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    Greater China
     Jun 3, 2006
China: Another dammed gorge
By Pallavi Aiyar

YUNNAN Province, China - Even as the main dam of the mammoth Three Gorges reservoir, the world's largest hydroelectric project, was completed in late May several months ahead of schedule, China is gearing up to launch another massive Yangtze River dam-building project.

Sandwiched between the towering majesty of the Jade Dragon and Haba Snow Mountains in the northwestern part of Yunnan province, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the world's deepest river gorges. Here about 1,500 kilometers upstream from the Three Gorges Dam, the Jinsha River (as the Yangtze is known in its upper reaches) thunders its way through the 18km-long gorge with, as yet, untamed power.

The gorge's evocative name is related to a legend according to which a tiger once leaped across the narrowest point of the ravine

where it is a mere 30 meters wide. Elsewhere, the gorge is up to 80 meters in width, while the mountain peaks on either side reach more than 3,000 meters above the river.

The improvement of access to this once-remote spot has brought with it an influx of tourists and tourist dollars. Once-impoverished farmers have set up guest rooms in their homes, and goatherders earn extra cash by moonlighting as guides.

According to Margo, an Australian national who runs a cafe at the entrance to the gorge and has lived in the area for more than nine years, Tiger Leaping Gorge has been one of the most successful examples of "eco-tourism" in China - an example that the rest of the country faced with worrying levels of environmental degradation would do well to emulate.

However, rather than emulating this rare environmentally friendly success story, plans are afoot to dam and tame the Jinsha River.

A series of eight big dams on this part of the Yangtze are currently being considered, which when completed would flood some 13,300 hectares of prime farmland, including large parts of the gorge, and force the relocation of 100,000 people from the fertile river valley.

Yu Xiaogang, founder of Green Watershed and winner of the Goldman environmental award for 2006, said the formal announcement for the plan to construct a dam on the gorge was made in 2003. The project, which according to local officials will have the capacity to generate 20 million kilowatts of electricity once finished, is a joint venture between the provincial government of Yunnan and a subsidiary of the China Huaneng Group - one of the largest state-owned enterprises in the power sector.

Pre-project planning has been ongoing for the past few years, including geological surveys and the measuring of the homes and land of those that will need to be relocated. An environmental impact assessment (EIA) and social impact assessment (SIA), required by Chinese law for any large hydroelectric project, are being carried out.

The essential problem Yu points out is that all of this is being done in total secrecy. The SIA is supposed to involve the participation of people who will be affected by the dam. In reality none of the farmers who will be forced to move have been given any information regarding compensation or the scheduling for the dam. "We have repeatedly requested information from the hydroelectric company but only received silence in response," said one local guesthouse owner.

Several of the farmers in the area said they hadn't even heard of the proposal to build the dam and were cheerily confident that they would never have to leave their ancestral homes.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge dam has, in fact, been listed as one of the country's major infrastructure projects for the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-10). Although final approval by the central government is still pending, Yu says this means there is a very strong likelihood that the project will go ahead.

In power-hungry China, this is not an uncommon story. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, China already has more than 85,000 dams, some 46% of the world's total. More than 20,000 of these are classified as "big". According to Chinese media reports, 16 million people across the country have already been displaced as a result of constructing large dams.

China's potential hydropower capacity is the biggest in the world. A recent government survey put the figure at about 700,000 megawatts, of which 400,000MW was deemed commercially viable. According to a one study, 16% of all electricity generation in China today comes from hydropower.

The Chinese government is desperate to generate enough electricity to sustain high economic growth rates that have been at bout 10% per annum for the past several years. The relentless energy needs of the galloping economy, combined with the desire to avoid pumping even more greenhouse emissions into an already polluted atmosphere, have resulted in Beijing approving dams and reservoirs on nearly all the country's numerous rivers. "Massively developing hydropower" has been highlighted as a key strategy for the power sector in the 11th Five-Year Plan.

China's "hydropower fever" has not been without controversy. The proposal to build the Three Gorges Dam sparked one of the most intense political debates in the history of the National People's Congress, China's parliament. When the proposal was put before the NPC in 1992, nearly one-third of its members voted against the project. In the end then-premier Li Peng pushed the proposal through, despite vehement opposition.

Critics have repeatedly made the case that big dams damage the environment and destroy fragile ecosystems. But their strongest critique involves the lack of public participation in debating the implications of such enormous projects as well as the absence of any independent analyses of what those implications in fact are.

