Figuring out China’s Energy Needs

Earthquake Lakes

At 0:45am on 8th June the waters of Tanjiashan Lake in China’s earthquake hit Sichuan province finally broke the sluice level and began draining safely down the valley.

Ever since the earthquake hit on May 12th armies of engineers, workmen and bulldozers have been working around the clock to avert a possible disaster caused by the ‘earthquake lake’ bursting its banks and their efforts seem to have paid off.

In the city of Mianyang downstream of the dam, the streets were virtually empty as people were evacuated and the sluice did its work. People heaved a sigh of relief as the concerted action of thousands of soldiers drained a lake the size of 50,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Yet the threat caused by the earthquake to millions of lives throughout Western China has thrown the whole future of dam building into question, raising concerns about the future of China’s energy needs that can no longer be ignored.

The Hydro Solution

Over the past 30 years, the country’s boundless appetite for energy has already made it the second largest consumer of energy in the world, after the US, with a growth rate reaching a staggering 16% in 2004.

Demand currently far outstrips supply and the push to develop Hydro power has made China the world’s largest producer with over half the globe’s stockpile of dams within its borders.

Whilst the nation relies primarily on coal to keep its economy surging, Hydro is cleaner, relatively efficient and in plentiful supply throughout the nation. The resource supplies 6 percent of China’s energy needs and the nation still only uses one fourth of its current potential.

However, while hydroelectric energy is renewable, the land its dams are built on is not and the geological instability of the area may have far-reaching repercussions for China’s hydroelectric future.

After two weeks of downplaying the problem, the Water Resources Ministry acknowledged Sunday that 69 reservoirs and dams were on the verge of collapse, and nearly 3,000 in China had sustained damage.
Dangerous times

Of China’s 87,000 dams, the country’s Economic planning agency initially declared that 391 were affected by the earthquake, two of them severely as they lay near the epicenter of the 7.9 earthquake.

Two weeks later this figure was massively revised to 3000 dams and reservoirs affected with 69 on the “verge of collapse,” threatening millions of lives downstream.

Zipingpu dam in Wenchuan county was one of the two dams most badly affected by the quake and a typical example of the country’s current ‘erect dams at all cost’ way of thinking.

Despite warnings from the Sichuan Seismological Bureau that the dam’s construction site lay near a major fault line in Sichuan province, the dam was still given the green light in 2000.

After the May 12th quake, thousands of engineers rushed to plug what the Chinese media reported as “extremely dangerous cracks” across its outer face and while no catastrophic disaster occurred, the event is being treated by many as a major warning of things to come.

We have a saying that bridges are silver, highways are gold, and dams are diamonds. If you get a contract to build a dam, there is so much money.

The International Rivers Network reports that China has 28,500 large dams across the country with many in areas prone to seismic activity.

The rush to build dams across China has also prompted speculation that dams may not always be constructed for need of energy alone due to the size of the construction contracts and the amount of money that can easily be sidelined and pocketed by local officials.

A recent government report in January 2008 stated that 37,000 dams built during the 50’s and 60’s were already dangerously unstable and Beijing has recently earmarked $1.3 billion to repair them.

The Grand Energy Plan

However in the push to achieve energy independence, does China really any choice in the push for alternative sources of energy? Rising energy prices, outstripped demand and rampant inefficient in the energy industry provide Beijing with few options to play around with.

Energy Security

With demand for energy predicted to increase at an average 6% annually for the next few years, China faces fresh challenges in its drive to power the nation.

Over 75 % of China’s energy needs come from coal, yet today the nation is a net importer (as of 2007). Though oil reserves exist in the East China Sea, China’s stake is relatively minor and many others are claimed by rival nations.

By 2025 a staggering 77 percent of China’s oil supplies will be foreign supplied prompting the country to scramble to secure energy wherever it can, including from questionable sources such as the Sudan.

Outstripped demand

Though the country’s per capita energy use pales in comparison with the US and Japan, the market potential for cars, air conditioners and other market appliances etc… has yet to take off and could do with frightening speed unless planned for.

In an economy dominated by heavy industry, demand already regularly outstrips supply leading to frequent blackouts across the country causing huge spikes in the global price of oil such as in 2004.

The very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is widely seen as resting on the economic prosperity of the country and an inability to supply enough power could further more lead to mass unrest in an already unstable society.


