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2021 | Book

The Political Economy of Hydropower in Southwest China and Beyond

Editors: Assist. Prof. Jean-François Rousseau, Assist. Prof. Sabrina Habich-Sobiegalla

Publisher: Springer International Publishing

Book Series: International Political Economy Series


About this book

This book conceptualises the ongoing hydropower expansion in Southwest China as a socio-political and transnational project transcending the construction of dams. Chapters in this volume are organised around three sections spanning hydropower and resettlement governance, rural livelihoods, and international relations connected to China’s hydropower expansion. Dam projects of various scales are analysed as infrastructure projects that shape peoples’ livelihoods, the environment, and China’s relations with Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction: Southwest China’s Hydropower Expansion and Why It Matters There and Beyond
The installed capacity of the dams built in China in the first two decades of the twenty-first century is greater than the combined capacity of all the dams ever built in the United States and Brazil, the world’s second- and third-largest hydropower generators. Southwest China contains about two-thirds of the nation’s 541.6 GW total potential hydropower capacity. This introductory chapter reviews existing scholarship on hydropower expansion in Southwest China and beyond, and outlines the contours of the political economy that shapes Southwest China’s hydropower boom. By contextualising the region and its sociopolitical characteristics, the chapter sets the scene for the remaining thirteen chapters in this volume, which deal with a large range of domestic and international facets of China’s hydropower development such as hydropower generation and grid development, resettlement governance, rural livelihoods, and China’s international (hydro) relations.
Jean-François Rousseau, Sabrina Habich-Sobiegalla

