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China’s New Green Debate: Saving the Planet vs Saving the Planet

·6 min read

(Bloomberg) -- China’s largest freshwater lake has become the center of controversy after the local government revived a plan to build a dam across it, a project shelved six years ago after environmental protests. Now the developers say they have a new reason to build the barrier — helping the environment.

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Three times the size of London, Poyang Lake is one of the nation’s most important wetlands, and the revived battle between authorities and protest groups raises the question of whether provincial governments are using Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s call for an “ecological civilization” to repackage development projects and sell them as benefitting nature.

The local government in Jiangxi province says damming the lake will allow it to conserve water and deal with increasingly frequent droughts as the climate warms, helping local wildlife as well as providing irrigation and improved navigation on the 170 kilometer-long (105-mile) waterway. Opponents argue that the barrier would damage the ecosystem for dozens of species of migratory birds and cause more widespread environmental effects by disrupting the flow of water downstream.

The two sides have a different idea of what constitutes “ecological protection,” said Wang Yamin, a professor at Shandong University’s Marine College. To the local government, the water is mainly a resource for humans to use; to environmentalists it is about the health of the wider ecosystem. “Everyone is talking about ecology, but we need an objective understanding and assessment of the impacts,” said Wang. “Authorities need to be honest with both the good and the bad side.”

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Jiangxi released an environmental impact assessment (EIA) last month for the project, giving just two weeks to review the 1,200-page document before a public consultation hearing this weekend. The office did not respond to an email from Bloomberg seeking comment.

Poyang Lake sits on the south bank of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, serving as a flood outlet by absorbing some of the excess water during the wet season and allowing it to drain back into the river during the dry period. The natural fluctuation in the size of the lake has created a biodiversity hotspot that hosts 102 species of fish and 300 types of birds.

The Jiangxi government says climate change is upsetting that balance, causing dry seasons to begin earlier and last longer, and the dam is needed to prevent water levels from falling further. Temperatures in the Poyang Lake Basin have risen an average of 0.02℃ a year in the 55 years since 1961, resulting in more dry spells in spring and summer, according to the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. As drought becomes the new normal, “the water environment can no longer meet the requirements for social-economic development,” the Poyang Lake Water Conservancy Project Construction Office said in a report.

But seasonal weather changes are only part of the story. Poyang Lake is part of one of the world’s largest river basins, with complex, interacting systems. The Three Gorges Dam, 1,000 kilometers upstream from the mouth of the lake, had a major impact on the floodplains downstream, when it opened two decades ago. By holding back silt, the world’s biggest hydropower station has lowered the riverbed downstream, allowing more of Poyang’s water to drain away, according to environmental group Probe International.

With the construction of each new dam, pressure mounted on other local authorities along the river and its tributaries to create their own stores of water and hydro generators, a domino effect that has led to more than 50,000 dams in the Yangtze basin, including over 100 large hydropower projects. At least 70% of the wetlands along the river have vanished since the 1950s.

For Jiangxi and the cities around Poyang lake, the solution is to follow suit. The local authority argues that its proposed 3 kilometer-long sluice gate will stop water draining into the Yangtze between September and March each year. According to the project’s EIA, the higher water level will not only help reduce drought and provide irrigation, but also benefit birds with more food produced in the lake.

Those claims have been challenged by environmental groups. Friends of Nature says the EIA failed to do a comprehensive evaluation and the dam will block the migration of the endangered Yangtze finless porpoise. It said the report’s finding that the project wouldn’t negatively affect migrating wild geese is “unscientific" and lacks proper research.

“Without comprehensive scientific evidence and before eliminating the environmental risks, the project should not be put forward,” the Beijing-based group said in a statement.

Poyang Lake has not been unscathed by China’s colossal economic ascent over the past decades. Millions of tons of sand have been dredged from its bed to feed a four-decade construction boom in cities downstream such as Nanjing and Shanghai. Pollution levels in the lake have risen as neighboring farmland increased use of fertilizers and industries developed around the shores.

Local authorities have made efforts to tap the tourism potential of the area as a “heaven for migratory birds.” But they’ve met with little commercial success, and the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped. A “migratory bird town” that was built in Wucheng city near the lake in 2019 has been shut since March for Covid prevention.

“There should be some compensation to regions that lose economically because of ecological conservation,” said Li Wenjie, secretary general of Chinese non-profit Crossborder Environment Concern Association. “But it takes time to slowly establish such a system.”

While the pandemic may have stymied efforts to boost ecological tourism in the area, it has strengthened official support for the dam as Beijing prioritizes reviving the economy. In May, China’s State Council released 33 measures to mitigate the economic impact of an outbreak of the omicron virus variant, including accelerating a batch of hydro projects.

If the Poyang barrier is built, the water level would remain high all year round, improving irrigation for 2.42 million mu (160,000 hectares) of rice fields and as much as doubling the volume of shipping on the waterway by 2050, according to the EIA.

The Poyang barrier project is an example of a trend around the world of “greening” development proposals — pitching large infrastructure projects as necessary to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Many will be necessary, but without a robust, independent assessment of their long-term impact, some could end up doing more harm than good. A report earlier this year from the United-Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has a word for it: maladaptation.

“If the solution to a water problem caused by an earlier project is to start another project, it’s like making up for a mistake with another mistake,” said CECA’s Li. “It would never end.”

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