China's Dams

People power sinks a dam

Kelly Haggart and Mu Lan

October 16, 2003

Fierce competition among China’s new power giants has touched off a dam-building spree in the country that already has almost half of the world’s big dams.

But all is not smooth sailing for the champions of large dams. A number of projects have sparked heated public debate, and in one case, opposition to a proposed dam has led to a rare victory in China for people power.

When the monolithic State Power Corp. was dismantled last year, it was broken up into two electricity-distribution corporations and five regional generating companies. The new generating firms are vying with each other to develop China’s hydropower resources and build up their own installation capacities; the company building the Three Gorges dam has also joined the competitive fray.

The power companies have announced plans to build dozens of new dams on rivers such as the Jinsha, Lancang (Mekong), Wu, Dadu and Min. These projects will lengthen the list of China’s large dams (defined as being at least 15 metres high), which now includes about 22,000 such structures, or 46 per cent of the global total.

But one proposal — to build a dam on the Min River, a major Yangtze tributary in Sichuan province — encountered a torrent of opposition that grew into a nationwide media campaign, and it has been cancelled as a result.

The Yangliuhu dam was to have been built 1,300 metres upstream of Dujiangyan, the ancient irrigation scheme that is thought to be the world’s oldest such system still in operation. It has been working flawlessly for more than 2,200 years ago and still supplies water to 670,000 hectares of farmland.

Proponents insisted that the 23-metre-high Yangliuhu dam was needed to ensure the proper functioning of Zipingpu, a dam already under construction six kilometres further upstream. But critics countered that allowing Zipingpu to be built in the first place was a mistake that should not be compounded by constructing another dam. They argued that both structures could damage Dujiangyan, which was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000.

With opposition mounting on all sides, project officials promised to await the report of a special investigation team sent by the central government before making a final decision on whether to proceed with Yangliuhu. People’s Daily covered the story on Aug. 3 under the headline, New Dam Project Under Fire. Another press account quoted a Chinese scientist as saying bluntly: “Don’t believe the project authorities. They’ll do everything they can to go ahead with the dam once opposition to it has died down.”

But the Guangzhou-based weekly newspaper South Weekend (Nanfang zhoumo) reported on Sept. 19 that Sichuan provincial authorities have decided to halt the Yangliuhu project.

Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at People’s University in Beijing, hailed the announcement as “a major victory for the Chinese media, which played a crucial role in the campaign.” As many as 180 mainstream newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations had covered the controversy, and virtually all of them were critical of the project.

Growing interest in environmental issues among ordinary people in China also helped to sink the scheme. Net-savvy citizens bombarded various online bulletin boards to express opposition to the plan.

Wang Yongchen, a senior correspondent at China National Radio, was instrumental in the campaign to stop the dam. She said: “This is the first time in China that the general public has had a say in a decision on an important project.”

China Youth Daily reporter Zhang Kejia, another chief organizer of the media campaign, said the project could not have been stopped “without support from the public, who have a growing environmental awareness.”

Meanwhile, a plan to build dams on the Nu (or Salween) River in Tibet and Yunnan province was reported by China Youth Daily on Aug. 19. The news came as a shock to many, because the Nu is one of only two major rivers in China that have not been dammed. (The other undisturbed river is the Yaluzangbu in Tibet.)

Chinese scientists want the two rivers left alone so that future studies in areas such as climate, geology, geography, biology and biodiversity can compare conditions in dammed and free-flowing rivers. Moreover, the Nu is an international river, and any significant development on it could cause problems for downstream countries, as is the case with the Lancang (Mekong) River.

Officials at the State Environmental Protection Administration in Beijing have expressed grave concern about the potential environmental impacts if dozens of planned dams are built on the Nu River. But one SEPA official told the Beijing-based Economic Observer newspaper that “we’re unable to withstand the tremendous pressure” being exerted by the dams’ proponents.

Local officials are among the projects’ backers, believing the dams will give a much-needed boost to the economy in a poor part of the country. But He Daming, a professor with the Research Centre for Asian Rivers at Yunnan University in Kunming, disagrees. He says building the dams could make the poor even poorer by damaging a fragile environment.

But such arguments are not always well understood. When SEPA officials tried to persuade local authorities to drop their support for the Nu River dams by pointing out the potential harm to the fish supply, one local official quoted in the Economic Observer retorted: “Who cares about wild fish anyway? We have farmed fish, and that’s good enough.”

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