The Chinese government has announced plans to pour a record $8.4bn into a five-year programme aimed at upgrading small-scale hydropower stations in 400 counties. China currently has over 45 000 small hydro plants.

The move is expected to boost rural economies, provide basic amenities to residents and slash pollution from burning wood or fossil fuels, mainly in the nation’s western hinterlands.

Up to 30 per cent of the total funds allocated to the project is expected to come from the State with the rest being raised by local authorities set to benefit from the electrification programme.

The programme, approved by the State Council, is a “strategic measure to solve the region’s underdeveloped economy and worsening ecosystems caused by the chronic poverty,” Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng said. The programme is expected to benefit nearly 200m rural residents with 85 per cent of them living in western regions, said Vice Minister of Finance Zhang Youcai.

Since the 1980s, China has turned to small hydropower stations with installed capacity of up to 50 MW to deliver electricity to millions of rural households.

China’s total exploitable hydropower potential is estimated at about 87 000 MW, the largest in the world. Small hydropower stations produce about 80 GWh annually, supplying electricity for one-third of the country’s counties and one-fourth of its total population.