Socioeconomic vulnerability in China's hydropower development
Approximately 78% of China's electricity demand is met by burning coal, which has taken a serious toll on the environment. Hydropower represents a sustainable alternative source, and China already derives 16% of its electricity supply from hydropower. However, evidence from other hydroelectric projects such as the Three Gorges Dam suggests that the socioeconomic consequences of such large public works projects are enormous. A series of dams has been proposed for the middle and lower reaches of the Nu River (Upper Salween) in Yunnan Province. If completed, the 13-dam cascade would have greater power-generating potential than the Three Gorges Dam. However, the Nu is considered to be the last "virgin" river in China, and many of the proposed dams are located in an environmentally-sensitive area. Moreover, approximately 50,000 people - many of them ethnic minorities - would be forced to resettle by the resulting reservoirs [Yardley, Jim. "Dam Building Threatens China's 'Grand Canyon'." New York Times, 2004, March 10.]. Finally, the economic status of northwestern Yunnan is quite low, suggesting that socioeconomic vulnerabilities among the displaced population would be quite acute. Although construction has officially been halted, surveying has begun on at least five of the dams, and Wang [Wang, Xiaozong, "Quan Guo Ren Da Guan Yuan: Nu Jiang Shui Dian Kai Fa Bu Yi Cao Zhi Guo Ji", China Economics Weekly, 2008, March 31.] reports that the actual construction process has begun on one of these dams. After providing a detailed account of China's electricity supply, this paper quantifies China's hydropower potential. We then describe the socioeconomic effects of population displacement from dam development using the Three Gorges Dam as a case study. Next, we provide a detailed economic profile of the Nu River area, arguing that poor farmers from disparate language groups are more likely to face extreme vulnerabilities in the resettlement process. Finally, we employ microevidence from interviews of affected households to demonstrate that the dam construction process in western Yunnan has been neither transparent nor consultative.
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