Shennongjia exposes reckless development of China’s water resources

(September 15, 2011) China’s rush to dam every river has been abetted by local officials who benefit – through kickbacks or shares in dam-building companies – from every project that gets approved. They have vested interests in the industry they’re supposed to regulate. This Guardian article describes the case of Shennongjia, a region choked with dams, which caused a scandal in the Chinese media when the extent of official corruption and mismangement became clear.

The Guardian
Jonathan Watts

The mountain road that winds above the steep ravines of Shennongjia ought to offer one of the most attractive views in China. From dense, pristine forests to criss-crossing rivers, it passes near an area of ecological wealth that is recognised both by the United Nations as a World Biosphere Reserve, and by popular culture as the impenetrable home of the mythical “Shennongjia wild man.”

But in recent weeks, this stunning region has drawn the nation’s attention to the uglier side of economic development as details emerge of a rapid and poorly regulated expansion by small, hydroelectric power plants that have choked local rivers with dams, pierced mountain slopes with pipes and left locals fuming about the loss of their livelihoods.

The debate – which has spread to issues of governance, censorship and citizen rights – was sparked by reports last month that revealed four rivers have dried up, dozens of hydropower diversions have been built without environmental impact assessments, and local government officials have been profiting from shares they hold in the companies they are supposed to be regulating.

Shennongjia illustrates what can go wrong. Most than half of the 88 hydropower plants in the region were built before environmental assessments were made obligatory in 2003. Two out of every five built since then were illegally pushed ahead without the necessary checks on the likely impact on people and ecosystems.

Driving from the county town of Songbai, almost everyone the Guardian meets along the roadside is angry at the reckless development of water resources. Although this is one of the poorest areas in Hubei province, locals say they get little benefit. The plants generate small amounts of power, the profits are taken by officials and their environment suffers.

Liu Jianguo (name changed) was a farmer until his land was flooded by the Raojiahe hydroproject three years ago. Now he breaks rocks on river beds that have dried up after their water was diverted.

His wife was jailed for three days for throwing stones at the developers. Her frustration was prompted, he said, by the loss of their livelihood and the government’s refusal to listen to their complaints or offer fair compensation.

“What can we do? We are just ordinary people. They are officials,” he lamented. “I want people to know about this.”

Read the full article at The Guardian.

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