New dam another nail in the Yangtze's coffin

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 June, 2009, 12:00am

Nearly 20 years of conservationists' opposition to a hydroelectric dam on the Yangtze River near Chongqing will apparently come to naught, with stocks of rare fish set to be among the victims of its pending construction.

The proposed Xiaonanhai Dam - at Luohuang town, around 30km upstream from the centre of the city and 700km upstream from the Three Gorges Dam - is a pet project of Bo Xilai, the municipality's Communist Party chief. His influence is a key reason local authorities have made important headway on the project in recent weeks.

Sources said top fisheries experts on the mainland failed to block the project during a feasibility study meeting convened last month by the local government amid widespread concerns over its proximity to the last fishing reserve on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.

'Most of those experts who took part in the meeting had in the past either openly expressed concerns about the project or rejected the idea of erecting another dam on the Yangtze River,' said a source close to the meeting.

'But no one raised su9ch concerns at the meeting after they had been told not to stand in the way of the multibillion-dollar project, and now it looks set to move ahead this year.'

The dam was first proposed in the early 1990s but had been shelved because of strong opposition by conservationists.

Experts said dozens of fish species would be wiped out because the dam would block their migration routes to traditional breeding grounds, and the flooding would adversely affect other inhabitants of the river.

Damming of the Yangtze since the 1980s has already taken a heavy toll on the environment, with geological hazards and pollution posing daunting challenges. Dozens of species of rare fish have been driven to extinction, and a survey of experts said they expected many more to vanish in the coming decades.

The fishing reserve was first established in the 1990s, when a 500km stretch of river was set aside as a conservation zone to help fish stocks cope with the impact of the Gezhouba Dam, construction of which finished in 1988, and the future Three Gorges Dam.

However, this last haven for rare local fish species, approved by the State Council in 2000 under the country's Environmental Protection Act, has always been under threat.

Local authorities obsessed with huge infrastructure projects have repeatedly persuaded the central government to redraw the boundaries of the reserve in the past decade.

Experts warned that with the building of the Xiaonanhai Dam and two other proposed dams on the Yangtze, the reserve would be reduced to about 40km long, far from enough to protect local fish populations.

Sources said that even officials at China Three Gorges Project Corporation admitted the proposed dam would be largely cost-ineffective in terms of its power-generation capabilities.

They added that Mr Bo, a member of the powerful Politburo and widely seen as a rising star, had personally cleared the way for the project. His fondness for costly vanity projects, including a chemical plant planned at the Three Gorges reservoir region that environmentalists denounce as dangerous, is well known.

Political pressure has been exerted on the Ministry of Agriculture, which is in charge of the fish reserve, and on experts who oppose the project.

Chongqing authorities are soon expected to submit their application for the 23.9 billion yuan (HK$27.2 billion) project, the biggest single project undertaken in the city in the past decade, to the central government.

The mainland's delicate balance between continued development and the responsible use of natural resources has recently turned a little greener because of two recent developments. Premier Wen Jiabao called a halt to the damming of Yunnan province's Nu (Salween) River, one of China's last free-flowing rivers, and urged caution with regard to the country's dam-building frenzy.

And on Thursday, two major mainland power companies were barred from future expansions unless they involved environmental protection.

However, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has taken no position on the Xiaonanhai project, as it has not conducted a mandatory impact assessment.

Last month, a group of environmentalists expressed their concerns in an open letter, but they admitted conservationists had little leverage with local authorities.

Dam-building in the geologically unstable southwest has long been controversial. Last year's massive earthquake centred in Sichuan was believed by some experts to be linked to a dam built close to a major fault line.