How Siberia will feed power-hungry China

Daniel Sandford visits Oleg Deripaska's dam near Kodinsk in Siberia

One of Russia's richest men, Oleg Deripaska, is investing billions of dollars in new hydro-power dams in remotest Siberia, to export the electricity to China and cash in on its booming economy. The BBC's Daniel Sandford visits his latest project.

To get to the Boguchanskaya dam in eastern Siberia, you have to fly for 90 minutes in a small twin-propeller aircraft from the nearest city.

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Winding through the dense taiga forest below are the waters of the vast and majestic Angara, the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal and the main tributary of the Yenisei, which flows all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

The Angara has already been dammed three times, at Irkutsk, Bratsk and Ust-Ilimsk.

Now a fourth hydro-electric dam is almost finished at Boguchanskaya, near Kodinsk, and is due to start generating power in April 2012.

Eastern Siberia already generates more power than it needs. So why the plans for even more hydro-electric stations?

Start Quote

Oleg Deripaska

We have everything in place - people, competence, technology and a market next door”

End Quote Oleg Deripaska

The answer lies in the huge market for electricity in China, several hundred kilometres away. China has asked Russia to supply it with 60 billion kWh/year by 2020 - enough to power all of Greece or Hong Kong.

"It's a unique opportunity that Russia could benefit also from Asian growth," says Oleg Deripaska, the chairman of En+ and chief executive of the aluminium giant Rusal, and a part-owner of Boguchanskaya dam

"I believe that in terms of the GDP of Siberian provinces, it could be tripled in the next 15 years.

"I can't see how we can miss this opportunity. We have everything in place - people, competence, technology and a market next door."

The Boguchanskaya dam has nine vast turbines. When they are all operating, the dam will be able to generate over 17 billion kWh/year.

Much of this will be used to power a new Rusal aluminium plant downstream, but any excess will go onto the Russian grid and made available for export to China. It is a case of turning water into cash.

Torched villages

The enormous dam, like other great dams in the world, is an awe-inspiring sight. It is 3km across, and the concrete section is 80m high. The new reservoir will be 70m deep.

A traditional wooden house in flames (photo by Alexander Bryukhanov) Burning down houses to make way for the dam

Just above the new dam, the Angara still looks as it has for thousands of years. It is a wide, fast-flowing river, hundreds of metres across.

The small settlements that have grown up on its banks over the past 300 years are picture-postcard villages made up of traditional wooden houses. Now they are all being burned, so that after the area is flooded, the debris does not clog up the new dam.

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Konstantin Poddubny

The authorities promise them a flat, they leave, their house get burnt”

End Quote Konstantin Poddubny

Alexander Bryukhanov once lived in Kezhma, a town of some 10,000 people. Its people survived on fish and agriculture, largely cut-off from the outside world. Over a number of years, the town's population has been moved into Soviet-style flats in grimy, modern cities, like Kodinsk.

"The most tragic thing is the elderly people," Mr Bryukhanov says. "They started dying within a year of being moved. Because they had lost their village houses, their gardens, and their neighbours, and in return had been given flats with nothing but a TV for company."

He takes us to another village, Prospikhino, once home to 5,000. Only a handful of houses are still standing, the rest are just charred timbers and foundations. A few half-wild horses splash through a small river flowing into the Angara.

Prospikhino is not quite empty though. Konstantin Poddubny arrives on his old Ural motorbike and sidecar. He is refusing to leave because, he says, the compensation scheme is cheating people out of their land.

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"The authorities will burn all the houses that are left here. Then we will have problems getting a flat in the town. Many people have been through that.

"The authorities promise them a flat, they leave the place, their house get burnt and then the authorities say there is no house, so there will be no flat. At the same time, people who have no relation to our villages are getting flats."

He says nobody in Siberia needs a new hydro-power plant. "There are other plants on this river which only work to half of their capacity. This is all about export to China."

Fragile eco-system

Oleg Deripaska: "It's a unique opportunity"

Environmental groups say the impact of other dams on the Angara has not been good. Parts of the river have turned to swamp, and buried trees have rotted, changing the chemistry of the water.

"They say they are building new dams on Siberian rivers in order to save the planet from Chinese greenhouse gases," says Alexander Kolotov, of Rivers International.

"So of course the question is whether you are ready to destroy the Siberian environment, kill great Siberian rivers, and flood vast forests, in order to save the world from Chinese emissions."

Many more dams are planned for the wilderness of Eastern Siberia to feed the demands of electricity-hungry China.

Oleg Deripaska says they will help turn Siberia into the next Canada - rich in resources, and an economic success story.

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