China’s energy generation is massively inefficient using about three times as much energy per unit of GDP as the US alone and nine times more than Japan. Though reducing such waste is key to securing a healthier energy independent future, efficiency reforms are likely to be expensive, hurting the bottom line of power companies and driving up the cost which could cause unrest among a populace already struggling to make ends meet.

Beijing faces further problems with provincial Governments intent on adding to the ranks of cheap coal-fired power stations that whilst highly inefficient, are much cheaper than alternative sources and instantly help alleviate the power shortages plaguing much of the country throughout the year.

Renewable Saviour?

Even if Beijing heeds the warning of seismologists for now, and takes a new tack in its dam building drive, other problems still exist.

On January 1st 2006, China’s Renewable Energy Law came into effect aiming to double the country’s reliance on renewable energy sources by 2020 and thus increasing its hydro usage by up to 15%.

Whilst a noble goal, this would “require the construction of the equivalent of the huge Three Gorges dam project every two years” in order to succeed and as always there’s always the question of whose going to foot the bill.

Other thorns in the feet of government dam advocates include finding the locations to build the mega dams required to generate the huge amounts of power that the country needs.

Though the Chinese province of Tibet is the source of many of Asia’s major rivers, many of those rivers supply millions of people in South/South East Asia who are non too happy at planned developments.

At the site of the world’s deepest gorge on the Bangladesh-India-Chinese border, a mega dam planned at a bend in the Brahmaputra River, is causing intense concerns with the Indian and Bangladeshi Governments and even speculations of war in the Indian media.

If gone ahead with, the 40GW mega dam may ease Chinese energy fears but it will also divert water away from millions of Indian’s and Bangladeshis in some of the regions poorest areas making it an untold catasphrophe in the making.

Further issues with such mega dams come from the sheer volume of factory waste, toxic metals and household rubbish that build up behind dams and affect the purity of the water supply in a society where safety often bows at the knees of bribery.

Over reliance on hydro power may also leave the country overly dependant on regular rainfall with perhaps unexpected results especially in parts that rely to a large extent on the resource. In 2003, severe droughts in China caused stark power outages in parts of the country where dammed reservoirs didn’t have enough water to supply demand at the time.

For now, China’s choice is to keep building big dams, even as the social and environmental impacts of the projects are increasingly questioned.
No-win situation

Expanding deserts, an increasing population and talk of finally lifting the strict ‘One Child’ policy are bound to increase pressure on China’s resources and the Government is unlikely to abandon the potential that hydro power presents for now.

To say the country isn’t making progress in expanding its energy options is untrue and the market place itself may likely play the strongest role in solving China’s energy woes through increased efficiency.

With demand rapidly outsoaring supply the price of primary resources such as coal and oil has skyrocketed and profit margins at many of China’s power companies have halved over the past year through increased costs.

As profits get hit, many power companies may reconsider the waste produced in the power process and raise standards to increase efficiency at all levels of the supply chain.

Whatever China’s eventual course of action, the country faces multiple challenges on the road to energy security and the eventual solution will surely require a measure of compromise and certainly one of restraint and consideration.

There is no easy road to economic prosperity and as the country races forward towards it, shortcuts cannot be relied upon to achieve it and if any lesson can be learnt from the Earthquake, it’s that companies had better listen to the geologists first before that first bucket of concrete is poured.

Everything in nature has balance and for China’s Government this is something they’ll have to consider with care if their Hydro policy is to work out successfully.

By 2025, according to the US Energy Information Administration, foreign supplies will account for a dizzying 77% of China’s total oil consumption.
  • In 1994 approx 2 % of the world’s primary energy consumption was derived from hydro power, increasing to 16 % in 2004. (Reference)
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  • In 2004 hydro power produced 16% of the world’s electricity, almost one fifth of current supply. (Reference)
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  • China gets 75 % of its energy from coal powered plants, yet only uses one fourth of its hydro power potential. (Reference)
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  • China’s consumption of coal is expected to supply 78% of power demand until 2030. (China Daily 09 June 2008)
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  • Hydro power forms China’s second largest energy resource supply after coal. (Reference)
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  • China is the world’s second largest consumer of energy after the United States and was its third largest energy producer (2003). (Reference)
  • China is the fifth largest oil producing nation on earth with proven reserves of around 16 billion barrels. (Reference)
  • The largest dam in the world is China’s Three Gorges dam which cost $30 billion to build and which displaced more than 1 million people. (Reference)

Photo credit to the honglingfamily on flickr

Ten days are up

Indeed ten days are up and the Earthquake relief phase moves into a frighteningly harsh period: the rehabilitation of more than five million people.

