December did not seem a good time to take the four-day cruise along the Yangtze gorges and risk finding them and China’s biggest tourist attraction, the Three Gorges Dam complex visitors’ centre, shrouded in fog. It seemed wiser to head for the giant Buddha at Leshan at the confluence of its three rivers and then onto another big tourist attraction, the confluence of the three rivers at Yibin and its nearby geothermal spa at Xiangjiaba.

It is these complexes of rivers which are slated to provide the provinces of Sichuan and Hunan (and major cities beyond them through new grid links) with China’s next major power input. Even by road, the winter fog and compounding smoke pollution turned the days gray. The circular road journey south and back from Chengdu (population 10 million on the Min and Tuo rivers, leading to the Yangtze and linked to 40 other rivers) would also give me a better insight into power and water use and conservation in this western part of China adjoining Tibet.

A kind invitation to a wedding lunch en route was a chance to chat about water and harvests and the price of renowned local oranges. It was a big family gathering with telephone engineers and teachers, travel entrepreneur and village rice and fruit growers. The special ‘honour’ fish on the table provoked a discussion about farmed trout and carp and electricity supplies (I had only one brief power cut in four weeks) and the ever expanding mobile telephone network. This was China in the flesh even though in best dress.

Over the years, this analyst has generally had to make long diversions into remote areas, sometimes by helicopter in Norway or days on mountain roads in India to get to some hydroelectric sites. This road route however showed how close people and expanding towns and cities often are to their hydropower sources in China. So environmental impact assessments are ever more important. The same goes for a project’s integration into the socioeconomic framework of millions of local peoples’ daily lives.

Chengdu’s environmental makeover in the past decade has been praised by New Internationalist magazine, no friend of polluters. A decade ago the city embarked on a major cleanup of its riverine areas and successfully resettled tens of thousands happily in modern flats. It also ended their daily queue at the water standpipe. The city today is a raft of high rise glass buildings and shopping centres, vertiginous roof gardens and flyovers draped in ornamental vegetation above small greened parks.

At Leshan 160km to the south, the giant cliff Buddha on the river is very big tourist business. Long esplanades allow tourist groups watch the Buddha ferry pull out on the other side of the Jiang river from among large floating restaurants. It swings across the confluence with the Min and Dadu He, to hold against the fast current in front of the statue.

Then from Leshan to Yibin on the old concrete surfaced road. Away from the modern four-lane expressway, it meant seeing a dozen different towns and driver and analyst stopped to snack on premium class fruit available at dozens of roadside stalls. More and more bamboo processing workshops came into view, their woven mats perhaps destined for Harrods, Macy’s or Bon Marché. There were fish and duck ponds and restaurants with enormous catfish painted across their windows and after 12 hours, Yibin’s lights appeared through the dark.

Early morning fog ruled out Yibin’s ultra modern viewing platform at the river confluence, so we opted for a run along the valleys to the Xiangjiaba geothermal spa. Perhaps the sun would clear the mist so we could compare it with the spa at Xianyang near Xian’s terracotta warriors, 1,0000km. north.

The Jinsha river

The spa lies at water level 370m below the road bank of the Jinsha river. It will disappear under China’s next big hydro push after the Three Gorges. Wen C. Wang, Chair of the Civil Engineering Group of the Chinese Institute of Civil Engineers (CIE), San Francisco chapter, usefully spells out the bigger picture. A four-dam, phase-I project on the Jinsha (Golden Sand River – some locals simply say Jin) the lowest dam being here at Xiangjiaba about 20 miles above Yibin – the others sited up river at Xiloudu, Baihetan and Wudongde. Work has begun on Xiloudu (put at 12,600MW) and it is estimated it will be one of the biggest by power in the world. Xiangjiaba (6,000MW)was officially flagged off on November 26, 2006 with Chinese Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan reported in the official press as saying it was necessary to consider all aspects of the Xiangjiaba development, including its impact on sustainable development. Hydroelectric projects need to be managed in an orderly manner, [those] residents forced to relocate needed to be properly looked after, the environment protected and thought given to preventing and controlling natural disasters, said Zeng. There was a warning too over doubtful cement and shortcuts when he told project staff that quality and safety were fundamental principles in hydropower developments.

Wen’s bigger detailed picture is a complex of dams stretching over more than 1,255 km with other dams at Guanyinyen, Pichang, Zili, Hongmenkou, and Hutuaoxia. He calls it the Yangtze River basin development and puts a total figure of more than 50,000MW on it

What is of direct interest in this analysis from on site as it were, is the dam projected at Xiangjiaba with a slated height of 160m, a capacity of 6,000MW, and annual output (108 kWh) of 264 and gross storage (108 m3) of 54.1

Silt for Three Gorges

One of the main engineering issues touching the future of the Three Gorges on the Yangtse is been long-term annual sedimentary threats. The dams above Yibin on the Jinsha, considered the Yangtse main tributary, will provide massive new power, but many suggest they are obliquely intended to cut the sediment the Jinsha brings down. Some estimate the Xiloudu-Xiangjiaba dam nexus could cut 30 and 40 per cent off the estimated 320-350 million tonnes of a annual silt.