Hydropower and Resettlement Governance

Chapter 2. The Water-Energy Nexus of Southwest China’s Rapid Hydropower Development: Challenges and Trade-Offs in the Interaction Between Hydropower Generation and Utilisation
Southwest China plays a key role in global hydropower; its current installed capacity is roughly equal to that of the rest of Asia. This immense hydropower capacity stems from some of the world’s largest dams as well as the world’s greatest density of smaller projects. However, our knowledge about the region’s hydropower utilisation patterns and spatio-temporal impacts is based on limited empirical data. This chapter provides a detailed analysis of the uneven spatio-temporal hydropower development in the area and the fluctuating oversupply of hydroelectricity. While as of 2019 hydropower development is advanced in Sichuan (77 GW, 316 TWh) and Yunnan (64 GW, 270 TWh), it is still in an early stage in Tibet. However, Tibet’s hydropower development might even surpass both provinces in the future. The second part of the chapter analyses the utilisation of hydroelectricity, with an emphasis on Yunnan. Our analysis focuses on the trade-offs (benefits, disadvantages, and current trends) related to large-scale power exports to coastal load centres, mapping out these exports for all of Southwest China. Further, we discuss the unique role of power-intensive industries within Yunnan and the impacts of rural electrification on local utilisation of hydropower.
Thomas Hennig, Darrin Magee
Chapter 3. Leaving the Three Gorges After Resettlement: Who Left, Why Did They Leave, and Where Did They Go?
Studies of dam resettlement in China tend to focus on those who remain in resettlement sites, producing a distorted discourse of life after resettlement. Households and individuals often move out of resettlement sites but, because they are difficult to trace, there is limited research about them. It is estimated that 30 per cent of resettled households emigrated from the Three Gorges Dam resettlement site. To explore this and contribute to the limited research about emigration after resettlement, this chapter asks: Who left the Three Gorges after resettlement? Why did they leave? Where did they go? To understand what may have led to emigration we analyse the livelihoods of 178 households who responded to a survey in 2003, but were no longer living at the same resettlement site in 2012. We find low-income rural households and higher income urban households were more likely than their cohort averages to have left the resettlement between 2003 and 2011. This provides initial evidence that a range of push and pull factors influence the decision to leave resettlement sites. These dynamics have been overlooked in the resettlement literature, potentially skewing assessments of resettlement outcomes.
Brooke Wilmsen, Andrew van Hulten, Yuefang Duan
Chapter 4. Contestation Over Moral Economy: Distant Resettlement from the Three Gorges Area to the Pearl River Delta
In the early 2000s, resettlers from the Three Gorges Dam area were accompanied by leading cadres, state propaganda, and media coverage on their migration to South China. As people displaced for the national good, they saw themselves as deserving material and social recognition and entitled to enhance their own life opportunities as new but equal citizens of Guangdong. Based on 26 qualitative interviews conducted in 2012, this chapter analyses the challenges and long-term coping strategies of a group of resettlers displaced in 2001 to the Pearl River Delta. To better understand the agency of the main actors (town government, host village, resettlement villagers) and their different perceptions of the resettlement village over more than ten years, this analysis draws on E. P. Thompson’s concept of moral economy. It is argued that while in the beginning the town government showed compassion for the ‘deserving’ resettlement village, this attitude changed when the resettlers (and the host village) did not respond as the town government had expected.
Bettina Gransow
Chapter 5. Population Resettlement for Hydropower Development in the Lancang River Basin: An Evolving Policy Framework and Its Implications for Local People
Hydropower is a crucial part of China’s energy portfolio and will remain key to reducing the country’s future reliance on fossil fuels. Yet hydropower dams cause the displacement of individuals and communities who live near them, affecting homes, employment, and farmland. Our focus in this chapter is on population displacement on the Lancang River, the upstream segment of the Mekong in China’s Yunnan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region. We base our analysis on several data sources: household surveys undertaken with rural villagers near four of the Lancang River dam sites; analysis of government and industry reports on energy production and river basin management; analysis of government plans and procedures to compensate displaced people; and published reports on the Miaowei Hydropower Project, the first dam on the Lancang for which resettlement was undertaken according to the new 16118 policy, which provides long-term compensation and other benefits to resettled households. This allows us to analyse how resettlement undertaken under the new policy regime differs from earlier hydropower projects. Our findings suggest that while government and industry efforts to minimise harm to displaced communities are improving, more consideration is needed on social impacts, property rights, and policy implementation by local authorities.
Bryan Tilt, Zhuo Chen
Chapter 6. Social Stability, Migrant Subjectivities, and Citizenship in China’s Resettlement Policies
This chapter rethinks citizenship and migrant subjectivities in the context of dam development in China. In detail we answer the following questions: How have the rationalities put forth by Chinese dam resettlement policies changed since the 1980s? Which new practices have evolved that are used to form dam migrant subjects? And which types of citizenship are produced as a consequence? Building upon previous studies that have shown how China has applied a graduated citizenship approach towards internal migrants and national minorities, we argue that post-resettlement support schemes such as ‘Constructing a Beautiful Home’ (meili jiayuan jianshe) introduce new forms of social citizenship that further differentiate society. This scheme builds on pastoral and benevolent technologies of government aimed at reducing the perceived risk of social instability by reintegrating affected households into the Chinese national development narrative. In doing so, the scheme establishes a neo-socialist governmentality that further marginalises dam migrants. We show that new programmes implemented in dam resettlement villages are designed to create self-responsible and docile migrant subjects that are proud of their new identity rather than contesting it.
Sabrina Habich-Sobiegalla, Franziska Plümmer

