Action on dam plan imperils wildlife

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am


Mainland environmentalists seeking to block the building of a dam along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River have suffered a major blow, after Beijing removed the last obstacle standing in the way of the controversial project.

Despite years of fierce opposition by conservationists, the State Council gave approval last week to a plan to shrink the country's last haven for rare fish species, which top fisheries experts have warned would deal a devastating blow to the Yangtze's biological diversity.

The decision, at the request of local authorities in Chongqing, also paved the way for the Xiaonanhai Dam, a pet project of the municipality's party chief, Bo Xilai, a rising political star widely tipped for promotion in the planned leadership shuffle next year.

For environmentalists, the politically driven dam project is yet another example of the mainland's battered environment falling victim to the government's political interests and pursuit of economic growth.

'It is regrettable in the utmost,' said Li Bo, director-general of Friends of Nature, a leading mainland environmental group.

The rezoning of the national fishing reserve and the erection of the Xiaonanhai dam 'will deal a fatal blow to the last hope for dozens of fish species that have barely survived the building of the massive Three Gorges Dam and a cascade of other big dams on the Yangtze', Li said.

Leading fisheries and biodiversity experts on the mainland have long warned against such moves, saying stocks of rare fish could be wiped out because the dam would block their migration routes to traditional breeding grounds and render the remaining reserve useless.

The reserve is home to some 180 fish species, many of which are unique to the Yangtze. Experts have warned that the Xiaonanhai Dam is likely to wipe out the endangered Chinese sturgeon and Chinese paddlefish, as well as a rare aquatic mammal, the Yangtze finless porpoise.

The Xiaonanhai Dam, about 30 kilometres upstream from the city centre and 700 kilometres upstream from the Three Gorges and expected to cost 23.9 billion yuan (HK$29.2 billion), is expected to generate 1,750 megawatts of electricity.

The dam was first proposed in the early 1990s, but was shelved because of environmental opposition.

While Chongqing authorities say the dam - the city's biggest single project undertaken in the past decade - would alleviate the city's power shortage and boost the local economy, even the dam's builder, China Three Gorges Project Corporation, admits its power-generation would not be cost-effective.

The fishing reserve, originally 500 kilometres long, was first established in the 1990s as a refuge for species threatened by the damming of the Yangtze, especially the building of the Three Gorges, which drove dozens of rare fish species to extinction.

It has been reduced several times over the past decade, with a previous dam project in 2005 shrinking it to a stretch of about 350 kilometres, due to local authorities' obsession with huge infrastructure projects and vested interests in dam construction

Building the Xiaonanhai Dam would require reducing the reserve by about 100 kilometres more, making the hatching of fish stocks virtually impossible.

The ministries of Environmental Protection and Agriculture initially expressed concerns over the project, but later quietly withdrew their opposition amid immense pressure from local authorities and power companies.

Bo's personal influence has been pivotal in clearing the way for the costly project, officials at the top environmental watchdog and environmentalists confirmed.

The ministries have refused public access to key documents about the reserve reduction despite repeated requests by Friends of Nature and other environmental groups.

The necessary environmental approval for the dam would now be a formality, environmentalists said.

Professor Fan Xiao, a Sichuan-based geologist, said Beijing's decision to shrink the reserve showed yet again the government's disrespect for the environment and its own laws that caution against such repeated rezoning attempts.

'The fishing reserve exists in name only,' he said. 'The case is so telling and sets a bad precedent that the environment and so-called rule of law can be easily dispensed with when the authorities are obsessed with their own undertakings.'

Although Chongqing has suggested remedial measures such as building special fish canals to help species to hatch undisturbed, top fisheries experts have dismissed that as wishful thinking.

'It is irresponsible to make such suggestions as we are not able to fully understand how and whether such canals work,' said Wu Qingjiang, a research scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an agriculture ministry laboratory, the China Economic Times reported.

'Conservation is the fig leaf hiding the obsession of the government and powerful interest groups with economic growth,' Wu said.

Environmentalists also voiced concerns that the erection of the Xiaonanhai Dam would herald another dam-building frenzy, after a seven-year halt due to strong public opposition and repeated interventions by Premier Wen Jiabao .

Despite widespread environmental concerns, Beijing has announced an ambitious plan to build more big dams in the coming decade, which would see hydropower capacity surging by 50 per cent to 300,000MW by 2015. China, home to roughly half of the world's biggest dams, is already the world's largest producer of hydropower and the largest dam builder in the world, according to US-based International Rivers.

But Wu Dengming, a Chongqing-based environmentalist, said while he did not generally support the damming of the Yangtze, the Xiaonanhai Dam may be good news for the local economy.

'Given the funding shortages faced by Chongqing in tackling the mounting environmental challenges posed by the Three Gorges Dam, the local authorities' obsession with this expensive project is understandable,' he said. 'But it is crucial that environmental concerns are addressed properly and the public should also be involved in the decision-making process.'