Now the clamour is for tents, tents and more tents… 3.3 million to be exact. According to today’s China Daily over 400,000 tents have been sent to the earthquake area and by August 10th one million temporary structures have been ordered built.

The boulevards of this city of 870,000 people are now lined with plastic shelters that victims have thrown up by themselves, or with the help of volunteers.

However, China may be the factory of the world but not even this mega production house can produce three million tents over night and international help is desperately needed.

Daily newspapers here report Chinese people falling over themselves to buy tents of all seasons from shops across the country. Shop owners are being mobbed and even policemen have been seen getting in on the act.

Aid needed

In a good will gesture, the UK recently agreed to provide 30,000 tents, but as attention now shifts to China’s 5 million homeless such thoughts are but a drop in the ocean.

Having been involved in the Pakistan earthquake China’s main priority now is securing tents, medicines and experts. Being the world’s factory is all very well in the long term, but in short term, the Chinese people needs our donations.

The Chinese embassy in the UK recently released a list of the most needed items required in the relief effort that UK people can send to the embassy. Such items are crucial to the success of the work of the thousands of aid workers and volunteers toiling day and night to save lives and include protective facial masks, mobile toilets and Immarsat satellite phones.

Though I may not agree with the all-pervading big brother nature of the Chinese Government, in this instance strong leadership is needed and China is not holding back and such aid will certainly make a difference.

Ten days after the Oct 3rd earthquake hit Pakistan in 2005, aid was only just beginning to reach survivors in the most populated areas of Kashmir, and it took literally months afterwards to reach the most isolated villages.

In contrast, China mobilized over 130,000 troops mere days after the quake and is already claiming to have reached all 1044 isolated villages throughout the affected region with aid, supplies and medical care – though the area is much less complicated than the one Pakistan’s aid workers had to work in.

Lessons to be Learnt

Yet China’s toughest challenges now lie ahead in ‘phase 2’ of its recuperation efforts and the country would do well to learn from the mistakes made in Pakistan as well as the successes.

The trouble in Pakistan was that the country had no precedent to act to when the earthquake hit, which lead to an immediate break down of law and order in the donation process and a free-for-all donation drive that led to hoarding and the unfair spread of relief materials amongst the survivors affected.

Invariably the lack of guidance in the relief process led to a incredible range in the quality of the items donated, especially in the tents, equipment and clothing. Tents often couldn’t be erected properly due to missing pieces or shoddy construction leaving yet another family out in the winter cold.

Throughout the initial aid camps to be erected, sanitation was a forgotten issue in the rush to house a never ending stream of earthquake survivors. Camp guidelines provided by UNICEF and UNHCR were ignored in the rush, leading to tents erected too close to one another and tent fires spreading like while fires during meal times.

The government is setting up a 70 billion yuan ($10 billion) fund to pay for reconstruction work, and government departments have been told to cut spending by 5 percent to divert funds for rebuilding

Following its unprecedented success in covering the earthquake, this is the Chinese Government’s chance to avoid such problems through clear leadership, ample compensation and a strict timetable to rebuilding shattered lives that people can look to.

Accommodating millions of earthquake survivors is going to create ‘tent cities’ on an unprecedented scale and China needs to be ready. Hope needs a goal to cling onto and for lives torn asunder, Beijing has an unbridled opportunity to provide and stick to such one.

Challenges to rescuers

Certainly there is not much to tempt them [elderly] in Jiangyou, where tens of thousands of homeless people are living cheek by jowl on sidewalks in cramped and unsanitary shelters rigged up from tarpaulins, with no better idea of their future than those who stayed at home.

On Thursday the official death toll reached 51,151 people with 288, 431 injured after the May 12th quake, setting it on track to surpass the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 which took 73,388 lives.

Typical of mountainous regions affected by earthquake, the dangers to aid workers are still high and seem to be getting worse.

