam has been hit as hard as any. The Mekong basin is home to one-fifth of the population. It produces about half of the country’s rice. The government says the amount available for export in the three months to June will be 11% less than originally forecast. Drought in the country’s Central Highlands has affected a third of coffee plantations there and now endangers the region’s supply of drinking water. These woes are weighing on the economy. Growth in the first quarter slowed by half a percent year-on-year to 5.5%.

The immediate cause is El Niño…People living near the Mekong say there is another problem: hydroelectric dams built in China near the head of the river that are holding up its flow. Since March China has loosened some of the dam gates, ostensibly as a favour to its neighbours. But locals say the effect on water levels has been measly. The episode has only heightened fears that China (with which Vietnam has an enormous trade deficit and an intense territorial dispute) can use water flow to hold the country to ransom.

The dams are certainly stripping the Mekong of essential sediment. But many of Vietnam’s water woes are self-inflicted. In the delta, for example, a booming population has built more than 1m wells since the 1960s. These have made saline contamination worse, and are also causing subsidence. In 2014 an American study found that the delta, which mostly lies less than two metres above sea level, could be nearly a metre lower by 2050.

A related problem is the ruling Communist Party’s obsession with maximising rice production. Straining to hit absurd targets—inspired by memories of post-war food shortages—the government has pushed delta farmers to produce three rice crops per year.

This policy has caused the poisoning of paddies with pesticides and has discouraged farming of more profitable, less thirsty crops. It has also prompted the building of a massive network of dykes, canals and sluice gates, which spread pollution from fertilisers and pesticides and restrict the flow of sediment. Koos Neefjes, a climate-change expert in Hanoi, the capital, reckons all this infrastructure has done more to harm the delta than China’s dams.

Fixing this will mean taking on powerful state-owned rice traders and exporters, who benefit from intensive production.

Excerpts Vietnam’s drying delta: Salt of the earth, Economist, Apr. 30, 2016, at 37

Dams in Guyana: Blackstone, China and the Secretive Government

Amalia Project plan, Guyana, image from  Sithe Global

The government of Guyana wants to move forward with an $840m project at Amaila Falls, deep in the forested interior. At full capacity of 165MW, it could supply more power than Guyana’s present needs.  The lead developer is Sithe Global, part of the Blackstone Group. Sithe wants a guaranteed 19% return on its equity stake, and plans to start construction this year. China Railway First Group signed an engineering contract in September. The China Development Bank will lend most of the money. The Inter-American Development Bank has been asked to chip in $175m; the World Bank was initially involved, but has pulled out.

Amaila’s supporters point out that it will flood less than 55 square km (21 square miles). No villages will be displaced and little wildlife will be disturbed. Guyana would no longer rely on fossil fuels for electricity. After two decades, ownership would pass to the government, construction costs paid off.

Opponents worry that clean electricity will not come cheap. Guyana Power and Light (GPL), the state-owned electricity company, will pay about $100m a year to the Amaila consortium. Electricity bills are unlikely to fall (three people were killed last year in protests over electricity charges). And Amaila’s power may not be reliable. The El Niño weather pattern can bring a year-long drought. In normal years, the plant will run below capacity between October and April. GPL will have to pay for backup thermal power. The IMF has urged “careful consideration of the [financial] risks”.

Plans to build Amaila date from 1997, though Sithe only got involved in 2009. The estimated cost has risen steadily. An access road is unfinished. There is as yet no economic feasibility study for the project; when completed, the study will remain confidential, as is GPL’s outline power-purchase agreement. Opposition parties complain that the government is being “secretive” about Amaila. On April 24th they blocked funds for a government equity-stake in the project. If Amaila is as beneficial as its backers claim, an open debate might generate broader support for the project, and cut its $56m bill for political risk insurance.

Hydropower in Guyana: Shrouded in secrecy, Economist, May, 4, 2013, at 39

Divide and Conquer the Mekong River; the new giant dam

Laos has given the go-ahead to build a massive dam on the lower Mekong river, despite opposition from neighbouring countries and environmentalists.  Landlocked Laos is one of South-east Asia’s poorest countries and its strategy for development is based on generating electricity from its rivers and selling the power to its neighbours, says the BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Bangkok.  Xayaburi is being built by a Thai company with Thai money – and almost all of the electricity has been pre-sold to Thailand, BBC says.

Countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam point to a report last year that said the project should be delayed while more research was done on the dam’s environmental impact. Up to now, Laos had promised not to press ahead while those concerns remained…

Laos has followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Under its terms, the countries that share the Mekong agree to prior consultations on the possible cross-border impact of any development on the river before deciding to proceed. Laos believes it has just done that.  Cambodia and Vietnam expressed concerns about the dam’s impact on fish migration and the flow of sediment downstream. So the Laos authorities brought in their own contractors and now say the problems have been solved.  Critics of the dam say many of the modifications to it are untested and the decision to proceed amounts to a huge experiment on one of the world’s great rivers.

