Development vs. Conservation – A Debate

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This essay will focus on one water scheme in China, specifically the Xiaolangdi Dam. Located along the mainstem of the lower Yellow River (Map 1)1, the Xiaolangdi Dam was constructed during the period 1991 – 1997 with the aim to reduce the flood risk, decrease sediment deposition in downstream river channels of the Yellow River and is used to provide constant supplies of water for irrigation and electricity generation.2

The second largest dam in China, Xiaolangdi is just one of the hundreds of dams and water schemes in China that symbolizes their ability to use water to fuel development in terms of agricultural and industrial, and attempting to propel themselves into one of the world’s superpowers. However, in hopes of increasing the amount of dams and water schemes to fuel development, there have been several negative consequences and impacts that have occurred due to major river alternations, and has led us to the statement:-

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“The over riding development needs of China far outweigh the negative consequences (unintended and intended) which result from major river alterations.”

To agree of disagree with this statement, the Xiaolangdi Dam will be researched in depth to examine the situation of development from a balanced viewpoint, and to come up with an argument that states that the Xiaolangdi Dam’s development benefits only lasts in the short term, and that the negative consequences which result from major river alterations outweigh the benefits in the long term.

Water is a fundamental resource for all life, and is second only to the air we breathe.3 Sometimes it is easy to overlook the importance of water, seeing that it is so easily accessible to us. However, we must realize that water is a finite natural resource; there is only so much supply of water on Earth. About 97 % of Earth’s water is in the oceans in the form of salt water, leaving around 3% of the remaining water as non-salty water (as seen in Figure 1)4. However, of this 3%, around two thirds of this are in the forms of glaciers and permanent snow, and thus can’t be used. This leaves one third, or approximately 1%. However, of this remaining third, 30% is stored as ground water, which is pure, but very expensive and hard to extract. This leaves only about 0.003% of all the water on Earth is ready for immediate consumption, indicating that fresh water is indeed very scarce and valuable, and that with poor resource management, this will lead to an unsustainable rate of return for the water, and potentially causing problems such as scarcity and contamination in the future.

With the supply of water fixed and the ever growing demand for water in China for agricultural purposes such as irrigation and industrial purposes such as using 39000 gallons of water to produce a car rising rapidly, it is easy to see why there is an increasing amount of water schemes, such as the Xiaolangdi Dam, are being drawn up for the future to help fuel China’s development. China’s development over the years can be seen through several socioeconomic indicators. These indicators reflect the country’s social and economic progress, and are strongly linked to how much the country has developed.

Graph 1 China’s increasing population coincides with the increasing demand of food, and thus the increasing water schemes planned for the future.

Because of China’s rising population and its sheer large number, there will always be an increasing need to feed the population. As seen in Graph 15, the total population of China is increasing, albeit slowly in terms of percentage. Nevertheless, 70% of all freshwater in China is used for agriculture, and dams such as the Xiaolangdi will provide a year round water supply for irrigation purposes to maximize the amount of food that can be grown on arable land. As of 2003, the total irrigated land in China stands at approximately 550,000 kilometers squared worth of land, and will continue rising in proportion with the increasing demand for food to feed the rising population.6

And it is through the constant irrigation that allows for farmers in the area to be able to grow their crops without fear of lack of water. Because of this, farmers are now increasing their production in the agricultural sector in terms of output. In 1949, the amount of grain, China’s number one produce, was at 113 million tons. In 1978, it increased to 304 million tons. In 1999, it increased to 508 million tons. This can be pinpointed down to advancing technology and farming methods, such as the increase of dams and water schemes to help supply the land with constant irrigation and water supply,7 and controlling the flow of water from the Yellow River.

The development of Xiaolangdi Dam doesn’t only provide China with a source of water for irrigation purposes; it was constructed with other benefits in mind to the public too. One of them is to reduce flooding along the Yellow River so that many lives would be saved in the process. Numerous times in the past century, the 3,300-mile river has changed its course naturally, drowning peasants in thousands. This was because historically, the river did flood, and thus levees were installed to help mitigate the situation. However, silt carried down by the river from the windy plateaus of Western China deposits downstream, and raises the riverbed in the process. Over time, even strengthening the levees will fail, and if they break, massive mud walls will sweep down the Yellow River, destroying everything in its path. This occurred every ten years or so, highlighting the need for better protection. Thus, Xiaolangdi Dam was constructed to help alleviate this flood situation, which poses a threat to those residing in the Yellow River’s water basin. After the dam’s construction was completed in 1997, it should once and for all stop the flooding, and can contain even a devastating once-a-millennium flood, according to Pieter Bottelier, who headed the World Bank’s operations in China, 1997.8 The Xiaolangdi Dam has proved effective in countering the floods, as it manages hold back the water discharge of the Yellow River in peak months, and discharge it during dry months to help with the irrigation process for farmlands.

