Oldest irrigation system gets reprieve

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2008, 12:00am

The world's oldest irrigation system appears to have been saved from a contentious dam proposal, at least for the time being.

For the first time in four years, the Chengdu municipal government has clarified its stance and said no to the lucrative hydropower project near the 2,200-year-old Dujiangyan irrigation and flood control system.

The city government opposed the proposal to build 10 small power plants along the 44km Baitiao River in a report submitted to provincial authorities in December. It echoed public concerns over the project's impact on the environment and the ancient waterworks, a World Heritage Site. The river, a tributary of the Min River that flows through the fertile Sichuan Basin, is one of two freshwater sources for millions of people in central Chengdu.

Raised by Dujiangyan Administrative Bureau in 2004, the proposal was endorsed by top planning authorities in Sichuan .

Water authorities said the project was necessary to capitalise on the river's resources, and generating electricity was a top priority.

The dams, according to the proposal, would also help repair the river's deteriorating environment and significantly expand the irrigation areas of the Dujiangyan waterworks.

Opponents cried foul at the claims, insisting the river's water resources belong to the public.

There was an uproar after the proposal was posted on a government website and reported by local media.

It continued to be a national focal point for the past year, despite propaganda authorities banning the media from covering the controversy. The bureau scaled down the project from 15 dams to 10 early last year.

An online survey on the project by mainland news portal Sohu.com found that over 95 per cent of the 8,000 participants were opposed to the damming of the river.

Supported by a panel of dozens of experts, research by the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association has expressed serious concerns over the project.

According to the green group, the planned power plants on the Baitiao River will occupy 165 hectares of land, mostly farmland, which is subject to approval by the State Council.

The power plants, which are expected to take up to 10 years to build at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan, would have a combined capacity of 100,000kW.

Damming a free flowing river, the report said, would increase risks of flooding, exacerbate the pollution and water shortages that were already putting a strain on the local economy, and destroy the ecosystem in and around the river.

Association president Ai Nanshan said experts agreed the proposal exaggerated the project's generation capacity while seriously underestimating its impact on world heritage and water supplies for Chengdu.

'The proposal said Chengdu's urban population would reach 3.1 million in 2020, but the figure had topped 5.7 million by the end of 2006 and is expected to hit 8.8 million in 2020,' the report said.

Professor Ai, an environmental scientist at the Sichuan University, said the proposed diversion of water from the Baitiao River to drought-hit eastern Sichuan was unrealistic as the river had been hit by water scarcity.

'We cannot just look at the needs when considering diverting water from one place to another,' he said. 'It is more important that we are able to avert further disasters.'

Fellow professor Fan Xiao also cast doubt over construction of the Baitiao dams. 'I don't see any benefits from the project apart from economic returns for developers and taxation income for local authorities.'

But the Dujiangyan authority vowed to continue with the project.

'We understand the need to harness the hydroelectric power of our rivers,' said Liu Shukun , a Beijing-based scientist. 'But we need to have comprehensive planning first and undergo a proper decision-making procedure.'

The public campaign against the project has become a cause for concern for the local government.

Provincial party chief Du Qinglin and governor Jiang Jufeng have urged caution in moving ahead with the dam proposal. But the Dujiangyan authority refused to back down.

Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concerns over the prolonged controversy in November and an investigation team was sent to Chengdu late last year, according to sources.

Aware of economic interests behind the project, the Chengdu government had offered to foot the Baitiao River cleanup bill for the Dujiangyan bureau, the sources said. The bill is expected to top 300 million yuan, about the same as the investment the Dujiangyan bureau had planned for in the hydropower project.

But hydropower development around Dujiangyan has taken its toll on its conservation, with an application to list it as a natural heritage site rejected by Unesco due to environmental concerns over the building of Zipingpu dam, 9km upstream of Dujiangyan and the biggest hydropower project on the Min River.

The Zipingpu dam met resistance from mainland experts and environmental activists. Nevertheless, it was allowed to go ahead in 2001 despite concerns over the impact on the heritage site and displacement of more than 30,000 people.

Professor Fan said Zipingpu dam, completed in 2006, had rendered useless the Dujiangyan system, which Unesco said worked 'perfectly' until recent years in controlling and distributing water throughout the Chengdu plains.

'Apart from generating electricity, it has basically played the same role in distributing water as the Dujiangyan project,' he said.