"We are not ideologically opposed to dams," said Ma Jun, author of the influential book China's Water Crisis, and recently named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential persons in the world. "What we are asking for is a due process to be followed whenever a big dam is proposed."

Ma said that of the millions of people who have been displaced by the construction of large hydroelectric projects, the majority continue to live in poverty. According to China's several laws and regulations that are meant to address the issue of the resettlement, compensation for those relocated must be designed so that there is no loss to the standard of living of those who are moved.

However, Ma points out that displaced people are usually resettled on less fertile lands, away from the rivers, and rarely receive the full compensation they are promised.

More than a million people have already been relocated for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Although all of these were promised compensation, including new houses and livelihoods, many displaced families have complained from the beginning that their compensation was siphoned off by corrupt local officials and that they cannot make a living in their new locations.

The state audit office reported as early as 1999 that millions of dollars in compensation funds were being embezzled. Scores of officials were investigated and many prosecuted, but critics say that those actually caught only represent the tip of the iceberg.

Local and provincial governments keen on the revenue-generating ability of hydroelectric power plants emphasize that dam building brings prosperity to regions as a whole and allows for the development of backward areas.

"But local people do not believe they will become rich as a result of dams. They think that it is only the local governments that will become rich," said Wang Yongchen, a journalist and founder of Green Earth Volunteers.

Ma Jun said the popularity of building big dams in China is explained by the fact that they are not subject to the democratic constraints and environmental concerns that make approval procedures for large hydroelectric projects an arduous affair in other countries.

He added that since local officials are assessed on the basis of their achievements in improving infrastructure, they tend to be particularly enthusiastic about potential large dam projects.

Big dams are seen as uniquely effective in jump-starting a local economy. Wang said there is a saying in Chinese that goes thus: "Building a house gets you grass; making a road brings silver; building a bridge gets you gold; but constructing a dam leads to diamonds."

The Three Gorges project was recently described by Li Yongan, general manager of the government's Three Gorges Corp, as "the grandest project the Chinese people have undertaken in thousands of years". Sometimes referred to as the Great Wall of the Yangtze, the Three Gorges project is in fact China's most ambitious engineering undertaking since the real Great Wall built by the Qin Dynasty.

The Three Gorges project, which involves 25,000 workers, has become a symbol of China's relentless determination to take its place among the world's great economic powers. The prestige of the project is as much a justification for it as is its electricity-generating capacity, which at 85 billion kilowatt-hours a year is considerable.

Ma said prestige is a critical element in decision-making in almost all large infrastructure projects in China. But critics say the concern for prestige can often lead to an abandonment of economic sense. The Three Gorges project, for example, comes with a $24 billion price tag, yet when completed will produce only 2% of China's electricity by 2010.

Many of these critics have been dealt with harshly by the authorities. Journalist Dai Qing, who claimed that the Three Gorges project was a huge waste of money in her book Yangtze! Yangtze!, ended up in jail for 10 months. Green Watershed's Yu Xiaogang has been banned from visiting dam sites and has been warned that his non-governmental organization (NGO) license will not be renewed unless he desists from further critiques.

Nonetheless, Yu and other activists are continuing their crusade.

"Without the right to know, to participate, to be involved in matters that affect our lives, we are helpless," concluded Ma. "We know that China needs electricity, but not every single gorge is an appropriate dam site."

Environmentalists are unanimous that Tiger Leaping Gorge is in fact a greatly inappropriate site for building a dam. It will flood one the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world. It is also in a seismic zone, and there are worries of increased likelihood of earthquake damage after the construction. The land by the river is also extremely fertile, so that those who are relocated will almost certainly face a loss in their standard of living.

Moreover, Ma pointed out that building big dams sets off a momentum in which it becomes extremely hard to stop building more and more dams to solve the problems of the existent ones. Thus the dams currently planned on the Jinsha River, including the one at Tiger Leaping Gorge, will actually be used to support the massive Three Gorges Dam further downstream. They are being designed, in part, to reduce the silt pressures on the Three Gorges project and also to buttress its flood-prevention abilities.

The plan to dam Tiger Leaping Gorge has led to an almost unprecedented outcry from civil society in China. NGOs, educated locals and even the state-owned media have condemned the project.

"I think the dam on Tiger Leaping Gorge provides an acid test for how serious the government is in protecting the environment," said Ma Jun.

Several NGOs and scholars from prominent Chinese universities have petitioned the central government to halt the dam. More than 10,000 people from the gorge area have sent in an additional petition to stop construction until more information is available. Activists have also brought the plans for the dam to the attention of the UN and other international organizations.

