China's Dams

Nu River faces fresh threat

(January 25, 2013) A revival of plans by Beijing to embrace mega dams and the mega risks associated with them has left Chinese environmentalists reeling.

South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports China’s new leadership has reopened plans to dam the country’s Nu River – often referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East – in an effort to meet ambitious energy targets that favour hydroelectricity over coal or nuclear power. Former premier Wen Jiabao had placed the brakes on projects slated for the area, known for its frequent seismic activity and geological instability, but Wen’s retirement late last year has paved the way for pro-hydro interest groups to gain an upper hand.

SCMP writes the decision to revive plans for the Nu River dams was mentioned in a 2011-15 energy-sector blueprint released by the State Council late on Wednesday night, which has taken many of the country’s environmentalists by surprise. Li Bo, a director at Friends of Nature, China’s oldest environmental NGO, told SCMP:

“This is really shocking. There were signs during the past year that mega dams were staging a comeback after being put on hold for years, but I’m still shocked by the lack of transparency in the decision-making process behind this.

If implemented, these projects could destroy the baseline for ecological security, which completely goes against a promise highlighted by the new leadership to preserve a beautiful homeland for our future generations.” 

SCMP notes that the Xiaonanhai Dam on the Yangtze River is among 54 key stations under development, despite the devastating impact that it would have on a nearby national fishery reserve, as well as its poor economic feasibility. The controversial dam has long been championed by disgraced former Communist Party chief Bo Xilai, who will soon stand trial for a host of alleged criminal offenses, including bribe-taking and abuse of power.

Meanwhile, the Nu River region’s seismic vulnerability appears to have been of little consideration even though the potential for calamity is strong. Last year, Probe International published “Earthquake Hazards and Large Dams in Western China,” a report by John Jackson, a geologist with detailed knowledge of western China and four decades worth of experience studying earthquakes and seismic faults. In the interest of public safety and a sound power sector, the report urged the Chinese government to disclose the details of its current slate of dam construction, and to undertake and publicly disclose a thorough and independent regional seismic risk assessment.

Meanwhile, another study published by Probe International in December 2012, revealed a dangerous relationship between dam reservoirs and seismic activity. The study by Fan Xiao, a Chinese geologist and chief engineer of the Regional Geological Survey Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, found that a devastating 2008 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people in Wenchuan, Sichuan, was likely caused by the mass loading and increased pore pressure caused by a nearby dam reservoir. The findings, said the author, suggest that extensive plans for further hydropower projects in vulnerable regions should be urgently reconsidered.

Ban lifted on controversial Nu River dam projects

By Li Jing for South China Morning Post, published on January 25, 2013

Beijing has decided to reopen controversial plans to dam the Nu River in Yunnan province eight years after Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the plans out of environmental concerns.

The decision was mentioned in a 2011-15 energy-sector blueprint that was released by the State Council late on Wednesday night, sparking criticism about a lack of openness in the decision on the dams.

“Hydropower bases on the Nu River and the upper reaches of the Jinsha and Lancang [Mekong] will be kicked off in an orderly manner,”  says the document posted on the central government’s website.

Some environmentalists were stunned by the plan’s revival, which is part of an effort by the government to promote hydroelectricity as a cleaner alternative to coal.

Opponents said the decision marks a long-awaited victory for the country’s mighty state-owned power companies and local governments that have been lobbying top leaders to promote the building of mega dams, regardless of the potential safety risks and social consequences.

This article continues in full at the publisher’s website.

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