Construction of a controversial hydropower project that would flood one of the last remaining unaltered stretches along China’s famed Yangtze River has been blocked by the country’s environmental regulators — a surprise defeat in the face of an unrestrained dam-building boom that many opponents worry will cause an irreversible legacy of damage.
China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has vetoed a $US5.16-billion hydropower dam slated for construction by the Three Gorges Project Corporation on the Jinsha River, the upper section of the Yangtze River, in a move said to be influenced by China’s new environmental law and the greater powers the law permits protection agencies.
The Xiaonanhai Dam, which would have been located 700 km upstream of the Three Gorges Dam, was a pet project of disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who redrew the boundaries of a national nature reserve in order to clear the way for construction of the Xiaonanhai and Xiluodu dams (the latter of which is under construction).
Speaking to the New York Times, Zhang Boju, an advocate at Friends of Nature — China’s oldest environmental organization — said construction of the Xiaonanhai would have set a dangerous precedent.
“If the Xiaonanhai Dam was built, the entire protection zone would be destroyed, and the protection-zone system would be rendered meaningless,” he said. Although, Mr. Zhang told the Financial Times, it was “hard to say whether this is a one-off victory or a symbol of things to come.” It is unknown to what extent Bo Xilai’s fall from grace was behind the Ministry’s decision to cancel the dam.
A stern document sent to the Three Gorges Project Corporation by the Ministry vetoed the country’s largest hydropower operator from planning or building the Xiaonanhai Dam, along with two other dams also proposed for the upper Yangtze: the Zhuyangxi and Shi-pengshui (or Shipeng) dams. The Ministry indicated other barrage and dam projects were also off-limits within protected areas, including the Yangtze River mainstream from the Xiangjiaba Dam — the furthest downstream of the Jinsha dams — to the Three Gorges Dam site in the Yangtze’s middle reaches, as well as its tributaries, such as the Minjiang and Chishui rivers. [See: Friends of Nature response to MEP’s rejection of the Xiaonanhai project]
The informal announcement was included with a letter approving the Wudongde Dam, a project already underway, further upstream of where the Xiaonanhai would have been located. The Ministry acknowledged in its approval that the Wudongde would impact downstream conditions, block fish migration and threaten the survival of rare fish species. [See: China turns down Yangtze dam project]
Sections of the Ministry’s correspondence were made public this week by environmentalists on China’s microblogs. This extract, published by Reuters, states:
“In the last 10 years, two investigations have been carried out into construction in precious and unique national protection zones for fish in the lower reaches of the Jinsha river, and the structure and function of the zones have already been heavily impacted.
“Your company as well as other units cannot plan or build the Xiaonanhai hydropower plant.”
Environmentalists have welcomed the decision which they say reflects a new toughness towards protecting the country’s waterways.
Xia Jun, a lawyer with the Environment and Resources Law Committee of the All China Lawyers Association, told the Chinese state-owned tabloid Global Times:
“The [document’s] remarks are strongly-worded, which was rarely seen before the new environmental law — dubbed as the strictest — came into effect on January 1.”
Ma Jun, an expert at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Economic Times the project’s rejection signalled determination on the part of the Ministry to fight actions that harm the nation’s ecology.
“The document exhibited a serious attitude towards the projects. So I believe these dams will definitely not be constructed in the future, which is positive news for the environmental protection field,” Ma said. “The key for environmental protection in China is the implementation of the law. I’m glad to see that the [Environmental Protection Minister Chen Jining] has been stressing this point and holding to it,” he added.
In the 2011 study, A Mighty River Runs Dry, geologist Fan Xiao of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau in China, asserted that the Yangtze — a once surging and fast-flowing river now carved up by dams — was at risk of drying up because the combined reservoir volume of an unrestrained dam-building boom threatened to exceed the Yangtze’s flow. There would not be enough water for all of the dam projects proposed for the Yangtze to operate simultaneously, he said, ultimately leaving power consumers, river users and the environment to pay the price of unchecked, unwise development.
Experts in the protection of aquatic life have repeatedly warned that the negative impacts of hydropower over-development would destroy the Yangtze’s diverse aquatic life and hinder the spawning of dozens of rare fish species. Luzhou and Yibin, two cities upstream of the Yangtze, also objected to the Xiaonanhai project and its potential to curtail traffic along the river. [See: China’s biggest hydropower project Xiaonanhai Dam struck down by Environment Ministry]
However, the fate of the Xiaonanhai may not yet be final. Reuters reports:
“The State Council last year approved an overall development plan for the whole of the Yangtze river basin, and that plan cannot be guaranteed without building Xiaonanhai and other projects,” said Zhang Boting, vice-secretary general of the China Hydropower Society.
“If this company doesn’t build, then another might have to, because this is a state planning requirement,” he said.