March 4, 2006
China’s top environmental agency last week issued a set of “provisional guidelines” on the public’s right to participate in decision-making on large projects such as big dams.
Signs of the times
Near the site of the proposed Songta dam on the Nu River
Sign on the left says:
“Activities by work units or individuals that harm animal habitats are strictly prohibited.”
Signed: Gaoli-Gongshan National Nature Reserve Sign on the right:
“Songta hydro dam 7 kilometres away. Please drive carefully!”
Signed: Beijing Guodian Co. [one of the companies involved in planning the Nu River dams]
The State Environmental Protection Administration’s measures, due to take effect on March 18, call for the public to be consulted in “an open, equal, extensive and convenient way” on major projects that will affect them.
But in this new era of openness, people living in southwest China’s Nu River valley – where as many as 13 dams are planned – appear to have missed the boat.
A recent visitor to the area reports seeing evidence of preliminary site work at Songta, the northernmost of the proposed dams.
Drilling activity had caused damage to vegetation, and rock debris was piled on the riverbank. Engineers were seen in a boat near the Songta site, drilling to obtain rock samples from the riverbed.
But while people living in the vicinity are aware of all this activity, they have never officially been told anything about the dam plans, and know nothing about “EIAs” or “public hearings.”
Drilling on the river near the proposed Songta dam
As Three Gorges Probe reported in January, the Nu River dam project appears set to be pushed through without environmental-impact documents being made public or open hearings held.
The Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po, which has close ties to the Communist Party, said the Nu River environmental impact assessment would remain a classified document because of Chinese confidentiality laws governing international rivers. (The Nu also flows through Burma and Thailand.)
The newspaper said the Nu River EIA recommended going ahead with the construction of four of the planned dams – Maji, Yabiluo, Liuku and Saige – in an initial phase of the project.
Chinese environmental activists, journalists and scholars have mounted an impassioned campaign in recent months, urging Beijing to release the Nu River EIA and hold public hearings on the controversial project. The Nu River is one of only two major rivers in China that remain unfragmented by dams. (The other is the Yaluzangbu in Tibet.) Chinese scientists want the two left undisturbed so that future studies can compare conditions in dammed and undammed rivers.
An open letter submitted in August to central authorities by more than 60 Chinese groups and scores of individuals argued that, amid all the secrecy, “there is no way for the public to learn how the developers and local government will avoid environmental damage, how they plan to carry out the resettlement of 50,000 people, and how they will assure the safety and economic feasibility of the dams.”
One of the signatories of the open letter was Wang Yongchen, founder of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers and an ardent Nu River campaigner.
“While celebrating the release of the EIA guidelines on public participation, I believe we should be aware that we have a long way to go,” she said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the word ‘provisional’ dropped from the guidelines. And, together with many others in Chinese NGOs, I’ll do my best to push for large construction projects to become transparent and just.”
Fact box: Nu River
Gyalmo Ngulchu (Tibetan)
Nu River or Nujiang (Chinese)
(2,018 km of which are in China)
Categories: China's Dams