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The Toll Of Hydropower In China

OPB | June 28, 2013 12:30 p.m. | Updated: Sept. 11, 2013 1:01 a.m.

Darrin Magee

Editor’s Note: This show will be broadcast live on OPB Plus as well as OPB Radio.

Oregon State University professor Desiree Tullos first visited China’s Nu River to study what effect several proposed large dams would have on the environment and people of the region. When she arrived, though, she saw that the region already had an extensive overlooked hydropower system in place: more than 100 small-scale dams on the tributaries of the Nu River. 

Tullos’s team began a five-year-long study of the effect of the small dams on the areas. They discovered that in certain environments, the damage done by many small dams can be cumulatively worse than the effect of a single large dam. Among other issues, small dams often divert the entire flow of a river, and governmental regulation can be lax.

While media attention is focused on the large dam projects on the Nu River and elsewhere in China, Tullos’s work cautions that the smaller projects may be more destructive than we realize. And with small hydropower projects discussed as possible energy solutions in the Northwest, Tullos believes those projects should be carefully scrutinized.

Here’s a look at life in the Nu River Valley, along with some photos of the Xiowan Dam on the Mekong River. That dam, one valley over from the Nu River, could offer a glimpse of what the Nu will look like when the main stem dams are completed:

Photo credits:Desirée Tullos, Phil Brown, and Darrin Magee

Have you witnessed the effect of small dams on the environment?

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