World's southernmost hydroelectric project on path of green progress
Guanacos, hares and ostriches saunter all over, foraging in the undulating fields, even as a bustling scene is played out just a stone's-throw away, filling the air with a tantalizing aroma of grilled meat, chatter and laughter.
There are times when Yuan Bin feels as if he's in some exotic resort, but the revving engines and roaring machines quickly yank his mind out of the fantasy: he's working on the world's southernmost hydropower project.
Yuan flew to the outlying plateau of Patagonia in Argentina last October to join the Santa Cruz Hydroelectric Project, known as the largest initiative in bilateral cooperation. It consists of the two mega dams apart along the Santa Cruz River, which are expected to satisfy the electricity needs of 1.5 million families in Argentina upon completion.
Nature grows wild on South America's southern frontier. Yuan was braced for a huge emptiness as he boarded the plane which would take him more than 20,000 kilometers from home. But what greeted him was a lively community.
"Wild animals can be seen everywhere. Sometimes they idle a bit around us. They co-exist with humans in harmony," Yuan, the project's office worker, told Shanghai Daily via e-mail. Similar is the relation between workers from China and Argentina.
They enjoy grilled meat together. While the Chinese teach the Argentineans the intricacies of table tennis, the locals show the visitors how to get good at soccer.
"Any open space is a natural soccer field. That's a kind of Argentine characteristic," Yuan joked. "Our Argentine co-workers play soccer whenever the weather is good. They always encourage me to join them, saying 'Amigo! Amigo!' Though I don't play well, they give me the thumbs up, calling me (Lionel) Messi."
Environmental concerns are evident in his words. As an unspoilt tract of wilderness on earth, Patagonia is home to many wildlife species. While it offers stunning views, the region also poses many difficulties during construction.
"We've tried our best to protect the environment and ensure there's no environmental impact on the Santa Cruz River, and the Perito Moreno Glacier from where the river rises," Mariano Musso, the project's public relations manager, told Shanghai Daily via e-mail.
The Perito Moreno Glacier, in the water source area, is one of the three glaciers in the world that is still growing. To prevent the project from affecting it, the storage height of the reservoir has been reduced by 2.4 meters from the original plan. Meanwhile, it has also been designed with fish passes and ecological bottom wells.
After the project is completed, the region's wildlife will be transferred to other places for better protection.
What's more, traces of local aborigines were found at the site, such as pieces of arrowheads, jars and mortar shells. Protective excavations have been carried out, and a museum will be built nearby to display all these cultural relics and fossils, Musso revealed.
Besides, the local harsh and frigid climate is also a challenge from the project point of view.
The project stands in the southernmost part of the world where it's very cold most of the months, especially in winter (June, July and August) when the minimum temperature can drop to about minus 19 degrees Celsius, Musso pointed out, adding that windproof coats, sunglasses and safety helmets are essential gears.
"It's not easy to work here," Yuan admitted. "Gales are frequent. Gravel blows on to clothes and rustle. I weigh 80 kilograms. Though, I have to muffle myself up well and tramp through the winds. I've heard that once in August the wind gusted up to 100 kilometers per hour so that people couldn't move a single step, literally."
Despite the extreme climate, construction is well under way, Musso claimed, adding that the project is the shared goal of fulfilling Argentina's "energy dream" to grow less dependent on energy imports.
Naturally, the Santa Cruz River was chosen to build hydroelectric stations as it has several broad valleys. But Argentina couldn't do any work on it due to lack of advanced technologies, Musso suggested.
China offered a helping hand in 2013 when Gezhouba Group Corp and other Argentine firms formed a Chinese-Argentine consortium, ensuring an investment of nearly US$5.3 billion. Then in 2014, during a visit to Argentina by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two countries signed a financing agreement. Construction began on February 25, 2015.
Work has been accelerated with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Argentina approaching. By the end of 2024, three electric generating sets will be put into commercial operation, Gezhouba estimates.
Once complete, it will generate 4.95 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year.
To be specific, it will increase the installed power capacity in Argentina by 6.5 percent, meaning that it will cut almost US$1.2 billion in oil and gas import expenses each year. It will also meet the demand of 1.5 million Argentine households, even allow for exports to neighboring countries.
In fact, the project has generated more than just electricity.
It has introduced advanced concepts of sustainable development to Argentina, increased domestic consumption of main construction materials such as steel and oil, and improved the local infrastructure, logistics and catering businesses, among many others.
More significantly, it has provided a big boost to employment in Argentina, an estimated 5,000 direct and 15,000 indirect job opportunities in the country.
"The project has brought very important and very tangible changes," Musso insisted. "Now, the project has about 2,800 workers, 70 percent of whom are local residents."
Manuel, a driver, told Xinhua New Agency that he earns nearly US$2,000 every month from the project. It has greatly improved his family's economic condition. He believes it would further drive other businesses and plans to enlist his family members to work for the project.
China and several Belt and Road Initiative countries pledged to build a cooperative partnership on energy during the Belt and Road Energy Ministerial Conference held in 2018.
The conference said that energy cooperation was a key field in jointly building the BRI, given that the promotion of the utilization of clean, safe and efficient energy has become a common task worldwide.
On February 6, China and Argentina signed a memorandum of understanding on the BRI. Calling for implementing high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, President Xi said the two sides should deepen cooperation in fields, including trade, agriculture, energy and mining, infrastructure, investment and financing as well as COVID-19 pandemic response.
According to Gezhouba, the company is deeply involved in major hydroelectric projects in Pakistan, Angola and other Belt and Road countries. The Santa Cruz Hydroelectric Project is its first project in Argentina, and it is seeking greater cooperation with Chinese firms thanks to closer ties between the two countries.
"I believe the Argentina society will feel proud about the project and it will stand as an eternal symbol of the friendship between the two countries," Musso said.
In 2020, Musso was awarded the title of the first Silk Road Friendship Envoy for being one of the most notable representatives of the project.
"The Belt and Road Initiative has shown its benefits. Cooperation between the two countries is having a very positive impact on Argentina," the PR manager added.