Another benefit of Xiaolangdi Dam is that it can increase the production of electricity that is demanded by the growing population. For China to establish itself as a major superpower, they will need to be able to improve not just in primary sectors such as agriculture and farming, but also in secondary and tertiary sectors too, such as industries and services. In the industrial sector, China has invested heavily, and has emerged as a superpower economy, leading the manufacturing charts in terms of steel, copper, aluminum, cement, and coal. In 2006, China surpassed Japan as the world’s No. 2 auto market, with total sales of 7.2 million vehicles and production of 7.3 million. In 2007, China also became the world’s top producer of merchant ships. In short, this is clear evidence that China is developing industrially, and this industrial revolution of theirs needs to be fueled by electricity.9 Thus, as seen in graph 2, the production of electricity has increased, and water schemes such as Xiaolangdi Dam will contribute to the generation of electricity to fuel their industrial revolution.

Graph 2 An increase in the production of Electricity to meet demands of the public can be pinpointed down to several reasons, one of them being an increase in water schemes such as the Xiaolangdi Dam.

It is through this industrial boom that the GDP (Purchasing Power Parity, Graph 3). Due to this, the overall standard of living and quality of life in China has increased dramatically as well. With money, people can afford to purchase better food, get quality education, buy better clothes and housing, etc. This impact can be seen in the falling unemployment in the last few years (Graph 4), the increasing literacy rate of Chinese (Graph 5), the decreasing infant mortality rate (Graph 6) and the increasing life expectancy of the Chinese (Graph 7). In fact, the Chinese government predicts that the average life expectancy in China will jump 12 years to 85 years and all households will be lifted out of poverty by the middle of the century.10 Through all this, it seems like there is a directly proportional relationship between the increasing water schemes such as the Xiaolangdi Dam to fuel development and the increasing standards of living and quality of life in China.

Graph 3 As the industrial boom continues, the GDP continues to rise every year, which leads on to greater things, and an overall increase in the standards of living and quality of life.

Graph 4 Unemployment has fallen, and this can be due to several factors, one of them being the increasing water schemes such as Xiaolangdi Dam.

Graph 5 Literacy has increased in China since the industrial boom

Graph 6 Infant mortality rate has decreased quite significantly in the past 5 years, and this may be because of the increase in water schemes such as Xiaolangdi, which in turn fuels development.

Graph 7 Life Expectancy has increased, albeit slowly, but is projected to rise by 12 years in 2050.

However, no development comes without a cost. China themselves have conducted a cost-benefit analysis before the construction of the Xiaolangdi Dam, and they have decided to go ahead with the project as they feel that the benefits outweigh all the costs. Yet, after 10 years since the completion of the Xiaolangdi Dam, it seems to be that the consequences have outweighed the benefits that China had claimed it would provide.

Though the Xiaolangdi Dam does its job annually by filling up the 75-mile-long reservoir and preventing floods, as the reservoir increases in size, many people will have to relocate out of the area. Of these people, almost all of them are peasants, as they lived around the area, and relied on the natural flow of the waters to get rich silt deposited on their lands and a steady flow of water. By the time the reservoir is filled in the year 2013, 171,000 people will have been relocated, most of them poor peasants. These peasants are claimed to have a “self sacrificing spirit” and are “willing to move in accordance with the needs of the country”, says Xi Meihua, director of resettlement for the dam project. But the reality is that they themselves don’t have a choice. They get moved 10 miles away from their old cave homes and neighborhoods, and in their new brick houses, they are told to continue their livelihood with an unfamiliar environment, neighborhood and system. Some are forced to switch from agriculture based jobs to industrial based jobs, and although those with prior education lead better lives, most relocated peasants have little or no education, and thus have no skills and are forced to farm on what little land there is left. To those who are suffering, they blame the government, stating that they don’t care.11 And they don’t care; this consequence must have been brought up in the cost-benefit analysis, but like the Three Gorges Dam project, they would just relocate those peasants away, give them some money, and expect them to continue living as if nothing happened.

