China's Dams

Downstream groups back a free-flowing Nu River

Kelly Haggart
October 19, 2005

As controversy swirls in China around development plans for the Nu River in Yunnan province, 90 environmental and community groups in Burma and Thailand have lodged their own appeal with Beijing to keep the pristine international river free of dams.

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

The Salween Watch coalition, which has been battling since 1999 to prevent the construction of big hydropower projects on the Burmese and Thai sections of the river, has sent an open letter urging Chinese authorities “to fully disclose the [Nu River] environmental impact assessment studies to the public in accordance with Chinese law.”

“We have been concerned with hydropower development plans along the Salween/Nu/Thanlwin River since the Thai and Burmese authorities initially began discussing these projects. These development plans have already resulted in massive population displacement, military offensives in order to secure areas for surveying, and large-scale deforestation. …

“It is important for the central Chinese government to consider that the negative environmental and social impacts [of dams on the Nu River] will be felt downstream, resulting in region-wide impacts. … We can only hope that the great Chinese leadership and people will consider the impacts of their actions on those of use who will suffer the consequences of their decisions.”

The letter, dated Sept. 29, supports the thrust of a bold appeal to the Beijing government, issued on Aug. 25, that has now been endorsed by 87 Chinese organizations and 380 scientific experts, environmentalists, journalists and other individuals. (That appeal, originally signed by 61 groups and 99 individuals, has continued to attract support since it was posted on the website of the Beijing-based Friends of Nature.)

The Chinese open letter also urges the government to release environmental-impact documents related to the Nu River plans and to respect Chinese laws requiring public input into large infrastructure projects.

A map on the Salween Watch website traces in red the course
of the Nu/Salween

Called Nujiang in China, the Nu River is known downstream as the Thanlwin (in Burmese) or the Salween (in English). Beginning high on the Tibetan plateau, it passes through southwest China before entering Burma, where it forms the border with Thailand for 120 kilometres and eventually empties into the Andaman Sea. Flowing for 2,800 km, it is the second-longest river in Southeast Asia after the Lancang/Mekong, and the longest major river in the region that is still uninterrupted by dams.

However, the river’s free-flowing status is under serious threat from all three of the countries it passes through. Plans in China to build a cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River were suspended in April 2004 by Premier Wen Jiabao, who sent the project back for “more scientific research,” though the scheme is by no means dead.

Thailand and Burma, meanwhile, signed an energy co-operation agreement on Aug. 30 that “includes a plan to build five hydropower dams in the Salween and Tenasserim river basins,” the Bangkok Post reported on Sept. 1. The newspaper quoted the Thai ambassador to Rangoon as indicating that “a feasibility study would begin this month [September] and a final report would be made to the two governments by the end of next year. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand would join in the investment.”

Grainne Ryder, policy director at Probe International (which publishes Three Gorges Probe), pointed out that public pressure forced Thailand to get out of the hydro dam-building business in 1994 following years of protests against the disastrous World Bank-financed Pak Mun project.

“However, since then, the Thai utility EGAT has negotiated deals to import hydro from dams built in neighbouring Laos, Burma and Yunnan, where citizens cannot question government-backed projects without fear of reprisals,” she said.

In The Salween Under Threat, a booklet Salween Watch helped to produce last year, the authors write: “There is an urgent need for concerned people to speak out, as local potentially affected people face dangers if they choose to protest these disastrous projects. This danger is especially likely in Burma, where opponents of the dams inevitably will face a number of major challenges because dissidence is met with fierce and often fatal retaliation.”

Montree Chantawong, campaign co-ordinator with Project for Ecological Recovery, a leading Thai environmental group and signatory of the Salween Watch Coalition open letter, noted that the governments of China, Burma and Thailand all want to build dams on the river. “But their decisions always ignore the environmental impacts and people’s rights,” he said. “The Salween River is a single ecological system, and what happens upstream will definitely have an impact on downstream communities and ecology.

“Requesting disclosure of project information and public participation are basic rights enshrined in the laws of most countries. Moreover, as an international river, people who live in the Salween River basin have the right to know what will affect them and also the right to voice their concerns.”

Meanwhile, a Beijing-based newspaper funded by the Ministry of Civil Affairs has provided the first coverage in the official media of the Chinese groups’ open letter. For a lengthy article published on Oct. 12, Public Welfare Times (Gongyi shibao) interviewed a number of the letter’s signatories, including environmental consultant Ma Jun, who helped draft the appeal.

Mr. Ma, author of China’s Water Crisis, told the newspaper that affected groups cannot participate effectively in the decision-making process without access to the information they need to make those decisions, and that the public’s right to know must be seen as a priority.

“Why are we asking the authorities to disclose the Nu River EIA to the general public? … We’re trying to ensure that decisions on the future of the great river are made on a scientific and democratic basis. We’re extremely concerned about whether all the environmental and social problems that could result from building dams on the Nu River are being studied thoroughly and adequately, and whether alternatives [to the dams] should be considered.”

Tang Kewang, director of the ecology division of the Chinese Water Conservancy and Hydroelectric Research Institute in Beijing, said he signed the open letter out of great concern for the environment of the Nu River valley. The natural heritage of the Nu River belongs to China as a whole, he said, and making decisions on its fate would be risky without public involvement in the process. Even if parts of the EIA report must be kept secret, its main conclusions should be released, he told the newspaper.

“Local officials are understandably eager to push the dam projects forward because of their desire to speed up the development of the region. As a citizen, however, I want to know what conclusions have already been drawn about the environmental protection of the Nu valley and whether we have paid sufficient attention to solving the environmental problems that may arise if the dams go ahead.

“The dams will cost tens of billions of dollars to build and, more importantly, will involve the relocation of thousands of people, who deserve to be resettled properly. The problem is that the power companies and local governments that stand to benefit a great deal from hydropower development in the Nu valley are so powerful that they have the final say in such decisions.

“Our participation in this campaign does not mean that we’re going to make trouble for the decision-makers,” Prof. Tang added, “but we do hope to foster an improvement in the decision-making process.”

Related stories:

Open letter to the PRC from the Salween Watch Coalition

Nu River campaign gathers steam

Open letter puts pressure on Beijing over secretive dam plans

Don’t build dams everywhere, expert warns
For more images of the threatened river, visit our Nu River photo gallery.

Categories: China's Dams

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