Recently, a similar public outcry caused Beijing to place a temporary moratorium on another series of 13 dams planned on the picturesque Nujiang, another river in Yunnan province. In what environmentalists claim to be a victory, the Nujiang dams have not been listed in the 11th Five-Year Plan.

That both Ma Jun and Wang Yongchen are former journalists tells something about the role of the media in bringing about a gradual change of attitudes. Over the past couple of years Chinese newspapers and television have sharply increased their coverage of environmental issues. Moreover, Ma points out that there are now more than 100 million Internet users in China, which makes the flow and dissemination of information much easier.

Recent changes in Chinese law are also being seen as hopeful signs by environmentalists. Yu Xiaogang said the government decided this year to increase the amount of compensation for dislocated people. Moreover, in 2003 an EIA for large dam projects was made mandatory (earlier EIAs were recommended but not compulsory).

At the NPC's annual meeting in March, China's leadership stressed that protecting the environment was now an urgent priority and that the Chinese economy should not only grow fast, but also grow green. In keeping with this new direction, state planners were directed late last year to develop a "green GDP" (gross domestic product) indicator that would take into account the costs of environmental impact.

"There is definitely an awareness in the government now that the environmental problem is serious and that environmentalists should be consulted before taking decisions on big infrastructure projects," said Ma Jun. He said he is hopeful that the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam will become the first major hydroelectric project in China to follow a "new, more participative process".

But despite this optimism, serious concerns remain. Wang Yongchen points out that although an EIA was carried out for the proposed dams on the Nujiang, the results were declared a "state secret" and have not been made public.

Moreover, as Yu Xiaogang points out, large hydroelectric companies have substantial monetary and governmental clout. The boss of the China Huaneng Group that is involved in both the Three Gorges and Tiger Leaping Gorge projects, for example, is the son of former premier Li Peng, the Three Gorges' most ardent champion.

Collusion between those who are meant to carry out the EIA and the power companies themselves has been common in the past. Independent assessments are still to become a reality in China.

For the time being, China's love affair with big dams continues. No fewer than 46 new large dams are being planned or are already under construction in the Yangtze River basin alone, according to the International Journal on Hydropower and Dams.

Beijing insists that "tradeoffs" are necessary when it comes to development, and that the system in place to protect the rights of the millions who have found themselves dispossessed during the course of this development is by and large effective. Any hydroelectric project must work out in detail a plan for the resettlement of dam-affected populations before getting approval from the central government. All compensation and relocation costs have to be included in the budget for the main development project.

The fact that hydropower is "clean" is also pointed to. China's energy needs are burgeoning even as a growing number of Chinese cities are choked by pollution. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills about 4 million people every year in China. Coal, which, as in India, currently provides about 70% of China's energy, needs to be phased out if the country is to meet its commitments to the Kyoto Climate Control Protocol. Renewable and non-polluting sources of energy such as hydropower are thus seen as extremely important.

Moreover, the government maintains that in the larger picture, most people actually benefit from dam construction. Without hydropower, say officials, it would be much harder to develop industry in remote parts of the country such as northwestern Yunnan, where the Tiger Leaping Gorge is situated.

Engineers on the Three Gorges Dam have repeatedly said that the harm caused to the million-odd people who have had to be relocated is outweighed by the advantages to the 220 million people who live in the Yangtze River basin.

In addition to generating power, the Three Gorges Dam is also intended to control the flooding that has ravaged the Yangtze basin for centuries. Floods killed more than 145,000 in 1931, according to Chinese records, and another 142,000 four years later. As late as 1998, more than 2,000 people were reportedly killed by river waters that spilled over the banks.

At the same time, concerns for the country's rapidly deteriorating environment have led to a host of new laws as well as an attempt to make local leaders more accountable for protecting the environment, rather than focusing solely on growth.

Unsurprisingly, the situation today is such that somewhat contradictory signals are often sent from Beijing in an attempt to balance a pro-growth and pro-green stance. The same water officials who champion big dams and hydropower are also now talking of the need to limit development along China's major rivers.
The fate of Tiger Leaping Gorge hangs in the balance.

Pallavi Aiyar is the China correspondent for The Hindu.

(Copyright 2006 Pallavi Aiyar.)

'Green GDP' reflects shifting priorities (Nov 3, '05)

Domestic threats to China's rise (May 20, '05)


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