China's Dams

Nu River campaign gathers steam

Kelly Haggart
September 27, 2005

A bold open letter calling on Beijing to release documents related to controversial plans to dam the Nu River in southwest China has sparked an Internet petition drive that is steadily gaining momentum.

The impassioned plea by some of the country’s leading environmental groups and scientific experts calls for public disclosure of the report on the Nu River project’s environmental impacts, as required by Chinese law.

The open letter – signed by 61 organizations and 99 individuals when it was submitted to the central government a month ago – has since been posted on the website of the Beijing-based Friends of Nature, China’s oldest non-government environmental group, founded by historian Liang Congjie in 1994.

As of Sept. 27, an additional 23 groups and 232 individuals had endorsed the appeal, bringing the total number of signatories to 84 organizations and 331 individuals.

Proposed site of the Liuku dam
on the Nu River in Yunnan
(Holes have been drilled at the base of the hill to obtain project-related geological information)

The open letter urges the government to respect laws on public participation in the Nu River case – legislation that has been on the books for two years, but has yet to be enforced in a major construction scheme. This demand for public input has broad implications for other large-scale infrastructure projects in China.

“We sincerely call for the decision making authorities to disclose the [Environmental Impact Assessment] report of the [Nu River] dam plans before making a decision, because the right to be informed is a prerequisite for public participation,” the authors write.

They go on to quote China’s EIA law, which went into effect on Sept. 1, 2003, as stating: “For projects which may cause negative environmental impacts and directly involve public environmental interests, the institutions of project planning should seek opinions from the relevant units, experts and public over the draft EIA report, by holding evaluation meetings, hearings and other forms of meetings, before the draft is submitted.”

In addition, the law states, project planners “should seriously consider the opinions of the relevant units, experts and the public over the draft EIA law, and should attach explanations for adopting or not adopting the opinions when submitting the EIA report.”

Environmentalists, engineers, university professors, high-school teachers, lawyers, writers, and even party officials and a few “unemployed,” have been adding their names to the open letter on-line. They include:

Liao Xiaoyi

    , founder of Global Village of Beijing, which focuses on the urban environment and environmental education through television programs. Ms. Liao is a former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher.

Qian Yi

    , Qinghua University environmental engineering professor. A member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Ms. Qian is also on the Environment and Resource Protection Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Wang Chunguang

    , senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Mr. Wang is an expert on migration in China.

Xu Gang

    , well-known writer who published reports on two disasters that each killed close to a quarter of a million people: the collapse of the Shimantan and Banqiao dams in Henan province in 1975, and the Tangshan earthquake of 1976.

Plans to dam the Nu River, one of only two major rivers in China that remain undammed, became public knowledge two years ago when it was revealed that the China Huadian Group and local power firms had been granted permission to build a cascade of 13 hydroelectric dams on the river.

Along with the Yangtze and the Lancang (Mekong), the Nu (Salween) River forms part of the Three Parallel Rivers National Park in Yunnan province, where the three great rivers flow side by side through deep parallel gorges. UNESCO [PDF] declared this “epicentre of Chinese biodiversity” a world heritage site in 2003, stating that it “may be the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth. … As the last remaining stronghold for an extensive suite of rare and endangered plants and animals, the site is of outstanding universal value.”

Proposed site of the Maji dam

Amid mounting concern about the proposed dams’ likely impacts on a fragile and unique environment – and on the 50,000 people, mostly from minority groups, who would have to be resettled – Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the project in April 2004, sending it back for more “scientific research.”

However, on a trip to Yunnan in July of this year, impatient local officials pressed Mr. Wen for a quick decision on the project, Hong Kong’s Wenweipo newspaper reported on Sept. 9.

And on his return to Beijing, the premier reportedly asked the departments involved in the Nu River decision – including the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, the State Environmental Protection Administration and the Ministry of Water Resources – to speed up the feasibility-study process and reach a conclusion.

A SEPA official told the newspaper that the central government had not yet approved the project’s environmental impact report.

Lu Youmei, head of the Three Gorges Corp. until his retirement in 2003, and He Zuoxiu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, fired off a response to the open letter that they also submitted to top leaders, including Premier Wen, Wenweipo reported on Sept. 11.

In their letter, the two men argue that developing the hydropower potential of the Nu River is the only way to alleviate poverty and improve the environment of the region. They accuse “trendy NGOs” of trying to mislead and confuse the public with their “ridiculous views.”

“They say that hydro projects are responsible for water pollution, and that the world has entered a new era of dam decommissioning, and so forth. That hydropower is clean energy is not only common sense, but has been accepted by all countries around the world and by United Nations conferences,” Mr. Lu and Mr. He write.

Sounding a more cautious note, Xu Jialu, vice chairman of the National People’s Congress, has urged senior leaders to take their time in determining the Nu River’s fate.

After leading an inspection tour to the site of the proposed dams last year, Mr. Xu pointed out that the region’s future prosperity depends not only on the river basin but also on the spectacular mountains that will be partially submerged if the hydropower projects go ahead.

Rice fields near the proposed Liuku dam
will be submerged if the project is built

“Don’t be in any hurry [to approve the Nu River dams],” Mr. Xu was quoted as saying by the Guangzhou-based 21st Century Economic Report (Ershiyi shiji jingji baodao; July 19, 2004). “Whoever makes this decision will bear a historic responsibility on the issue.

“We cannot take the opinions of business people too seriously because they are often shortsighted,” Mr. Xu said. “We need to take the long view on the development of the Nu River valley, because of its complexity and exceptional nature.”

Related stories:

Open letter puts pressure on Beijing over secretive dam plans

Don’t build dams everywhere, expert warns

Categories: China's Dams

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