Dams and Rural Livelihoods

Chapter 7. Green and Pro-Poor? Analysing Social Benefits of Small Hydropower in Yunnan, China
Historically, China’s central government has promoted small hydropower (SHP) as a pro-poor technology for rural electrification in the mountainous southwest of the country. Since the early 2000s, when SHP construction began to boom, the government has also framed it as a green technology that replaces fuelwood with electricity. This chapter analyses whether the larger, grid-connected SHP plants built during the boom deliver on these claims, using data from a 2015 survey of 122 households in eight village clusters in Xinping County, Yunnan. We find that electricity use and fuelwood collection and use are correlated with the price of electricity—which SHP plants have no role in setting. Thus, most Xinping households report no benefits from SHP. However, a minority of households that receive electricity from the one subsidised plant in the county do report benefits from SHP, because their electricity is cheaper. These results reveal that it is only the few subsidised contemporary SHP plants in Yunnan that are green and pro-poor; the vast majority of unsubsidised plants are not.
Tyler Harlan
Chapter 8. Small Hydropower for Electricity and Modernity: Impacts on the Everyday Lives of Minority Communities in Yunnan’s Nu River Valley
Development of energy infrastructure has long been pivotal in shaping contemporary issues in China, and geographically uneven development is a perennial challenge for central, provincial, and local government organs. As China has moved away from reliance on coal power in favour of renewable electricity generation, hydroelectricity development has increased substantially, notably over the last decade. Though many large dams have become mired in a range of social, political, and environmental concerns, small operations have proliferated rapidly. One valuable but insufficiently understood factor in this rapid development of small dams is government rhetoric linking electrification with social change in underdeveloped rural areas, particularly among ethnic minority groups. Consequently, small hydropower-based electrification now reflects an integral component for initiatives promoting development and the modernisation of communities deemed ‘backward’. A lack of empirical field-based research, however, has left gaps in our understanding of on-the-ground outcomes, specifically how electrification has influenced the everyday lives of rural and ethnic minority households. This chapter reflects on seven years of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the Nu River Valley of Yunnan Province, providing insights into how small, rural ethnic minority communities navigate and negotiate modernisation processes resulting from the development of small hydroelectric operations and electricity provision.
Thomas Ptak
Chapter 9. As Time Goes by… Longitudinal Analysis of Dam Impacts Upon Livelihood Strategies in the Red River Valley
Dams are often components of socioeconomic modernisation projects. In Southwest China, ongoing hydropower expansion and the social project it partakes in have widely impacted ethnic minority societies for whom natural resources are core livelihood assets and cultural markers. Previous scholarship has demonstrated that these aspects receive little attention at the dam planning and implementation stages, when the interests and discourses of government and economic actors prevail over those of riparian ethnic minority farmers. Less is known about the emergence and evolution of the livelihood changes triggered by hydropower projects and about ethnic minority populations’ perceptions of these changes. Building on longitudinal ethnographic data, this chapter probes how a series of livelihood changes emerged and evolved through time after the Madushan Dam reservoir was created along the upper Red River. I find that hydropower expansion has fostered the penetration of the capitalist economy and triggered outward migration flows, which have in turn exposed ethnic minority farmers to external influences and have reshaped social networks in the Red River Valley. Riparian residents have concurrently adopted a sceptical attitude towards other components of the state modernisation agenda driving hydropower development in the first place.
Jean-François Rousseau

