Chinese rulers have always seen controlling water as part of their heavenly mandate. During the last 60 years, they have diverted rivers to feed inefficient irrigation systems, abused them as sewage canals for polluting industries, and choked them with more than 20,000 large dams. As a consequence, rivers, lakes, and wetlands have dwindled, fisheries are collapsing, water supplies have become unfit for human consumption, and China's coastal areas are engulfed by toxic algae blooms every summer. Moreover, dams have displaced at least 23 million people, and according to Chinese-American scientists, one particular project, the Zipingpu Dam, likely triggered the devastating earthquake that claimed 80,000 lives in Sichuan in 2008.
In response to the growing water crisis, the Chinese government has successively strengthened its water protection laws and regulations over the past 20 years. Yet the reality has not kept pace with such legal changes. In collusion with local government officials, project developers routinely flout environmental protection measures when they impinge on economic growth. Jiang Gaoming, a professor of botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has charged that environmental impact assessments for hydropower projects have become a "marginalized and decorative process, seen as just a part of the cost of doing business." In recent years, construction projects started at several large dams on the Yangtze River even though their impact assessments had not yet been approved. And this year, a government body simply redrew the boundaries of a vitally important fish reserve on the same river to allow a midsize hydropower project to go forward. The decision may sound the death knell for the majestic Yangtze sturgeon and other migrating fish species. According to an official of the local environmental protection bureau, the dam was necessary "for the sake of economic growth."
The technical and engineering solutions that the new five-year plan proposes will not bring relief for China's freshwater resources. For instance, China's National Energy Administration has already announced that new hydropower projects, which it considers a source of green energy, will be approved to the tune of 140 gigawatts under the new plan. (In comparison, the United States has installed just 80 gigawatts of hydropower capacity in its entire history.) If the dam projects go forward, they will destroy areas that even the government has called "epicenter[s] of Chinese biodiversity." In addition, many dams are scheduled to be built on the earthquake-prone fault lines that mark the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates.
The Chinese government hopes that the massive expansion of hydropower will allow it to sustain rapid economic growth while it gradually shifts away from fossil fuels. Yet the country already pays a high price for the collapse of its freshwater ecosystems. Its dams have destroyed and degraded freshwater resources on which hundreds of millions of people depend. Around the world, rivers, lakes, and wetlands have undergone more dramatic changes than any other type of ecosystem. The U.N. Environment Program warns that "natural systems that support economies, lives and livelihoods across the planet are at risk of rapid degradation and collapse" and that it would be arrogant to "imagine we can get by without biodiversity." If China's unprecedented dam-building spree is approved by the National People's Congress, it will undermine the foundations of the country's long-term prosperity.
China's new five-year plan essentially proposes to sacrifice the country's arteries to save its lungs. This impasse illustrates that China will not be able to engineer its way out of a mounting environmental crisis. . . .