May 24, 2012 03:17 PM

Rinsing Away the Failures of Hydropower

Villagers in Qinghai saw their livelihoods sold down the river, only to be bought back up again by the local government with public funds. This year, one municipal government quietly rolled out policies to shut down tens of small hydropower plants, although details are sparse on how much and who will be funding a policy about-face on small hydropower in the region.

On April 10, a hydropower station on a tributary of the Huangshui River in Qinghai Province was shut down after operating for 68 years. Part of a program launched by the government of Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, and the power plant was just one of nearly 20 which are slated to be purchased back by the government and then closed.

Of these 20 small hydropower stations, eight have been in use for less than ten years. The Shancheng hydropower station, built in April 2009, generates only 7.6 million kilowatt hours (kwh) annually. China counts those with installed capacity of less than 10,000 kilowatts as small hydropower stations.

Wan Haifeng, director of integrated watershed management for the Huangshui River, said the 20 hydropower stations in the Xining segment of the river are diversion-type hydropower stations which "severely damage the ecological environment."

Diversion-type hydropower stations use canals to lead river water away and generate power at a relatively low water level. Small hydropower plants on the Huangshui have always received the support of provincial and prefectural governments. A 1971 plan on hydropower states that "The hydropower reserves of the Huangshui and its two main tributaries are 452,400 kilowatts. There are 50 proposed small hydropower stations recently with total installed capacity of 2,575 kilowatts."

Environmentalists have attacked this type of small hydropower station because the large amounts of water diverted from the river often result in downstream water shortages and sometimes transform the landscape by choking off rivers and killing wildlife.

Qinghai moved to close the small hydropower stations in the Huangshui watershed due to environmental degradation. "The shutting down of hydropower stations in the Huangshui watershed is for pollution control, and for the landscape," said Wan.

The Huangshui River, also called the Xining River, is 374 kilometers long and the largest tributary in the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The region is home to 60 percent of Qinghai's population, 52 percent of its arable land, and more than 70 percent of its industrial and mining enterprises. Consequently, the Huangshui is known as the "Mother River" of Qinghai.

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