Posts Tagged ‘Dams’

Keeping the Amur River Wild and Free

Friday, December 12th, 2014

The Amur River is the largest, still free-flowing river in Asia, and its basin the most biodiverse region in Russia. But its vast forests, wetlands, and steppes, as well as its endemic tigers, leopards, cranes, and bears are threatened by a voracious demand for energy and natural resources.


Large-scale dam building threatens the mighty Amur River basin, the largest, still free-flowing river system in Asia.


Drawing on lessons learned over the past 25 years, Pacific Environment’s new report, Conservation Investment Strategy for the Russian Far East,  reflects the geographical and strategic priorities identified by some of the world’s most respected experts on the region.

In addition to Arctic ice ecosystems in Chukotka and salmon ecosystems throughout the Far East, the Amur River basin was selected as one of three high-priority regions for future conservation investments.

As the most promising strategies for success in the Amur River basin, the report’s experts recommend focusing on stopping proposed dams on the Amur River and quickly expanding the Amur’s protected areas to include its vast wetlands.

Eugene Simonov, a longtime partner of Pacific Environment, is a successful grassroots activists and one of the world’s foremost experts on the region. He is spearheading Rivers without Boundaries, a coalition of grassroots environmental groups from Russia, China, Mongolia, and the U.S. that seeks to preserve river basins in northeast Eurasia through joint advocacy and promotion of best practices in river management.


In the following Q&A, Eugene highlights the global importance of the Amur River basin.

Q: Why is the Amur River Basin so important for global conservation efforts?

BESIDES ITS OBVIOUS GLOBAL BIODIVERSITY VALUE and outstanding qualities of free-flowing river, the Amur is also an important example of sharp contrasts among countries—natural, cultural, economic, psychological. Russia, Mongolia, and China essentially belong to three different civilizational roots and each of the countries dominated the whole Amur Basin at one time in history. You can hardly find another river basin on Earth that is so deeply divided. You have the country with the biggest appetite for natural resources bordering countries that believe their resources are boundless. Yet they share one river ecosystem and understand they have to protect their common environment, despite the desire to extract and transport natural resources. The future of the Amur depends on where they strike the balance and whether they find adequate common language to agree on rules of cooperation. This is a unique experiment that has a lot to tell us about the solutions to global problems.

Q: The Amur Basin has a well-developed civil society and a wealth of scientists and experts working on conservation. But the region is so vast and there are so many conservation challenges, what is the ultimate priority?

FOR FRESHWATER ECOSYSTEMS, THE GREATEST PRIORITY is to agree on new ecologically sound objectives for common river basin management. Once upon a time, in 1986, Russia and China agreed to ruin this river completely by a chain of hydropower dams in the main stem. The Amur was saved partly because of mutual mistrust, and partly because of a huge educational effort undertaken by conservationists. We have yet to replace the mechanical ideal of artificial reservoirs generating energy with a more sustainable, mutually agreeable management goal.

Q: The 2013 flooding may have been good for the Amur River and its flora and fauna, but it devastated many communities, and resulted in new calls for more dams and flood control infrastructure. How can people value the natural river when it’s a threat to their livelihoods, even lives?

PEOPLE OF THEIR FREE WILL HAVE CHOSEN TO SETTLE IN FLOOD-PRONE AREAS because of their proximity to water, naturally fertilized floodplain soil, abundance of fish, and so on. They do value the natural river. Even at the height of the 2013 floods, polls showed that most people didn’t see dams as a remedy for floods. Funds that the government is now trying to earmark for building new dams could be better used for modernization and adaptation of riverine municipalities, so new settlement infrastructure and economy are better adapted to floods and droughts. Russian regions along the Amur do not lack land resources, so there are opportunities to avoid this conflict just by not building residences and production facilities in the floodplains.

Q: Even if Russian citizens and authorities were to implement the most rigorous conservation standards and practices, won’t China’s voracious appetites for raw materials still overwhelm the Russian Far East?

THE REAL QUESTION IS WHETHER RUSSIAN AND CHINESE AUTHORITIES and businesses could develop and enforce such rigorous standards and practices. The two countries share many environmental objectives (like tiger protection or river pollution prevention). Success is not granted, but quite feasible.

Will the Three Gorges Dam Stay Number One?

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

The Three Gorges Dam Corporation celebrated their completion of the world’s largest hydropower project by announcing that over 100 engineering innovations had been created during the course of construction. And they boasted breaking several world records to get the dam built, such as the record for the amount of concrete poured at any one time. Engineers clearly learned something from building the Three Gorges Dam, but what about the rest of us? What have environmentalists, geologists, social scientists, biologists, and others learned from the Three Gorges Dam? This was the topic of a two day symposium that I attended this past weekend, hosted by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, and Probe International.

