Water Salon Insights I

Water and Hydropower Development in China

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A: China needs hydropower

China produces and burns more coal than any other country in the world. The nation has been optimizing its energy mix, regulating coal production and consumption, and boosting renewables over the past few years under pressure from the need to tackle climate change, air pollution and water scarcity. It has made a commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by 40%-50% by 2020 over 2005 levels.  It has also pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and ensure that about 20% of its energy comes from non-fossil fuel sources by the same year.

Hydropower development is inevitable in China because the country needs deal with climate change, adjust its energy mix and ensure energy security to support stable socio-economic development. Hydropower is considered a clean and renewable energy because it does not significantly contribute to the emissions of conventional pollutants or greenhouse gases. It also plays a key role in China’s strategy to develop renewable resources. China has a great hydropower potential. Currently it has only developed about 63.8% of its hydropower resources. But the percentage for many developed countries is 80%. Existing technologies for hydropower are well developed; it is cost effective and can generate huge amounts of energy. Hydropower harvests the energy of water flow without consuming any other resources. One river can also have several hydropower stations. These plants use simple technologies that are easy and cheap to maintain.  Alternative renewable resources in comparison are more costly to develop and are beset by barriers in terms of their large-scale uptake. Thus, China clearly needs to further develop its hydropower resources. The key problem is to find a solution to sustainably develop these resources without damaging the environment.

B: Insufficient attention is given to the negative environmental impacts of hydropower development

Although hydropower has made a great contribution to state energy security, adjustments to the energy structure and emissions reduction, its unsustainable development has had significant negative effects on the environment and society. For example, many hydropower projects have cut the connectivity of rivers. An excessive number of hydropower stations on one stretch will produce a cumulative effect that can harm marine ecosystems. Some hydropower projects impact the landscape alongside the river – requiring resettling of communities for example – and this may have a long-term impact on the environment of the entire river basin. These negative effects drive up the social costs of hydropower development but they are not reflected in official assessments. There has been little research undertaken on the principles behind or the actual impacts of hydropower development on the environment. The Three Gorges Project, for example, has played a significant part in flood control, electricity generation and shipping since its launch in 2003. However, during the planning stage, little attention was given to the environmental impact of the project which meant that when it was rolled out, it triggered a number of environmental problems, including the dumping of sediment on the river bed, rising water levels, deterioration of water quality, river bed degradation and problems with the spawning of fish. The China Three Gorges Project Corporation (CTGPC) has studied how it can solve or repair some of these problems. The results of these studies in 2011 indicated that Asian carp are now spawning properly and the problem of sedimentation has also been alleviated. However, the project is still destroying the aquatic environment of the Yangtze River Basin and the river ecology has not been recovered. Three Gorges Project is the first high dam on the main stream of the Yangtze River and its impacts are far from stability. A cascade of hydropower stations upstream on the Jinsha River (a tributary of the Yangtze) is under construction. Therefore, currently it is difficult to make a systematic and integrated assessment on the impacts of the Three Gorges Project.

C: China should study the impacts of hydropower development on ecosystem

The sustainable development of hydropower requires China to use an integrated evaluation system to assess the impacts of a hydropower project on the ecosystem, and to study the mitigation measures and compensation schemes to reduce the negative impacts during the construction and operation of the hydropower stations.

Such a system needs good data and a sound scientific basis. It should examine data on climate change forecasting, diversity of water use, the influence of water consumers, and the level of public awareness. The system should focus on a single river basin that should help to provide the facts or data on which to base solutions. It can also be used in the planning stage when deciding where to locate a project.

Research should also look at the mitigation and compensation measures in connection with the impacts of hydropower construction or operation. The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Eco-Environmental Protection in Hydropower Development stipulates that all hydropower projects must conduct assessments on environmental impacts and the results of these assessments should determine revisions to the plans. Areas that should be studied among others are: the influence of low-temperature water of reservoir discharge flow; the protection of vulnerable species and protection measures; fish habitat and protection; and protection measures for affected land-based ecologies.

D: Hydropower development plans must not endanger the country’s ecological security

As hydropower develops in China, their economic advantages are falling while environmental costs are rising. Under the new central government administration, environmental protection should be the first priority of any hydropower project and it must feature prominently when drawing up plans.

First of all, important natural capitals should be evaluated and ecological protection red lines should be designated on a sound basis. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country developed its hydropower resources at a rapid speed. However, at that time, the environment was never a consideration and many of those projects have caused irreversible environmental damage even though they also contributed a great deal to the socio-economic growth. West China, for example, has rich water resources and nature reserves that are home to rare species. There are also many unique landforms and ecosystems. Because several hydropower projects did not incorporate measures to protect the environment these plants have harmed a number of protected areas with rare resources. An area’s environment should be graded on its “irreplaceability”, “universal value”, “ecosystem services” and “social factors” and should then be divided into regions that can be developed, that can be partially developed or should be closed to development. Hydropower projects should not be allowed in areas which are extremely environmentally valuable. Such areas are those with important fresh water ecosystems, areas rich in biodiversity or ecological value, zones that can help the region deal with climate change or other environmental pressures, and official protected areas (such as internationally important wetlands, world heritage sites, etc.). Instead use existing resources more efficiently and improve the management of power stations. New power stations should be built as a last resort.

When the project is inevitable, its site selection should be packed with a proposal for a maximal reservation of ecosystem or an overall ecological process. Meanwhile, the scale and time series of development should be reasonably designated. In addition, it should be sought to have non-engineering schemes that have little influence on ecosystem, (i.e. wetland restoration, flood storage, etc.) and nonpermanent alternative schemes for minimizing damages of projects to environment.

