Hydropower dams trigger ecosystem worries

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Construction of small hydropower stations in a central China nature reserve has triggered worries among locals over the ecosystem damage to the best reserved forest zone in the country's hinterland.

Rivers in the forest district have been cut off after nearly 100 small hydropower stations were built. [cnhubei.com]

Rivers in the forest district have been cut off after nearly 100 small hydropower stations were built. [cnhubei.com]

The development of hydropower in Shennongjia forest district in Hubei Province dates back to the 1970s, when the region's government encouraged locals to use hydropower as an alternative to wood as fuel for better preservation of forests.

However, hydropower stations are a double-edged sword, said Liu Shengce, deputy secretary-general of the forest district's Communist Party committee.

On the one hand, forest resources have been well preserved as fewer trees fell, Liu said. However, rivers in the forest district have been cut off after nearly 100 small hydropower stations were built.

Yao Chucheng is one of the locals who is frustrated with the reservoirs.

The 42-year-old has invested about one million yuan (156,250 U.S. dollars) over the past six years on fish farming by the river of Guchong that runs through his village of Changfang in the forest district.

A hydropower station under construction on the upper stream of the river threatens Yao's business.

The 25,000-kilowatt hydropower station by Shennong Green Valley Hydropower Company will cut off the water supply to Yao's fish farm when it commences operation.

But others have benefited from the construction of the station, albeit temporarily.

Zhang Shuncheng, who's from the same village, has rented his houses to construction workers and could pocket some 4,500 yuan a year.

Zhang, however, doesn't support the construction of the station.

"People all over the country know the importance of protecting Shennongjia Nature Reserve, and construction of hydropower stations will hurt the ecosystem of the reserve," Zhang said.

"As someone who lives in Shennongjia, I hope the streams and rivers can keep running as before," Zhang said.

With abundant rain and water resources and a mid-latitude location, Shennongjia is home to more than 3,700 kinds of plants and at least 1,060 species of animals, including the famous golden monkeys.

About 96 percent of the reserve is covered by primeval forest, including hundreds of square kilometers that haven't been explored.

In 2006, the government of the forest district stopped approving hydropower stations below 3,000 kilowatts and vowed to shut down 38 small stations before 2020.

Yet no stations have been closed since, as they are indispensable in providing cheap electricity to locals.

Liu Shengce said the government needs to work on a compensation plan for locals to pay for their losses if the hydropower stations are closed and demolished.

"Also, locals will involve themselves in the protection of the nature reserve only if they benefit from the protection," Liu said.

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