China has more than half of the world’s hydroelectric dams. It generates nearly three times as much hydroelectric power as the second biggest producer, Brazil. And it gets more energy from water than from all other renewable resources combined.

This embrace of hydropower is helping China shed fossil fuels, a mission that has taken on dramatic urgency in recent years for a population that not only fully accepts the reality of climate change, but also feels its effects on a daily basis.  

Read More: China Unveils Blockbuster $361 Billion Plan for Clean Energy

Yet for all its success, China’s approach to hydropower has also been deeply flawed. In the haste to scale up production, many dams are so inefficient that, collectively, the country loses enough energy each year to power the UK and Germany.

Millions of people have been displaced to make way for new constructions. Entire river and land ecosystems have been disrupted or ruined. And neighboring countries have been afflicted with drought as a result of China’s wrangling of transnational water sources.  

“China in general has tremendous [hydropower] potential,” Darrin Magee, chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, told Global Citizen. “But you can’t build it without eco impacts. There will always be some ecological impact.”

For example, China’s Three Gorges Dam — the world’s biggest dam —  displaced an estimated two million people from their homes and livelihoods after it was built in 2003.

Image: Wikimedia: Gugganij

The blocking of the Yangtze River has devastated fish populations. The enormous pressure caused by the dam has increased the likelihood of earthquakes, and landslides. And by halting the flow of the river, ensuring that a reservoir sits still and stagnates, it has greatly reduced water quality.  

Read More: 80% of Water From Wells in Rural China Is Polluted

But hydropower does not cause carbon emissions, and that’s the key distinction for Chinese officials. The country endures such debilitating air, water, and soil pollution from burning fossil fuels, that even if an alternative has substantial drawbacks, it will still be aggressively pursued.

Magee said that the country will move forward with hydropower for three simple reasons. First, the leadership is desperate to limit carbon emissions. Second, the country has a geography conducive to hydropower: tall mountains, powerful rivers. And third, less than half of China’s hydro potential has been realized.

“The leadership and the Chinese people increasingly are very aware that they can’t just have a coal-powered economy, growing at 7% to 10% a year, and expect breathable air and drinkable air and farmable land,” Magee said.  

China is also working from a bigger picture standpoint that overlooks the concerns of local populations.

Image: Qiu Bo for Greenpeace

”A lot of these impacts happen in the name of the greater good being reducing emissions,” Magee said. “[Most] negative impacts are so acutely felt locally, whereas the benefits accrue much more broadly. We get a little bit more reliable power grid and less carbon emitted into atmosphere, but just by the nature of hydro, by definition, those impacts are felt very acutely and locally.”

Read More: 5 Most Powerful Hydroelectric Dams in the World

Recently, China announced an ambitious plan for renewable investments through 2020.

While solar energy will receive the bulk of investments to quintuple capacity, hydropower investments are not negligible. And by 2050, the country intends to at least triple its hydro capacity. By then, renewables could account for more 86% of the country’s electricity.

Part of this plan emphasizes the need to account for environmental harms. As a result, the government has been slightly more accommodating to citizens displaced by dams and there has been greater consideration to where dams are located in an effort to reduce ecological disruption, Magee points out.

Image: Flickr: Josh

But the best way to limit the harms of hydropower going forward is to improve efficiency throughout the entire energy sector.

For instance, if all incandescent light bulbs were replaced with LED bulbs, then the amount of energy saved would be equal to the amount product by the Three Gorges Dam. Further, commonsense changes to industrial pumps and fans can reduce the country’s electricity use by an estimated 20%, according to Magee, which is as much as energy as the country’s hydroelectricity.  

China is also working to implement a national smart grid that would conserve far more energy and be adaptive to shifts in supplies. Both wind and solar power are susceptible to weather changes — days with less wind and less sun mean less energy. By having dams hooked up to a smart grid, dips in other renewable sources would no longer lead to blackouts and all the ensuing problems these cause.   

Ultimately, China does not want to put its economy on hold to mend the environment. So only once emissions fall to a reasonable level, and the economy can run on other energy sources, will the country begin to address the environmental and social costs of hydropower, Magee suggested. As long as fossil fuels pour into the atmosphere at unprecedented levels, other problems are secondary.

But with the environment deteriorating daily, it’s hard to know what can be salvaged in the future.


Defend the Planet

The Hidden Costs of China’s Role as a World Leader in Hydropower

By Joe McCarthy