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,The Three Gorges Dam, a gigantic hydropower project on the Yangtze river, bucks the trend of as many as 40,000 less useful dams that China wants to decommission. — STR/AFP

China is trying to wean its massive economy off coal and fossil fuels to meet its ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060. So why is it trying to shut down as many as 40,000 hydropower plants?

The answer lies deep in the nation’s troubled history of trying to control its rivers. Ever since Chairman Mao Zedong exhorted workers in the 1950s to "conquer nature,” China has been throwing up dams large and small at a prolific rate to generate power, tame flooding and provide irrigation for fields and drinking water for cities. The long-term effects of that often chaotic policy are now coming home to roost.

Many dams in the country are too small to generate meaningful amounts of power. Others have simply become redundant as their rivers ran dry, their reservoirs silted up or they were superseded by dams built upstream."For a long time, people thought it was a waste to let the river just run away in front of you without doing something,” said Wang Yongchen, founder of Green Earth Volunteers, a Beijing-based non-governmental organisation that focuses on river protection.

In a western suburb of Beijing, one of the nation’s most famous early hydropower projects is being turned into a tourism site. Workers are busy paving roads and beautifying houses at a new "ancient business street” near the retired Moshikou station.Built in 1956, the 6,000 KW project in Shijingshan, Beijing’s former industrial center, was the first big automated hydro station designed and built independently. It was constructed on a diversion canal of Beijing’s "mother river,” the Yongding, the capital’s main source of drinking water until the water became too polluted in the 1990s, and was a source of pride for the new People’s Republic.

Moshikou never officially ceased operation. It just gradually stopped generating power, a victim of worsening droughts in the north of the country and increasing demands on its waters from towns and villages upstream that built hundreds of barriers to harvest its water.More than 80 water conservancy projects were built in the Beijing region alone, according to Chinese local media.

By the 2010s, the river was running dry an average of 316 days a year.

"The weather in Beijing has changed,” said Jin Chengjian, 60, who spent all his life in Shijingshan district. "As a child, I often swam in the diversion canal near the station. Now, the water gets less and less, and dirtier and dirtier.”

Moshikou’s proximity to the capital has given it a new lease of life, but many of China’s old dams have not been so fortunate. In Weizishui village, 90 minutes’ drive upstream, a 68-meter tall concrete dam was completed in 1980 to control flooding. It took six years to finish and was never needed once.


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