As if disrupting the livelihoods of these peasants weren’t enough; the 3.5 billion dollar dam doesn’t even provide a long term solution for the constant flooding of the Yellow River. After some extensive calculations, the public has been informed that after 20 years, sediment will fill 40 percent of Xiaolangdi reservoir, and the riverbed will slowly rise.12 This will eventually fill up the reservoir, and the dam will only be useful for generating electricity, and eventually, nothing. This was an intended consequence, however, as Wang Xianru, deputy director for the government company building the dam, said that “At that time our grandchildren will need to think of something.” This is a form of poor resource management, and reflects China’s lack of experience and responsibility to handle the situation.

At this point, it seems as if the benefits still outweigh the consequences. However, there were other unintended consequences that China didn’t consider as well, and this was all back down to their lack of experience. As they had little experience and contact with dams before, they didn’t know that by constructing dams such as the Xiaolangdi Dam, there would be severe environmental costs. Currently, the Xiaolangdi Dam has caused undesirable ecological effects, such as the drastic reduction and extinction of wild species such as fish, as their migrating routes have been altered and the temperature of the water has changed. In the long run, many of these fishes could go into extinction, and not only does this affect the ecology and the entire food web, but also the livelihood of fishermen. These fishermen rely on the river for their income so they can feed their family, and with the fishes reducing in number, they will still continue to fish for the same amounts as they still need the same amount of income. This will lead to unsustainable management of the fishing industry, and the fish population will further be pressured into reduction, or worse, extinction. The other alternative is that they will have to move onto some other job. However, these fishermen would normally lack the skills to work in factories or find another job, and they are the ones who will suffer in the long term.

In conclusion, in the short term, even with a cost-benefit analysis, it seems that the need for development and the result of development outweighs the negative consequences. However, after completing the Xiaolangdi Dam, there were unintended consequences that come into effect, most notably the damaging of the environment and the ecosystem of the river. With this being taken into consideration, in the long term, the negative consequences do outweigh the benefits and needs for development, and thus the Xiaolangdi Dam shouldn’t have been built.

13 However, it should be noted that these consequences were unintended, and this is not just due to the fact that China has a different government system, but also because they have a lack of experience. With experience comes knowledge, and America is the best example. America also had the same experience as China did, except hundreds of years ago. They built dams in order to fuel development, and they believed that this was the best way to do so. However, after many years, it seems as if they have finally learnt from their experience, and that the negative consequences outweigh the benefits and the need for development. That is why in some places, they are actually removing the dams as they have figured that the damage associated with the building of a single dam can extend the entire length of a river and beyond.14 That is why China will have to both take America’s experience and use it, or they may have to learn the hard way. Nevertheless, in the long run, the negative consequences which result from major river alterations definitely outweigh the needs and benefits of development, and thus, water schemes should be carefully considered before it gets the go head.


All Graphs From:

CIA World Factbook. (2007, April). China. Retrieved April 26, 2008, from

Gleick, P. (1996). Global water distribution. In The Water Cycle. Retrieved April 24, 2008, from

Power Technology. (2007). Xiaolangdi Hydroelectric Power Plant. Retrieved April 27, 2008, from

Reuters. (2007, February 12). China’s life expectancy to jump: report. Retrieved April 23, 2008, from

Tkacik, J. J. J. (2007, December 28). The World Bank’s Figures. In China’s Superpower Economy. Retrieved April 26, 2008, from

U.S. Water News Online. (1997, July). China builds another dam in the shadow of the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Wiley InterScience. (2007, December 15). A spatial assessment of hydrologic alteration caused by dam construction in the middle and lower Yellow River, China. Retrieved April 24, 2008, from

American Rivers. (2007). Dam removal today. In Restoring Rivers. Retrieved April 27, 2008, from

1 Wiley InterScience. (2007, December 15).

2 Wiley InterScience. (2007, December 15).

3 Gleick, P. (1996).

4 Gleick, P. (1996).

5 All Graphs hereafter from – CIA World Factbook. (2007, April).

6 U.S. Water News Online. (1997, July).

7 Gleick, P. (1996).

8 Tkacik, J. J. J. (2007, December 28).

9 Tkacik, J. J. J. (2007, December 28).

10 Reuters. (2007, February 12).

11 U.S. Water News Online. (1997, July).

12 Wiley InterScience. (2007, December 15).

13 Picture 1 from – Power Technology. (2007).

14 American Rivers. (2007).

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Development vs. Conservation – A Debate. (2017, Dec 11). Retrieved from

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