New Internationalist

One step forward,
two steps back

Issue 364

China’s new environmental assessment procedure waters down opposition to damming

The Nujiang river is famous in China for its steep, grand gorge which surpasses many world-famous canyons. Rising in the Danggula Mountains, it winds 2,400 kilometres through Tibet, into China’s Yunnan province, then into the Andaman Sea in Burma. It is ‘as big, as amazing as the Yangtze and the Mekong,’ says a Chinese environmentalist, ‘but less well known outside China.’ The Nujiang (also known as the Salween) is one of the three in the Three Parallel Rivers World Nature Heritage Site, newly listed in June 2003. But it may soon be dammed.

China has more dams than any other country in the world and 45 per cent of the largest in existence. Only two large rivers still run dam-free in China, one being the Nujiang.

Now a subsidiary of the China National Electricity (Huadian) Corporation is planning to construct a massive hydropower facility with 13-stage stations that will dam some 700 kilometres of the Nujiang. The project aims to produce more than 100 billion kilowatts per hour of electric energy annually to help sustain the voracious appetite for energy of China’s eastern industries. It is part of the Government’s ‘Go West’ push to develop the wealth of the poor western provinces by selling their resources to the richer eastern parts of the country.

China appears to be in the ‘corporatization’ stage of privatization. State electricity enterprises like the Huadian Corporation are now being made profitable and competitive: in other countries this has been a preliminary to being sold to the private sector. To a government in privatization mode, the Nujiang project will be an important industry example.

However, a portion of the river that will be affected by the project runs through the mountains of southwest China that have been identified as an environmental hotspot: one of 25 areas identified by Conservation International as the richest and most threatened reserves of plant and animal life in the world.

A range of Chinese scientists and conservationists – as open civil-society debate grows in the country – argue that the dam will irreversibly damage the region’s ecosystems. They question the human, as well as the environmental, cost. They fear that compensation for people who’ll be relocated because of the dam will be kept unacceptably low, and warn that building dams in the Nujiang Valley, which experiences earthquakes recording six to eight on the Richter Scale, will invite disasters for the local and downstream communities. Just look at the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River, they say – its poor design meant recent flooding that affected five million people.

The capacity for these views to influence the Nujiang dam proposal is the first big test for China’s new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) law. When the law came into effect on 1 September 2003, environmentalists considered it a milestone for participatory environmental impact assessment and decision-making processes in China. They are not so enthusiastic now.

In a clear conflict of interest, the EIA for the Nujiang was done by a ‘qualified evaluating institute’ – actually a subsidiary of the company wanting to build the dam. NGOs report that, at the expert hearings held during the preparation of the assessment, experienced voices against the large dam project are not being properly heard. ‘Our words are being twisted,’ says one environmentalist. ‘We said the river was unique, but when we read the testimony, it says that there is no comparison between the Nujiang and other rivers, and it’s therefore not worth saving.’

As a consequence, activists fear that the outcome of the EIA – and indeed the project – is a foregone conclusion. One step forward for civil society may now mean two steps back.

ACTION: More information on dam building can be found on www.dams.org. Appeal to UNESCO (www.unesco.org) to protect this newly listed World Heritage site.

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two steps back

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