Robert Goodland, former World Bank environmental advisor and Dai Qing, Probe Internationall

The inspiration for the symposium came when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued a statement in May of 2011 admitting the Three Gorges Dam has had its share of problems, both foreseen and unforeseen. This official expression of concern seemed to open the doors wider for public debate on the project.  Symposium organizers did an incredible job gathering a broad lineup of Chinese experts, who perhaps because of the May declaration as well as the “neutral” setting of UC Berkeley, were willing to take part in an a rare interdisciplinary discussion on what the world’s largest hydropower project has taught China, and the world.

Yet many of the government-funded scientists from China presented a view of the project as one that, while not without its faults, had largely contributed to the good of the Chinese people. Weng Lida of the Yangtze Valley Water Resources Protection Bureau gave the dam high marks for its flood control benefits, though he admitted the dam “weakened the gorge feeling” and that “the main structure is finished but many other aspects are not finished yet, including many things proposed in the Environmental Impact Statement.” The representative of the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute, Chen Daqing, declined to pin the severe demise of Yangtze fisheries to Three Gorges Dam itself, instead citing overfishing, water quality decline, and many other dam projects as equal contributors.

One of the strongest criticisms of the project was made by Ren Xinghui of the Beijing-based think tank the Transition Institute, who presented a disheartening story of his repeated attempts to use China’s new information disclosure laws to reveal details of Three Gorges Dam project funding. Later in the symposium, laughter and consternation alike filled the hall when the nature of the Three Gorges Dam funding was compared to the US government bailout of private banks.

What have we learned from the Three Gorges Dam? Data presented at the symposium points to several lessons:

  • Project costs were far higher than anticipated.
  • Landslides in the reservoir area and reservoir-induced earthquakes have been greater in number and more severe than anticipated.
  • The number of resettled people was far higher than anticipated (nearly double, and growing!)
  • The negative impacts of resettlement on people (such as their ability to resume former livelihoods) were greater than anticipated.
  • Water quality in the reservoir was worse than anticipated.
  • The impacts on fisheries, hydrology, and sediment (and probably many other issues) can probably only be adequately understood through river-basin wide impact assessments, which were never completed, and are not being undertaken now.
  • Lack of consensus on primary project purpose (hydropower versus flood control) may have limited the dam’s ability to fill either function very well.

Those who continue to build mega-dams around the world may want to take note not only of the world record innovations, but also the world record headaches caused by the dam.

But could another Three Gorges Dam ever be built? I don’t think so. In a presentation on the human costs of the project, Chen Guojie, Institute of Mountain Disaster and the Environment, pointed out that the Chinese government had clearly decided early on that “the value of one million people [was] lower than the value of the Three Gorges Project.” But China is a different country than it was in 1992, when the Three Gorges Dam was approved. And though bad dams continue to be built in China and around the world, the days of forced relocation on the scale of the Three Gorges Dam are hopefully over for good.

Dams in the Altai

Friday, August 21st, 2009


On Monday July 20, the Governor of the Altai Republic, Alexander Berdnikov, approved the development plan of the Chemal region in the Altai Republic. This seemingly unimportant event is of considerable significance for the environmental health and safety of Chemal. The exclusion of the Katun Dam project from the Chemal development plan is going to save 770 hectares of vital land.  This land contains critical habitats for rare and endangered plant and animal species, local fisheries, as well as hundreds of residential areas along Katun River that provide employment to local communities.

On March 18th, Berdnikov made an official statement that the region needed alternatives to the proposed Katun Dam to combat the lack of energy generating capacity in the Altai Republic .  The Altai gasification project was completed in 2008, bringing a major pipeline from Barnaul to Gorno-Altaisk and now project developers are working on designs for a 96 megawatt gas-fired power plant in Maima. Berdnikov said that a plant in Maima could be a potential alternative to the dam. “It is a possibility that the hydro-electric dam construction does not make economic sense. We do not have a goal to build the dam at all costs; our main goal is to resolve the problem of the energy deficiency in the region. If it turns out that the power plant in Maima and a cascade of small hydro dams on Chuya River are sufficient to supply energy needs in the republic, it is most likely that we [will] reject the plans for the dam construction in Chemal region,” noted Berdnikov.

The idea to build a hydro electric station on the Katun River first emerged in the 1980s, but the project declined thanks to strong local opposition. In the late 1990s the project was again under consideration, but the plans did not bloom until early 2005 when the local administration, backed by Moscow-based financial interests, tried to re-launch the project. Like 20 years ago, the dam construction plans met a great deal of opposition – a coalition of local and international environmental activists initiated a large campaign against the dam by sending petitions to the local and federal governments and providing information to prospective investors about the project’s environmental and economic risks. Although the news about the adoption of the new Chemal development plan and Berdnikov’s recent statements were a great relief for a lot of people, there is always a chance that these plans make way their way back on the decision-makers’ table.

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