Four dams already exist in the narrow gorges of the Upper Mekong in China but until now there have been none on the slower-moving lower reaches of the river..Laos deputy energy minister Viraphonh Virawong said work on the Xayaburi dam itself would begin this week, and hoped it would be the first of many….

Excerpt, Laos approves Xayaburi ‘mega’ dam on Mekong, BBC, Nov. 5, 2012

Resisting Dams: Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

Two indigenous tribes in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are holding hostage three engineers working for the company building the contested Belo Monte dam, the latest trouble to hit the $13 billion project.  The engineers working for Norte Energia, a consortium of Brazilian firms and pension funds, were being held in a village close to where the 11,233-megawatt dam is being built on the Xingu River, Brazil’s national indigenous institute, called Funai, said Wednesday.

Leaders of the Juruna and Arara tribes say construction of the dam, which has been opposed by environmental groups and activists like Hollywood director James Cameron, is already preventing them from traveling freely along the Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon River.  The dam would be the world’s third biggest, after China’s Three Gorges and Brazil’s Itaipu dam.

The three engineers, whose identities were not revealed, met with village leaders on Tuesday to discuss how to mitigate the impact of the dam, including a mechanism to allow boats to get around the construction site.  But the indigenous leaders were dissatisfied with the proposed solution and in protest prevented the engineers from leaving, environmental groups said. “The authorities report that the engineers are being prohibited from leaving the village but there is no use of force or violence,” Amazon Watch and International Rivers, two environmental groups opposed to the dam, said in a statement. Norte Energia declined to comment.

Funai said it did not know what the tribes were demanding in order to release the men. Funai representatives were with the Norte Energia employees to take part in talks with tribal leaders, the agency said.

Environmentalists and indigenous rights activists see the dam’s construction as the first step toward increased development of the Amazon basin, a hotly contested region that has seen violent and deadly conflicts between indigenous tribes and ranchers, miners and loggers.  The government of Brazil, a country which depends on hydroelectric power for more than 80% of its electricity, has said that it will build several dams in the Amazon to take advantage of the region’s ample hydroelectric potential, but has sought to minimize the impact of construction and operation of the dams.

In late June, members of several local tribes occupied the Belo Monte construction site to make similar demands, accusing Norte Energia of failing to carry out mitigation measures which the company is required to implement as part of its license to build the dam.  The company is required to invest about $1.6 billion in social programs such as building sanitation networks and relocating houses that occupy land to be flooded by the dam. In the past, the company has reiterated that it will carry out those investments, but that the investments will be completed as dam construction progresses…

Norte Energia is composed of government-controlled utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras, or Eletrobras, the pension funds of state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro and government lender Caixa Economica; as well as utilities Neoenergia and Cemig and mining company Vale. Eletrobras is the biggest shareholder, with a 49.98% stake.

Excerpt,PAULO WINTERSTEIN, Tribes Hold Engineers of Dam in Brazil, Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2012

See also Amazon Watch, International Rivers

The Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in Brazil: the need for a social pact

These dams [like the Belo Monte] harness the natural flow of the river to drive the turbines, so they do not require large reservoirs, and as a result, less land needs to be flooded – which means less of an impact on the environment and surrounding communities. However, it also means that during dry spells, they do not have the water reserves needed to continue generating electricity at a reasonable capacity.   “We are increasing the installed generating capacity, but water storage capacity has not grown since the 1980s,” which is a cause for concern, said Nelson Hubner, general director of the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency.  The “stored energy” represented by the country’s reservoirs has not kept up with demand, which will make it impossible to maintain the necessary supply of hydroelectricity during a drought year, warned Hubner at the Second Hydropower Summit Latin America, held May 9-10 in São Paulo.  The summit, organised by Business News Americas (BNamericas), a business and economy news service based in Santiago, Chile, brought together dozens of executives from both public and private companies in the sector. Many were highly critical of the model chosen for the country’s new hydroelectric power plants, which they believe will result in greater energy insecurity in Brazil.  “Future generations will demand compensation for the fact that biodiversity was decreased and reservoirs were not created” in current hydropower projects, predicted Jose Marques Filho, assistant director of environment and corporate citizenship at Companhia Paranaense de Energia, a power company run by the government of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná.

By renouncing the use of this “long-life battery”, as another summit participant described reservoirs, Brazil will need to build more fossil fuel-powered thermoelectric plants, which are more polluting but “are not under attack from environmentalists,” complained the hydroelectric dam constructors and their supporters.