The Jinsha’s overseeing enterprise is the Yangtse Electric Power Company Ltd., (YEPC – the financial offspring and listed subsidiary of the China Yangtze Three Georges Project Development Corporation).YEPC’s Chinese engineers, and whichever dam consultants they have on board, are going to have to overcome challenging geological conditions. The local road which now runs high above the Jinsha towards Xiangjiaba is a falling rock funfair. New road tunnels at Shuangjang as part of nearby, down-river construction at least offer brief protection.

Standing at Xiangjiaba village, 370m below one sees coalers and cement carriers stream up and down a narrow channel off the far bank. Dredgers are dotted about to keep the channel free. The seasonal rise and fall of the river can be seen by how far massive, smoking cement plants are positioned up the opposite hillside, their tailing ponds reach down to the low December river.

The river bed below on the road side is shallow exposes huge boulders are exposed as well as large spits of sand and gravel, the latter being worked by fleets of lorries and river vessels in partnership with the cement companies. The bank spits act as supply depôts for local coal fuel requirements to homes, factories and thermal power stations. This is a very busy water highway.

An Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) environmental impact assessment (EIA) for a major new highway in an area nearby of similar geological character, is indicative of the issues facing the Jinsha dam engineers.

It talks of arid winters which means fast seasonal level rises during of monsoon rains and “intense precipitation between June and October”. That is when “90% or 990mm of the annual rainfall occurs, restricts construction activity and increases the risks of siltation, erosion, and slope slippage. Friable rocks are present on some terraces traversed by the [highway and] these rocks dissolve when exposed to summer rains and contribute to debris flows and slope slippage,” the report adds.

We should remember that this ADB EIA is for a four-lane highway project but the project requires numerous dam embankments and culverts. Like Jinsha it has river valleys two km. to seven km, wide, with many smaller tributary streams emptying into rivers which in turn all feed into the Yangtze between Panzhihua and Yibin City.

Floods are a common issue. Preliminary research on flood discharge dissipation and a proposed special tailrace system for Xiangjiaba was presented at the 2004, 4th International Conference on Dam Engineering, Nanjing, respectively by Zeng Xionghui and colleagues and Gu Xiaoyuan and colleagues. That meeting also considered seismic issues for different types of dam structures


There are two other challenges which the engineers know full well about – they are on the map pages of every standard work about seismic and geothermal activity, including Chinese maps this analyst has examined. The ADB simply states what is well known. saying “The geology is characterized by the presence of metallic minerals, metamorphic rock, and magmatite and sandstone, as well as an interlayering of sedimentary rock and a high-level of tectonic activity.” It adds that “This earthquake-prone area, with friable rock and extensive alluvial benches, is seriously unstable along many steep slopes, and mud slides and large slope slippages have occurred.” It continues with detail about major landslide areas, important debris flow areas, many smaller mudflow gullies, slope instability areas, and says potential landslide sites were mapped.

It talks also of the region’s highly unstable glacial-fluvial sediment, deposited by those other five rivers along which much of the highway would pass. The higher slopes for the highway offer “… ‘benches’ above the flood plains but usually at the toes of often unstable slopes. Through centuries of terracing and paddy cultivation and what essentially amounts to overuse, the landscape’s natural resistance to erosion was eliminated,” the ADB engineers say.

One hopes the Jinsha offers its engineers more relief, but my-on-the-ground, superficial and limited evidence does not augur for an easy ride.

However, there is a thumbs up for level 1 water quality in rivers along that particular highways and as their waters end up in the Jinsha that is good news.

Engineers operating in such unstable terrain in regions in China know colleagues have to cope with similar land and mudslide problems in the Himalayas. So nothing new there and setbacks can happen, such as the collapse in landslip of the base of India’s Nathpha Jhakri run of river reservoir and the flooding of its underground powerhouse. The more difficult question is how far you can build to cope with serious earthquake tremors.

The fact that Xiangjiaba is on top of thermal springs cannot be ignored. The standard surveys show what one could call a ring of geothermal fire which passes right through the Sichuan and Hunan regions, around China and up into Tibet and down back through some of the Central Asian states. Some geologists say that strong geothermal activity is a clear pointer to increased potential for earthquakes. Also possibly relevant is the debate about whether water concentrations and heavy rains contribute to earthquakes in seismic zones. That issues seems to be still with us from the massive earthquake which struck Skopje in the Yugoslavia’s Macedonia on July 26, 1963. The industry’s bush telegraph suggest that the Chinese working on major projects in the Sichuan and Hunan regions may have already called in advice from some of the best in the international seismics and dams sector. That is a good indicator the issue is not being ignored.

Earthquakes are high on the agenda of groups lobbying against Jinsha. The data of course will have to decide. The folk around here must be used to landslip and flood disruption. Anything which reduces those in terms of better access roads and other preventive infrastructure is welcome thought they do not remove potential earthquake threats.