Transnational Matters

Chapter 10. Technical and Policy Constraints on the Role of Chinese Hydropower in a Renewable Mekong Region
Southwestern China has an abundance of hydroelectricity thanks to favourable geography, hefty government investment, and skilled workers and professionals at all levels of the hydropower sector. Yet even as new dams are being built across the region, existing ones are often under-utilised due to grid bottlenecks, seasonal variations in runoff, and technologies that have developed faster than markets and policies. This chapter examines the reasons behind “wasted” hydropower in Yunnan and neighbouring provinces, as well as the potential for Chinese hydropower to serve as a cornerstone of a highly renewable electricity sector across the Mekong region that incorporates wind and solar, rather than simply every possible dam site on the Mekong and its tributaries. Specifically, hydropower’s suitability for balancing or “firming” intermittent renewables such as solar and wind leave Yunnan well-positioned to complement major solar installations downstream, particularly in sun-drenched Cambodia. Such a plan is not without hurdles, but may offer the best chance for a lower-carbon energy future in the Lower Mekong that does not jeopardise food security in the world’s richest inland fishery.
Darrin Magee
Chapter 11. China’s Hydro-Hegemony in the Mekong Region: Room for Improvement
Freshwater resources do not respect political boundaries and are frequently shared among countries, making water management an issue of international concern in many places. Worryingly, the number of conflicts between riparian neighbours in international river basins has, overall, been on the rise. In the light of this situation, the role of the most powerful riparian countries, the so-called hydro-hegemons, takes centre stage, as their large power capabilities are arguably accompanied by the responsibility to provide good water governance. In the Asian context, China readily comes to mind as a hydro-hegemon due to its favourable geographical upstream position and superior material power. But how has China made use of these and related assets? Simply put, has China been a good or bad hydro-hegemon? To answer this question, this chapter will apply the framework of hydro-hegemony as introduced by (Zeitoun and Warner in Water Policy 8:435–460, 2006) to China’s performance in the Mekong region. The chapter’s main argument is that China could still do much more to be a better hydro-hegemon in this particular river basin, providing more positive leadership and sharing the Mekong’s resources in a more cooperative way.
Sebastian Biba
Chapter 12. Hydropower and Sino-Indian Hydropolitics Along the Yarlung-Tsangpo-Brahmaputra
The Yarlung-Tsangpo-Brahmaputra (YTB) is one of the largest rivers in China and India. In the past decade, both countries have mobilised scientific and engineering capacities to speed up dam construction on their respective stretches of the river and harness its enormous hydropower potential. In the absence of a formal water agreement between the two superpowers, many have raised concerns regarding the intensification of Sino-Indian tensions over the YTB. This is particularly worrisome, given that the river crosses a disputed border between China and India, and dams along its course threaten to compound long-standing tensions over Tibet and China’s growing regional influence. This chapter begins by briefly discussing Chinese and Indian hydropower ambitions along the YTB. Afterwards, it explores key events which led to the straining of Sino-Indian relationships over the YTB and to the militarisation of its flows. It then highlights the extent to which China and India already cooperate over this transboundary river, and asks whether the impacts of climate change on the YTB might precipitate further collaboration between the two neighbours. Finally, this chapter concludes by reflecting on the role of Sino-Indian hydropolitics in shaping the future of the Greater Himalayan region and its mighty rivers.
Costanza Rampini
Chapter 13. Twenty-First-Century Chinese-African Hydropower Projects in Perspective
This chapter discusses the historical shifts and underlying drivers behind the rise of twenty-first-century Chinese-African hydropower development. It locates the basis of these shifts in changes in financing regimes for hydropower projects in Africa; host country governments have pivoted away from dwindling traditional OECD and multilateral development sources of finance and towards new alternative sources of Chinese state-owned commercial lending. The varied hydro-historical trajectories of Uganda, Ghana, and Ethiopia are compared here through an analysis of select project cases in order to demonstrate how and why different contexts have converged on similar outcomes in pivoting to Chinese partnership arrangements. The three cases, respectively, represent private sector, multilateral, and state-led approaches to African dam development which have each ended up resorting to coordinated bilateral Chinese financing mechanisms to provide solutions to rising energy demand and domestic resource constraints. This chapter concludes with common risks and challenges faced by African cases in various contexts.
Pon Souvannaseng
Chapter 14. One River and 40+ Dams: The China Factor in the Amazonian Tapajós Waterway
The recent surge in exports of Brazilian soybeans to China and Beijing’s strong interest in securing control of international energy sources have emboldened the Brazilian agribusiness and energy sectors to pressure the government to open the Tapajós River for navigation, with the goal of decreasing logistics costs in the export of commodities. In order to make the Tapajós River navigable by large barge convoys, the Tapajós Waterway requires the construction of over 40 hydroelectric dams and the completion of the Tapajós Hydroelectric Complex in a river basin the size of France. This will result in the flooding of 18,700 hectares of land currently inhabited by Munduruku Indigenous communities and the clearing of up to 950,000 hectares of forest. Chinese companies have recently acquired many hydropower plants in Brazil with financing from Chinese banks, which have also offered oil-backed loans for infrastructure development in the country. This chapter discusses how the growth in Brazilian soybean exports to China, the construction of private ports in the Amazon by logistics groups, and recent Chinese direct investment in Brazilian hydropower assets have intertwined to make the Tapajós Hydroelectric Complex—and the social and environmental damages involved—increasingly inevitable.
Ricardo Andrade
The Political Economy of Hydropower in Southwest China and Beyond
Assist. Prof. Jean-François Rousseau
Assist. Prof. Sabrina Habich-Sobiegalla
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