Construction began in 2011 on the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingú River in Brazil’s Amazon basin. A total of 516 sq km of land will be flooded for the project, but this is only 42 percent of the area that would have been flooded for the reservoir planned in the original version of the project, drawn up in the 1980s.  However, because of this smaller reservoir, the plant will only reach its total generation capacity of 11,233 megawatts during the brief rainy season when the river is swollen to its highest level. During dry spells, output will decrease significantly, since the flow of the Xingú can drop from 30,000 cubic metres a second in March and April to less than 500 cubic meters in a dry month like October.

“We have to get used to hydroelectric dams without large reservoirs because the environment demands it,” said Mauricio Tolmasquim, president of the Energy Research Corporation, which provides advisory services to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The Amazon region, where most of Brazil’s hydropower potential is concentrated, is primarily flat, which means there are few sites where water can be accumulated and stored without flooding large areas of forest, he explained.  Belo Monte, located at the end of a canyon, is one of these sites. A large reservoir there would flood two indigenous territories which are home to over 200 people. “That was a determining factor” for modifying its design and adopting run-of-the-river technology, Tolmasquim told Tierramérica.  This decision, however, did not spare Belo Monte from becoming the target of the most widespread opposition ever against an energy project in Brazil, with environmentalists, civil society activists, indigenous communities and even local soap opera stars and international celebrities joining forces to denounce its environmental and social impacts.

Tapping the rivers of the Amazon basin for energy production should begin “with smaller hydroelectric dams, with an output of around 500 megawatts,” said Goldemberg, a University of São Paulo professor who has headed a number of state-owned energy companies and was the national secretary of environment when the city of Rio de Janeiro hosted the Earth Summit in 1992…..

The conflicts that sometimes halt the construction of hydropower plants in Brazil pit a small local population of perhaps a few thousand people against a million people who will benefit from the electricity produced, but are far away and geographically scattered, commented Goldemberg.  What are needed are “good projects” that are transparent and attend to the potential social and environmental impacts. In addition, it is up to the government to “mediate and explain” to settle these conflicts, given the disproportionate ratio of opponents to beneficiaries of roughly “one per one hundred,” he said.

There are much more complex situations in Asia, where enormous numbers of people are affected because of the population density of countries like India, he added. Goldemberg learned a good deal about numerous cases like these as a member of the World Commission on Dams, which produced a report in 2000 detailing the damages caused by these projects and the requirements for their construction.

For those in the hydroelectric dam construction industry, the issue of the environment has become an obstacle to the expansion of hydropower in Brazil.  In the meantime, the wind power industry has experienced a significant boost, largely because their competitors in the hydropower sector have been unable to obtain permits from the environmental authorities for years, he observed.  According to Marques Filho of the Companhia Paranaense de Energia, overcoming this impasse will require a “social pact”, based on “a dialogue among all the stakeholders” that cannot be limited to environmentalists on one side and hydroelectric dam constructors on the other.

Excerpts, Mario Osava, Belo Monte Dam Hit by Friendly Fire, Inter Press Service, May 22, 2012

To Kill an Environmentalist

The killing of Chhut Vuthy has shaken Cambodia. A well-known environmentalist and founder of the Natural Resource Protection Group, he had travelled to Koh Kong province in the west of the country to try to film illegal loggers. He was in a heavily forested area near the construction of a 338-megawatt hydropower dam being built by China Huadian, one of China’s five biggest power generators. The project is one of four dams which have drawn widespread criticism because of adjacent logging, and the impact the dams could have on wildlife and the livelihoods of local villagers.

How Mr Chhut Vuthy was killed is not clear, but the official explanation has raised eyebrows. The Cambodian army claims that he was taking photographs without permission. He was confronted by a military police officer who demanded he hand over his camera. An argument followed, says the army. Guns went off, and when the officer realised he had killed the environmentalist, it says, he turned his AK-47 on himself, managing to pull the trigger twice to shoot himself in the stomach and chest.  Mr Chhut Vuthy’s family insists a third person was involved, and after his funeral on April 28th hundreds of family, friends and human-rights activists demanded a full inquiry along with assurances from the government that their safety would be guaranteed.  Two journalists were with Mr Chhut Vuthy when he was killed. A Canadian reporter and her Cambodian colleague say they did not see who pulled the trigger after their car was confronted by a group of soldiers. They ran into the bush and sought shelter with locals, but say they heard one of the soldiers say loudly in Khmer, “Just kill them both.”

Mr Chhut Vuthy’s death is the highest-profile killing in Cambodia since a trade union leader, Chea Vichea, was shot dead in 2004. Three women were also shot in February as they campaigned for better working conditions at a factory supplying Puma, a German sportswear company.All three survived, but the alleged gunman, Chhouk Bandith, a district governor, was arrested only after local media reported that he was being hidden by politically connected friends. He was charged with causing “unintentional injuries”.

Cambodia: Blood trail, Economist, May 5, 2012, at 43