We propose three ways in which China could cut the human and environmental cost of its hydropower developments.
First, reform the laws that govern new dam developments in China. These should include provisions to address the impact of individual projects on river basins. Measuring and understanding the cascade effects of dams and predicting ecosystem trends can guide decisions on fish propagation and optimal reservoir operation, for instance. Charges for hydroelectricity need to be rationalized and migrants' compensation standards updated. And inter-regional transfer payments to the authorities, intended to balance the social and environmental losses of affected areas with the gains in other areas, should correlate with the economic benefits of hydropower development.
Second, pay more attention to resettlement. Migrant populations could be relocated to mountainous areas along cascade reservoirs, which would boost infrastructure and preserve natural resources. People would need government help with land planning, education, employment and forming new social networks, without any devaluation of their indigenous knowledge, social capital or traditions.
Third, improve the governance of international rivers. China and its neighbours should share river management and water resources, cooperatively seeking solutions to the problems of hydropower production, environmental sustainability and climate change. China has a wealth of experience and technologies to contribute from its many previous hydropower projects.