According to the China Daily, 200 aid workers have already been killed by mud slides caused by 7,182 aftershocks since the quake struck on May 12th. Some of the aftershocks have reached as high as 6.1 on the Richter scale.

Highways are being blocked as quickly as they’re opened and as of 21st May, only one highway was open to Wenchuan near the epi-center of the quake as aftershocks caused multiple landslides blocking incoming highways.

With heavy rain predicted over the coming week, the lives of aid workers working in the field is unlikely to get any easier. Yet an even greater challenge may lie in the age of the individuals who survived the quake.

Elderly people form the bulk to the population of the earthquake area as many have been left behind as younger people in the region have left to work in the country’s factories and cities on the Eastern seaboard.

China has over 120 million migrant workers powering its economic growth for incredibly low wages and many of those workers come from Sichuan province at the heart of the earthquake area.

Many elderly survivors stranded high up in mountain villages, face extreme difficulties leaving the ruins of their accumulated life achievements and many simply choose to remain where they also fear loss of property to bandits and thieves. Such survivors will have a difficult time in the cramped conditions of relief camps and many already realize it. Life may become even worse in these camps as migrant workers swell the ranks of the families gathered in them.

Volunteers are Needed

China doesn’t just need money, it needs expert help, materials and equipment (as laid out on the Chinese embassy website). Pakistan also needed these in abundance and the faster the Chinese people receive them, the faster broken lives can be reformed.

Medical teams from Russia, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and the UK are already amongst those already on the ground in the earthquake areas, yet still more are needed.

Doctors, nurses, engineers and anyone with a skill they think they can offer are invaluable at this stage but saying that anyone can still help.

There are several international organizations working in the earthquake relief area and some of the key ones are given below. If you are thinking about volunteering for the earthquake please find an agency to work with before hand as organistaion like MSF are already complaining about ‘free-lance’ volunteers being more of a hindrance than a help.

Final throught…

I was in Urumqi at the time of the Chinese earthquake and though it was felt as far away as Taiwan and Vietnam I felt nothing in Xinijiang. Still the newspapers here are full of information about the quake every day and just as my heart goes out to the victims through these reports I hope yours does too.

Donations Abroad

The Red Cross is most likely the best way to donate money from abroad. CN also has a great comprehensive list of over 30 ways to donate towards the crisis. Here is another good resource at including some fairly comprehensive information on how to volunteer.
Q & A from the Chinese Embassy in London
List of Items needed by the Chinese Embassy in London

Donations in China

For expatriates already living in China there’s no shortage of information online about how to donate to the earthquake. Following is a list of alternative ways to donate that should expand over the next few days as I short througth the plethora of ways already mentioned on the internet.

Sichuan Quake Relief - a new organisation formed with the backing of the Beijing Bookworm specifically to handle small projects associated with the rehabilitation process after the May 12th earthquake.

Ways for volunteers to go and help…

Whilst I’ve emailed several organisation about the immediate availability of volunteer work in the earthquake area, I’m still waiting for a response. In the meantime the following organisations seem to definitely offer volunteering opportunities:

Heart to heart (office in chengdu) – With an international office already established in Chengdu before the quake, Heart-to-Heart have become a hub for volunteers seeking to make a difference in the quake area.
Hands on Chengdu – is a new organisation set up specifically to match the right skills you have to offer to the locations where they’re needed the most. Fill out your profile and indicate your availability to give the staff at hands-on the information they need to for you to make the most of your time in the quake area. Currently volunteers are needed in Orphanages, lean-to schools, temporary hospitals etc.. – definitely recommended.
Volunteer Abroad Program - though lacking in details, VAP seem to offer volunteer work in the earthquake area.

You don’t have to be a brain surgeson. If you have a good heart, you can contribute. (china daily- 21st May)

Other organisations you could also try include:

Doctors without Borders
Children’s Hope Point - working now in the Earthquake zone with stranded orphans. Possibly may offer volunteer work in the near future.
Mercy Corps

For those who read Chinese, the contact details for the Chinese Red Cross office in Chengdu is:

成都市红十字会志愿者接待人电话:028-8 807 5017


成都市红十字会电话:028-86725519 / 66722258

志愿者协调人员(成都本地)电话:131118 89708

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If anyone would like to recommend any more organisations to volunteer through please contact me here.

Thanks to Nick Kozak for the photo used in this post.