Introduction A short article titled A Human Trigger for the Great Quake of Sichuan? (Kerr and Stone 2009), published in the renowned journal Science in January 2009, has in many ways marked the beginning of an intense international debate about whether the Zipingpu hydropower reservoir triggered what has come to be known as the ‘Great Sichuan Earthquake’ or Wenchuan earthquake. The earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.9, occurred in China’s south-western Sichuan Province on 12 May 2008 and killed more than 80,000 people (ibid.; Sjøgren 2013). China has a rich history of dam building, and at the end of the twentieth century over 50 per cent of the world’s dams were located in China (World Commission on Dams 2000). Today, Chinese state-owned enterprises – some of the biggest hydropower companies in the world – are looking beyond China’s borders for new business. They construct around half of all dams in the world (McDonald et al. 2009), but business has also picked up at home in recent years (Lewis 2013). The pressure to reduce CO2 emissions and move towards cleaner energy supply is increasing internationally and domestically (see e.g. The Economist 2013; Lewis 2013). The need to keep the economy growing and to create more local jobs in the poorer western provinces, as well as the increasing internal competition between Chinese hydropower companies, may also explain the push for more large-scale hydropower development in China (Mertha 2008; Mertha and Lowry 2006; Magee 2006; McDonald 2007; McDonald et al. 2009). Since January 2013, a number of large-scale hydropower projects on the main stems of big rivers in south-western China and Tibet have been resurrected anew (Yan 2013). These form core parts of the plan to ‘raise the share of renewable energy in total primary energy consumption’ to 15 per cent by 2020 (People’s Republic of China, National Development and Reform Commission 2007). The re-focus on large-scale hydropower projects as an important part of achieving the 15 per cent target set by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has come after a virtual moratorium on large-scale hydropower construction projects in many parts of China, most notably on the Nu River (also called the Salween) (Zhu 2011; Deng 2013; International Rivers 2011). The revival of the Nu River projects and others has put the anti-dam

movement in China on alert and the latest ‘dam-building spree’ is causing controversy and debate in the media and in environmental activist circles in China and internationally (see e.g. International Rivers 2011; International Rivers 2015a; Yan 2013 and Deng 2013). However, since the earthquake in 2008, something seems to have changed in debates about hydropower in China. Most notably, the Great Sichuan Earthquake has given environmental NGOs and anti-dam activists a powerful new argument for questioning the viability of large-scale dams (Anon 2013e). The NGOs International Rivers and Probe International have, for example, devoted considerable resources to discuss and analyse the role that large-scale dams may have in triggering destructive earthquakes (International Rivers 2009, 2015b; Probe International 2015).1 Both organisations have been quite successful in fuelling further discussions of seismic risk in relation to large-scale dam building in both Chinese and international media (Anon 2012a, 2013b, 2013e).