China’s Jiasajiang dam project a threat to rare peacock

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Asia’s endangered green peacock[edit | edit source]

Few sights in nature are as breathtaking and beautiful as the showy peacock – but for one species in Asia, that sight to behold is becoming less and less frequent. The green peacock is already believed extinct in India, Malaysia and Bangladesh, with an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 birds remaining across its habitats. A Chinese dam project is the latest threat to the majestic peacock, known by its Latin name as pavo muticus.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, updated in August 2018, keeps the  green peacock on the endangered list. Its numbers are decreasing, IUCN said, citing an assessment from Bird Life International that warns of “very rapidly declining” and severly fragmented populations. In China, the green peacock has already disappeared from about 60 percent of its habitat. A single feather discovered by a Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher prompted action and environmental advocacy: In 2018, the dam became the subject of China’s first-ever lawsuit based on biodiversity and habitat loss.

China’s Jiasajiang hydropower project[edit | edit source]

The IUCN and other advocates point to habitat loss as one of the main threats to the green peacock, and that’s the case with China’s Jiasajiang hydropower project. The USD$532 million dam, approved in 2006, is under construction near Yuxi City in the central part of Yunnan. The site is on China’s Red River, which begins high in the mountains and flows into Vietnam before entering the Gulf of Tonkin at Hanoi. There are already several dams on the river that change its flow and cause flood threats to China’s south. China’s investment in hydroelectric power – both in China and beyond, notably on the African continent – is prodigious and driven by an insatiable demand for energy its industry and populations need. The Jiasa River station is no different and is expected to deliver 270 megawatts of power to “Yuxi City,” but that really means it will serve just two mining firms, Dahongshan Copper and Dahongshan Iron. What it also will do when operational is flood one of the last remaining habitats of the threatened green peacock, but Chinese activists and experts say there’s not enough public awareness and the government is failing them.

Response from environmental activists[edit | edit source]

Gu Bojian, a former researcher with the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, first discovered the green peacock presence near the dam in 2013 after nearby farmers brought a feather to prove they were there. That led to his investigation. “These things are so hard to find that a lot of really experienced bird watchers had thought that in the wild in China they had died out,” the 28-year-old told China Daily in October 2018. The habitat covers about 190 square kilometers and holds the most dense concentration of green peacock in Yunnan, but just months after Gu discovered it the area was under dam site preparation.

Trees came down, roads were being built in, and the first scars were followed by more. Gu was stunned and immediately launched an environmental protection effort. He was joined by Xi Jhiong, a prominent wildlife photographer, and others demanding more information. Among them were three conservation advocacy groups: Xi’s Wild China Film, Friends of Nature and Shan Shui Conservation Center. Their first step came in May 2017, with a joint letter sent to local government to request environmental study, following earlier attempts to contact the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute and other actors responsible for the hydroelectric project and its approval. It is built by China Hydropower Engineering Consulting Group. An injunction lawsuit in the public interest was filed in August 2018 and is pending.

Future directions for dam projects[edit | edit source]

The Chinese lawsuit was remarkable in its own right, as the authoritarian nation’s citizens become more emboldened by the urgency of climate change and environmental protection. Yet the green peacock case also brings to light how the Chinese government’s approach to hydropower – though welcome for its clean renewable energy – continues to wreak havoc in China and beyond into Southeast Asian neighbors.

The thirst for power means that China alone accounts for more than half the global growth in hydro, but that comes with safety risks for communities and control over water resources and flows that harm China’s neighbors. There may be too little water that ends in pleas for dam releases, but more often it’s too much. Land inundation creates what one 70-year-old Chinese farmer calls “hydropower migrants.”

Some 70 percent of the power in Yunnan comes from hydroelectric dams, and the province is second in the nation for housing them. Yet in Yunnan, as elsewhere in China, officials are reversing the drive to build so many dams that rivers can barely support them. Many existing dams are now being demolished. Yunnan ruled in 2016 that it would no longer build small- and medium-sized dams on its rivers, but that won’t protect the green peacock: The new Jiasa dam is just big enough to clear the 250-megawatt cutoff. Construction is at a halt while the legal challenge is heard, and the government has been promising to build a new reserve for the endangered birds, but experts say that won’t really help with the habitat loss. Once the dam is running and the reservoir fills up, the water will be deeper than the proposed bird zone. Yet to their credit, regional Yunnan officials in September 2018 became the first provincial government to pass regulations to protect biodiversity. They take effect in January 2019. What remains to be seen is whether or not Chinese politicians are paying lip service to protections or will actually change their ways.