E: China needs a national hydropower development plan that is coordinated with local economic development

On the premise of national ecological security, the principle for hydropower development should be followed in China that “power operation complies with water operation, and water operation complies with ecological operation”. Hydropower projects should also take into account the needs of local economic growth. In other words, environmental protection should be part of local socio-economic growth plans.

However, these areas are handled by different sectors and this fragmentation of management means that it is very difficult to bring about integrated hydropower development. Therefore it is urgent that China sets up a mechanism to coordinate these different sectors so as to create a comprehensive water resources plan that satisfies local economic development needs and protects the environment while allowing hydropower to develop fully. The goal is the sustainable development of river basins and regions.

Therefore, a national river basin hydropower development plan needs to be worked out with emphasis on coordinating river basin development and the local economic growth. First, an organization to oversee the management of river basin planning should be set up. Its main tasks should be to coordinate between the different sectors and regions and to guide hydropower development. This is a complete shake up of the current development mode. Second, hydropower development should conform with reforms made to the state investment approval mechanism.  That means, development goals should be scientific and an overarching plan for the project should be clearly set out. Local plans should fit in with the national plan and departments responsible for hydropower projects should work closely with the environmental protection and the energy policy departments.

F: Improve the oversight of the construction and operation of hydropower plants to ensure the implementation of ecological protection measures

When it is certain that a hydropower project will go ahead, detailed measures on protecting the environment need to be incorporated into the plan at the initial stages. Project developers can use innovative technologies and advanced management methods to ensure environmental protection. Governments also bear a responsibility to ensure that they continuously monitor the hydropower project, and public participation is important as well. The ideal solution is a combination of administrative management, market regulations and the supervision of civil society in accordance with national policies and laws. Local governments and project developers are responsible for making sure this happens.

Companies have a duty to protect the environment. Incentives can ensure that companies meet regulations and use innovative methods to protect the environment during hydropower development. This will drive the development of technologies and money into the market.

Local governments approve projects and oversee implementation and so they have a duty to ensure that mechanisms covering these processes are the best and most effective. There has been a decentralization of hydropower project approval from the central government to local governments and the approval process has been simplified which has encouraged many local governments to approve more projects. Local governments should reject all those plans that do not include measures to protect the environment and those where the environmental and social costs are higher than the economic benefits. Local governments should make sure that tough and routine environmental checks are carried out on those projects that are under construction or completed. Any project that fails such an evaluation should immediately modify their plan to address the problem. Local governments should also identify those hydropower plants that provide more environmental and social benefits and support these with more favorable terms so they can operate for longer and further develop technologies. Those plants that do not score highly on environmental and social benefits can be forced to apply for a new license or even be closed down. It is critical that local governments are tough on environmental performance so that the ecology of river basins can be restored. A mechanism that oversees plants throughout their entire operational lifetime should be installed. Those who approve violators and do not penalize them should also be punished. Local governments should be flexible in approving plants by assessing the local situation, the risks and the opportunities. It should facilitate dialogue between companies, environmental NGOs and the public and propose policies and management principles for local hydropower development while fulfilling its governance obligations. 

G: The public and NGOs should be involved in the development of hydropower projects

The public is a key stakeholder in hydropower development. The public consumes hydropower (electricity) and people’s lives are affected by power plant construction and operation (flood control and navigation) while others need to be resettled. It is clear, therefore, that public participation is important to ensure the sustainable development of hydropower resources so that public interests are protected and negative impacts are minimized.

Projects should be open to public scrutiny throughout all stages, right through from planning, approval, and implementation to management. The public should be part of the monitoring process over hydropower plants’ impacts on the environment. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) will complete its reform of the rules governing the approval process by the end of 2015. This reform will open all projects to public scrutiny on its website as part of a public right to know initiative. In many developed countries, public participation is a key part in the evaluation of a project’s environmental impact. However, in China the mechanism that supports public participation in evaluating environmental impacts has some problems and it should be supplemented with details on how the public can get involved. Public participation allows everyone to take part in the evaluation process and it promotes communication between governments, corporations and the public, so that open and transparent hydropower development is possible.

It’s important to make the results of environmental impact assessments available and comprehensible to the public and engage local people to help monitor the impacts of existing hydropower plants on the environment.

NGOs should also play a key role in the development of hydropower projects, particularly in the planning process. Environmental NGOs have supervised, supported and assisted in the approval of hydropower plants in recent years. NGOs have no commercial interests and they have more technical knowledge than the general public so they can provide constructive recommendations and ideas in an objective and professional manner. Furthermore, some NGOs with international experience can help by offering examples and case studies from overseas to act as a reference for local projects.
It is important to protect the public’s right to know and the right to participate as well as allowing NGOs to participate fully in guiding hydropower development.


The first Water Salon was organized on 11th May 2015. It focused on water resources and hydropower development in China. We wish to offer our heartfelt thanks to all the specialists and guests who joined us; that is Shi Qiuchi, Tang Kewang, Jiang Luguang, Liao Sihui, Liu Guihuan, Li Danning, Wang Longzhu, Yin Le, Zhang Dazhi, Zhu Jinji, whose participation, encouragement, guidance and support from the very beginning enabled us to develop a common understanding of China’s water and hydropower development vision.

We would also like to offer our regards and best wishes to everyone who supported us in making sure that our first Water Salon was so successful.


The Water Salon is a joint initiative by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Global Water Partnership (GWP) China, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It provides a broad platform where specialists from government, academic institutions, NGOs, financial organizations and corporations are invited to speak on water management issues, to provide support for decision-making and to contribute towards China’s water security.

Work area: 
Social Policy
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