Battle to stop Yangtze dam and save fish heats up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 January, 2011, 12:00am

Environmentalists want lawmakers to block the building of a dam along the upper reaches of the Yangtze river which they say will jeopardise the country's last haven for rare fish species.

A leading mainland environmental group, Friends of Nature, warned in an open letter issued yesterday that the project would not only push dozens of wild fish species to extinction but also put the top leadership's commitment to ecological conservation to the test.

The letter, addressed to nearly 6,000 delegates to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, is the latest shot in an intense but seemingly losing fight by mainland environmentalists seeking to scrap the politically driven project. Analysts say the struggle is another example of the way political interests and economic growth trump environmental concerns.

The Xiaonanhai dam, proposed 700 kilometres upstream from the Three Gorges Dam at an estimated cost of 23.9 billion yuan (HK$28.2 billion), is a pet project of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai .

Officials at the top environmental watchdog and environmentalists confirmed that Bo, who is widely tipped for promotion, used his personal influence to clear the way for the project.

The Chongqing authorities' redrawing of the boundaries of a nearby national fishing reserve to make way for the dam was endorsed unanimously in November by a group of experts who had previously voiced concerns over its construction.

It was the second time since 2005 that the boundaries of the reserve had been redefined for the sake of dam-building, under immense pressure from local authorities and power companies. 'The fiasco surrounding the Xiaonanhai dam is apparently the result of under-the-table deals' between local authorities and ministry chiefs, an official said. 'Now it's just a matter of formality before the dam project gets the necessary environmental approval.'

The Ministry of Environmental Protection has quietly posted the proposed change to the park on its website for public scrutiny, without mentioning the link to the dam. Environmentalists are enraged by the scientists' U-turn and the ministry's inability to block the project, which is subject to State Council approval.

Weng Lida , former head of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Commission, said he was extremely disappointed because the reserve was created in the 1990s to rescue fish stocks that survived the building of the massive Three Gorges Dam.

'Apparently, the authorities care only about gross domestic growth and their political future because the [Xiaonanhai] dam is definitely not cost-effective, with poor power-generation capabilities and huge ecological hazards,' Weng said.

Friends of Nature director-general Li Bo said that now the last major obstacle had been removed, there was little chance their attempts to scrap the project would succeed.

He said environmentalists were pinning their last hope on Premier Wen Jiabao , who had overturned construction plans several times in the past six years after the media and international environmental groups expressed concerns.

Zhang Kejia , a campaigner at the mainland branch of the US-based The Nature Conservancy, said that although the appeal looked doom to fail, it would help the public understand the environmental price they paid for irrational growth.