Emissions, Hydroelectric

China to focus on hydropower for sustainable development

1 November 2004 – China will put priority on hydroelectric projects as part of its sustainable development strategy to reduce pollution resulting from burning coal, a government official said.

Addressing a United Nations symposium on hydropower and sustainable development which concluded on Friday in Beijing, Zhang Guobao, vice-minister of the State Development and Reform Commission (SDRC), made it clear that “China views hydropower as a clean energy source and an important part of overall energy strategy in the years ahead.”

China’s hydroelectric reserves stand at 700 GW, 40 per cent of the its total conventional sources of energy, according to the latest SDRC statistics.

Although China’s hydropower exploitation potential ranks first in the world, its utilization ratio is still very low at 24 per cent, Suo Lisheng, vice-minister of water resources, said.

“In developed countries, the figure is often more than 60 per cent and even as high as 80 per cent,” he said.

To meet the needs of China’s developing economy in the next 20 years, power supplies especially hydropower will be developed rapidly, Suo confirmed.

During that process, however, authorities will be urged to take the environment into account, Suo promised.

Overall planning, design, operation and management of hydropower projects will be done in an environmentally friendly way, SDRC sources said.

Today, hydropower plants of varying sizes are in operation in some 140 countries, providing about one-fifth of global electricity supplies, Jose Antonio Ocampo, under secretary-general for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) of the United Nations, said during a message to the symposium.

In more than 50 countries and regions, hydropower accounts for half or more of domestic electricity.

“Once built, hydropower facilities have low operating costs and a long service life, particularly run-of-river and reservoir projects where sedimentation is not a concern,” he noted.

Current and projected high oil prices make it an important option, in particular for oil-importing developing countries.

If the electricity currently produced from the world’s hydropower stations was to be produced from fossil fuels, the equivalent of an additional 4.4 million barrels of oil would be needed each day.

“Energy is also critical to eradicating poverty and improving human health and welfare,” the UN official said.

Some 2 billion people throughout the world do not have access to modern energy services and the international community faces a great challenge in providing safe and clean energy to power economic development.

In this regard, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, calls for the diversification of global energy supply and increasing the share of renewable energy, including hydropower, according to the UN official.

Although the economic importance of hydropower plants cannot be underestimated, their construction also has brought inevitable negative effects on the environment, officials and experts admitted.

Large-scale hydropower projects usually force tens of thousands of locals to leave their homes to make way for construction, change river courses, cause sedimentation and water quality can deteriorate.

Plants may also change local climates, induce geological disasters and thus threaten the original ecological environment along river basins.

A mammoth dam project proposed by local authorities on the Nujiang River in Yunnan Province has been put on hold after concerns about its impact on the environment and biodiversity were raised.

As one of the best optional renewable resources of the world, hydropower will nonetheless continue to play a key role in promoting many countries’ sustainable development, eradicating poverty and improving human life in the years ahead, many participants agreed.

However, its adverse impacts on environment must be mitigated. The issue has evoked increasing debate since the 1990s and has even slowed construction of some large dams since then.

The symposium has set out to examine issues related to hydropower development in the context of sustainable development with the objective of providing expert advice to assist governments in making informed policy decisions for the implementation of hydropower projects.

Jointly sponsored by UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Chinese Government and the World Bank, the event has brought together about 400 officials, experts, and participants from China and more than other 30 countries to discuss how to use hydropower in line with sustainable development.