China's Dams

Runaway hydro development needs to be reined in: water resources minister

Economic Observer (Jingji guancha bao), translated by Three Gorges Probe
April 27, 2005

China’s minister of water resources says his ministry does not object to plans to dam the Nu River in Yunnan province but disagrees with the number of projects proposed, suggesting excessive hydropower development is not the way of the future for China.

Speaking at a forum in Wuhan this month to discuss an action plan for
protecting the Yangtze River basin, Wang Shucheng said his ministry appreciates
the principle of “development with protection” but does not support the plan to
build 13 dams on the Nu River.

After the forum, Mr. Wang told a representative from the Norwegian embassy in
China that he had attended the forum because he wanted to send a clear message
to the hydropower industry that “unchecked development” of China’s rivers for
electricity generation “should be brought under control in the future.”

An original proposal to build 13 terraced dams on the Nu River was submitted
to China’s National Development and Reform Commission just one month after
UNESCO listed the river as a world heritage site.

The proposal was approved in August 2003 but construction was suspended after
heated debate about the project’s environmental and social impacts prompted
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to order a halt to the scheme until it had been
“seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.” 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.)

Officials and experts from the Ministry of Water Resources have visited the
Nu River area, and a report based on their investigation is expected to be
submitted to the NDRC and the State Council by June.

The projects under consideration include the Songta and Maji dams in Tibet,
which would be used as “faucet dams,” with 11 other dams downstream composing
the rest of the ambitious scheme. The 13 dams are projected to generate more
than 21,000 megawatts of power in all.

Prof. Weng Lida, director of the Yangtze Valley Water Resources Protection
Bureau, said he believed the project should not include so many cascading dams
and that only one reservoir should be created to serve the whole river.

Ma Jianhua, the chief engineer with the Changjiang Water Resources Commission
in charge of developing the Nu River valley, said the original proposal placed
too much emphasis on linking the terraced dams and because that would cause
negative impacts, this part of the plan would have to be carefully modified.

He also said some sections of the river, particularly the middle reaches,
should be “treated carefully” or left untouched by development in order to
preserve the rare species of fish the Nu supports.

The CWRC also recommends that construction on the first dam near the city of
Liuku should start as soon as possible, even in advance of the state’s approval
of the entire proposed project. Completing the Liuku dam right away, it is
argued, would provide locals in need of power with electricity, and serve as a
test for how the rest of the project should proceed in resettling affected
residents and protecting the local environment.

Prof. Weng agreed that the Liuku would be the first dam constructed under the
plan but felt that it should not proceed until an environmental assessment had
been completed and approved by the State Environment Protection Administration.
So far, no environmental assessment has been approved for any of the proposed

“Two issues pose a challenge to construction of the Liuku project,” Prof.
Weng said.

“One is how to build passageways for fish, and another is how to resettle the
affected people in other places rather than on higher ground nearby.” The
estimated 2,000 local residents who would be affected by the proposed dam have a
“very tight relationship” with the land that they currently farm, he said.

Mr. Wang, the water resources minister, sided with developers and favoured
moving ahead with the Liuku dam.

“Let them start with the Liuku hydropower station in the first instance,” he
said. “Doing so will allow us to have more time to do further research and make
a more comprehensive [plan] for the Nu valley as a whole. At the very least, we
will be able to delay the pace of [dam] construction on the Nu River.”

Meanwhile, the power companies behind the proposed dam projects continue to
closely monitor the decision-making process. Chen Niangao, a manager of Huadian,
one of the major power corporations involved in developing the river, expressed
concern about the possible modification of the original proposal. A modified
plan, he said, would remove two of the dams at Bingzhongluo and Guangpo, and
lower the water levels of reservoirs proposed for several of the other dams, if
suggestions by SEPA were adopted

Prof. Weng stressed that there was an urgent need to develop hydropower to
help meet China’s power demands, saying “the country’s circumstances have to be
seriously taken into account.”

But views differ on whether the Nu River should be developed to meet those
ends. Environmental organizations, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature,
questioned the wisdom of using the Nu for hydropower development

Lifeng, the freshwater and marine program officer for WWF-China, asked if the
pace of developing China’s rivers could be slowed and more attention given to
controlling demand for power. Too many dams had been built in China already, he
said, and the bulk of electricity produced had gone to service high-energy

“Is this the right direction for us to go?” he asked.

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