Mekong Utility Watch

Environmentalists cheer Premier Wen Jiabao’s call to stop construction on Liuku dam

Brady Yauch

May 22, 2009

Environmentalists welcomed China’s Premier Wen Jiabao’s call for a stop to construction of the Liuku hydropower station on the Nu (Salween) river in Yunnan—one of only two rivers in China that has not been dammed. The Premier called for a more thorough environmental assessment of the project and its effect on the region’s ecology and local communities before construction continues.

“This announcement gives environmentalists more confidence that the international rivers in Yunnan can be protected,” says Grainne Ryder, Probe International’s electricity industry analyst. Indeed, environmentalists from the southeast Asian region may breathe easier if China slows its build-dams-at-any-cost frenzy.

China’s dam building plans on rivers that originate in Tibet would have devastating ripple effects on downstream countries. Already, millions of people who depend for their liveihoods on international rivers, [Nu/Salween and Lancang/Mekong] have been negatively affected by upstream dam building.

Wen Jiabao’s announcement is not the first time that dams on the Nu River have been called into question. In 2004, Wen ordered that the construction of the Liuku station should be brought to a halt until the effect the dam would have on the environment of the region is better understood. While there has been no “official” construction on the dam since then, says the South China Morning Post, preparations are well underway– with a number of residents having already been moved out.

The controversy surrounding the dam has been a constant thorn in the side of the state-owned China Huadian – the developer behind the project and one of China’s largest power companies. It has already had to alter its plans for dams on the Nu river, scaling the project back to four dams, rather than the original 13 it had originally hoped for.

Yet, even the scaled back plan poses a serious threat to the region say critics. According to Shi Jiangtao from the South China Morning Post, “sixty-one mainland environmental groups and 99 individuals signed an open letter in August 2005 demanding the release of the environmental impact report under the mainland law.”

In the letter, the critics said, “we should no longer tolerate the low-cost or even free exploitation of public resources and the earning of huge profits at the expense of our environment.”

UNESCO has also threatened to remove Yunnan from its list of World Heritage sites. At an annual meeting in 2005, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued a resolution, saying, “any dam construction within the World Heritage property would provide a case for inclusion of the property in the List of World Heritage in Danger.” The statement came just two years after the area was included on the agency’s list of World Heritage because of its rich biodiversity and “outstanding universal value.”

Villagers from Xiaoshaba—which is expected to be flooded as a result of the Liuku dam—say their living standards are worse off after having been relocated. Shi Jiangtao reported that many of the villagers “say they have lost their fertile farmland, are not allowed to raise pigs or other livestock, have been inadequately compensated for loss of livelihood, and that their new houses are too expensive and too small for multi-generation families.”

Also looming large in the eyes of a nervous public is the new concern that dams can induce earthquakes. This is of particular concern for the Nu River region, as it’s among the most seismically active areas in the country.

A number of studies and reports say the Zipingpu dam may have contributed to the severity of last year’s earthquake in Sichuan. Fan Xiao, a chief engineer with the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, repeatedly warned about the seismic risks from the Zipingpu dam before it was completed.

Further Reading:

Probe International Special Report: Skyscraper dams in Yunnan

Nu River: Fact Box

China’s rivers paying for prosperity

500,000 people to be affected by Yunnan hydropower development in the next 15 years

Open letter puts pressure on Beijing over secretive dam plans

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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