Nor can the engineers ignore the fact that populous towns and their skyscrapers (hopefully built to earthquake standard), lie right in the path of waters from a breaking dam. The Chinese know about earthquake and flood, and rumours abound. Some earthquake watchers have put the death toll from the fearful 1976 quake, 90 miles south of Beijing, at between 650,000 and 750,000. During this analyst’s December tour, someone with long experience mentioned there were perhaps two million deaths which were kept under the official table.

Competition for power from Jinsha with other sources means that the cost and profit outcomes are not necessarily faits accomplis.


There seems to be a continuous stream of people being arrested and sentenced over resettlement fund corruption for the Three Gorges and elsewhere. The central government and Party also seem to be cracking down to ensure proper and thorough EIAs are done across the board. This means the environment regulator has recently suspended many projects until his team is satisfied (IWP&DC (Three Gorges – now for the electricity, Feb 2006). Only time will tell, but on present estimates there will be a small number of people being resettled, estimates are in the tens of thousands, compared with up to perhaps two million touched by the Three Gorges.

There is extensive apartment block building going on in nearby downstream towns and the general evidence is that the upper reaches of the Jinsha are thinly populated anyway. Locals engage in fruit and veg production (some outsiders say their oranges are too small but they are certainly sweet) poultry, rice growing, bamboo products and fish farming and catching. The boom in construction work will give locals extra jobs and cash as well as plenty of business from migrant workers. Farmers’ closeness to riverine cities has also meant they have done well in recent years out of produce sales. Part evidence of that is the number of small shops in each small village cluster on the road, selling farming machinery, motorbikes and small three and four wheeler trucks. Tourism should also benefit from a new national ‘The National Reserve of Rare and Special Fish in the Upper Reaches of the Yangtze River’ park including parts of the Jinsha taking in about 70 species of fish, giant salamander, otter and the protected rare Paddlefish

The spa will vanish. Some are probably seasonal from local towns. Stallholders outside the Spa’s fenced perimeter, running temporary smart souvenir and food stands, suggest they will find business elsewhere. Some are from Yibin and other towns anyway. If the dam produces more tourists in the future, because of easier access, then these are the same type of entrepreneurs who will probably return and adapt to the big new attraction. In the meantime construction workers seem to be in decent barracks. The infrastructure and road tunnel work, downstream above the Shuangjang toll bridge, are also producing lots of jobs. Demand for machinery repairs and maintenance is good for local workshops which line the town’s roads.

Ironically, with it getting easier for “commercial” (though still state-owned) enterprises to sue, the dam builders may have a much tougher battle settling compensation demands from the powerful cement, paper and power industries and river transport operations thriving along the Jinsha.

Foreign policy investment

All this is going to cost a lot of money. Labour and material costs continue to rise in China. The economy is always said to be overheating, the Yuan’s true value is regularly under doubt and no one can put an accurate figure on direct or indirect state subsidies. One official Xiangjiaba cost is US$5.43 billion. An earlier one was US3.58 billion.

More interesting is how far the overseeing YEPC will tap foreign investment against equity. The Three Gorges scheme had a lot of foreign names in the engineering sheds. There must be many flush multilateral institutions eyeing a stake in the Jinsha projects. If all dams were completed, Jinsha would be vastly bigger than the Three Gorges.

Observers also know the listed YEPC is investing in better water quality production and river holiday tourism. The value added of half of China heading for a riverine holiday is worth far more than the margin on a unit of hydropower.

Academician Lu Youmei, who has played a major role in the Three Gorges, recently trumpeted hydro for the future for power growth in China in a UN Sustainability Department document. He cited cheapness, cleanliness and water efficiency and conservation against coal, gas, windpower and nuclear.

As a leading figure in YEPC, he was part of a major Chinese conference in October on the future of hydropower. The list of participants was a Who’s Who of the Chinese power structure – both hydro and political. The main point made was that hydro now accounted for a quarter of the nationwide total and was meeting one-fifth power demands of the country. The official aim is triple hydro production to around 300GW by 2025.

Even more significant, for foreigners, was a conference mission paragraph “to improve the technical level of hydropower [and] build an international platform for hydropower construction”. This only serves to confirm this analyst’s long-held view that the Chinese not only have the skills to compete with their current suppliers across a range of industries. They are slowly but surely taking over from them and seeking ways to get more business directly. Quite often they are already making part of the gear or advanced control systems for Western companies’ third party sales. This direct sell and supply will be reflected more and more in Chinese forays into Africa, Central Asia and South America.

So what will the Chinese do for major cash needed for Jinsha? After earlier cries of bankruptcy risks around the Three Gorges, it is now a healthy cash cow. There is another debate going on quietly in Party circles. In different cities this analyst heard that, as long as the Party and central government control power (both electrical and political) there is a risk in allowing foreign commercial investors in. That could mean losing control of the future operating companies to foreigners. Some say it is a well-thought out ploy by vested interests in countries such as the USA who seek political influence in China through the substations of power. Whether true or false, investors should also remember how Russia’s Gazprom rose up again out of the twisted pipe networks which went into the hands of its former satellites after the collapse of the USSR. And that continuing saga has reached Sakhalin.

Author Info:

Analyst Peter O’Neill has monitored Chinese affairs since the 1960s