Dams group goes to the grassroots
While downstream countries linked to the Mekong River worry about how Chinese decisions on dam-building may affect them, a mainland-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) is trying to tackle the issue at source.
Dr Yu Xiaogang, director of the Yunnan-based Green Watershed NGO, said: 'We work at the country and township level on specific watershed management projects, so far with a very positive result.
'Of course there are tensions and problems, but actually we think the process is really quite open.'
On the larger issue of how the Mekong River would be developed, for China and the benefit of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, Dr Yu said the task of securing environmentally and socially sound policies is not easy.
'China's dam-building is much more unilateral. China doesn't consult with the downstream countries and I think this makes a lot of problems for the downstream countries.
'There has not been much consultation or research on this,' he said.
Environmental impact assessments are not independent and 'even by Chinese standards, they are not acceptable', he said.
Nor have these assessments looked at the long-term impact of the goal to make the Mekong navigable - allowing goods from Yunnan to be shipped to ports in southern Vietnam.
'There will be more industry, more river traffic, new cities will grow . . . what will be the real long-term impact of all this? We should think now about how to mitigate the effects of developments to follow,' said Dr Yu, who is also connected with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
But Dr Yu believes NGOs are able to play an important role in spreading information about a recently passed law on environmental assessment, and in channelling the views of people affected by projects to those involved in planning them.
He said China's Water Resources Ministry and its state environmental agency agreed to requests from the United Nations Environment Programme to take part in talks about the impact of dam developments.
He said only intervention from the highest levels in Beijing would help solve major co-ordination problems. Dam-building comes under hydropower and electricity officials, navigation is the responsibility of the Transport Ministry and the diplomacy needed comes under the Foreign Ministry, suggesting a fresh effort at far more holistic planning is required.
'We like [Premier] Zhu Rongji and believe he can think more systematically and lead a team to act with more integration on all of this,' Dr Yu said.
He hoped China's foreign policy objective of greater friendliness with its neighbours would help improve some of the more damaging policies on the Mekong.
Dr Yu said: 'I hope the Chinese government will think more clearly on how to keep good relations with neighbouring countries, for co-development, not only for their own benefit.'