China's Dams

The problem with environmental impact assessments – continued

(June 3, 2013) News that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for China’s tallest dam was approved last month by the Ministry of Environmental Protection is a signal that developers and politicians in China understand well the greenwashing power of EIAs to move forward destructive projects.

On January 6, 2008, Probe International noted that China, the world’s largest dam builder, had enacted laws requiring dam projects to undergo environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

While “a positive development in an otherwise secretive and unaccountable decision-making culture that persists in the global dam-building industry,” [See PI Policy: The problem with environmental impact assessments], warned Probe, EIAs inevitably become a tool used by governments to greenwash bad projects.

As authors Patricia Adams and Grainne Ryder argued, without laws in place to protect the basic rights of citizens in the areas where projects are to be built — in addition to meaningful public oversight of the proposed project’s impacts and promises — EIAs by themselves present little more than a fait accompli for affected communities:

Proponents quite accurately view EIAs as mere administrative hoops to jump through and will claim, once they have complied with national EIA legislation, that they have met the requirements for final approval from the government.

Although EIAs appear to offer citizens a forum to have their say and influence the decision, in reality they are an “exercise in futility,” say Adams and Ryder, that equates the interests of the affected to that of one of many stakeholder interests.

Those citizens invariably lose to the indeterminable interest of the “greater good” and the unverifiable and unduly optimistic claims of proponents (experience shows that EIAs have promoted preposterous proposals for mitigating environmental damages and compensating for lost livelihoods).

A 2010 report about greenwashing hydropower, by Aviva Imhof and Guy R. Lanza for World Watch magazine, found that in spite of the requirement to produce EIAs, the assessments either remained notable for their absence or pointlessness:

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that should anticipate problems have served as a rubber-stamping device rather than a real planning tool. Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reports that construction on many projects in southwest China is under way in violation of key aspects of Chinese law. Many projects lack an EIA and have not been approved by the government. According to Jiang, even basic safety checks have not been performed and government regulators are uninvolved. “EIAs have become a marginalized and decorative process, seen as just a part of the cost of doing business,” says Jiang. “Both the builders and local government know that, to date, an EIA has never managed to halt a dam project.”

News that in May 2013, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection had green-lighted an EIA for the 2-gigawatt Shuangjiangkou hydropower plant in Sichuan province — distinguished by its proposed height of 314 metres (1,030 feet) — struck Probe International as a sign that Chinese officials and developers have truly learned the power of EIAs to greenwash an environmentally destructive project.

In the case of Shuangjiangkou, the Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged in its approval of the assessment that the project would have a negative impact on the spawning and movement of rare fish, endangered plants and protected local nature reserves. Impacts that the Ministry recommended developers mitigate, reports Xinhua News, by “protecting fish habitats in tributaries, building fish ladders and increasing fish breeding and releasing, as well as constructing seed banks for rare plants and cultivating them artificially.”

However, recreating viable man-made fisheries after they are destroyed by dams often prove a fantasy. For example, experience suggests that the promise of fish ladders have failed to fulfill their expectations. A recent report by biology professor John Waldman for Yale Environment 360 reveals fish ladders on U.S. dams have produced poor results. Ultimately, he says, the task is overwhelming: “It’s asking a lot for a finned creature to take an elevator or to climb a ladder.”

David Stanway, reporting for Reuters, finds that China’s central government is unable to reign in the development fever of local governments in cahoots with big business, who operate beyond the law or without approval. He quotes Zhou Lei, a fellow at Nanjing University, who follows the environmental impacts of large-scale projects:

“Almost every mega project in China has been simmering at least for a few years before it is even officially reported. If you talk to anyone at the local, provincial, village level, you will see that environmental policies are not really a restriction and that everything is negotiable, even if it causes immediate environmental damage.”

The Reuters piece notes that while the Shuangjiangkou hydropower plant project does not yet have the final approval of the country’s cabinet, construction of the plant is already underway and had “began years ago, with a diversion canal and temporary dam already built at the site.”

Sichuan Province, the southwestern region the dam is located in, is itself a reason to consider the project more thoroughly at length: the area is prone to frequent and at times devastating earthquakes. The recent rash of earthquakes in China’s southwest has prompted a renewed concern over China’s breakneck dam-building program and its impact on the country’s geological stability. Dam reservoirs can both trigger and be damaged by seismic activity, putting populations at risk. A report published by Probe International last year found that more than 130 large dams underway in western China could trigger disaster — earthquakes, even tsunamis — due to their construction in seismic hazard zones.

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