Dam plan speeded up despite warnings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am

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Plans for a controversial dam project on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River are poised to move forward in Chongqing despite fierce public opposition, as environmentalists say the project threatens to jeopardise the country's last haven for rare species of fish.

Environmentalists were shocked to find that, over the past two days, local authorities in the southwestern municipality had markedly accelerated final preparations for the hydroelectric Xiaonanhai Dam. At an estimated cost of 23.9 billion yuan (HK$29.4 billion), the dam would be built 700 kilometres upstream from the Three Gorges Dam and is a pet project of the municipality's embattled party chief, Bo Xilai .

According to a consultation document on the dam's preliminary work posted by developer China Three Gorges Corporation, the dam would be about 40 kilometres upstream of the city centre and generate 1,680 megawatts of electricity.

The document, as part of a mandatory environmental approval process for dam projects, was made public on a little-known government-linked website about a week ago. Critics have lashed out at its 10-day consultation period, which will end on Saturday, saying it lacks sincerity.

They also said it was unacceptable that the public had not been given adequate time to voice concern over the project's grave ecological impact.

Fisheries experts warn that the dam is likely to wipe out several endangered fish species, including the Chinese sturgeon and Chinese paddlefish, and deal a devastating blow to the Yangtze's biological diversity.

Citing widespread doubts about the project's cost-effectiveness, its poor power-generation capabilities and huge ecological hazards, environmentalists have long disputed Chongqing authorities' claims that the project is necessary to tackle a power shortage in the municipality of 30 million people.

Yang Bo, of green group The Nature Conservancy, said: 'The losses would outweigh the gains once its dire ecological consequences are taken into consideration.'

The politically-driven dam project would also undermine a commitment by Vice-President Xi Jinping during his recent visit to the US about protecting the biodiversity of the Yangtze, Yang said.

Although the project is subject to final approval by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the State Council, the approval of preliminary work is arguably more important in determining its fate, environmentalists and hydropower experts say.

Fan Xiao, a Sichuan -based geologist, said that once costly preliminary work started, it would be virtually impossible to block the dam.

'It will be too late and too costly to scrap a dam project after the start of its preliminary work, which could include all sorts of preparations, from the relocation of affected people to the building of diversion tunnels.'

He and Ma Jun, head of Beijing's Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said existing laws were too ambiguous about what type of preliminary work was acceptable.

Some critics speculated that the accelerated preparations for the dam were linked to the recent scandal involving the detention of Bo's right-hand man, which raised questions about Bo's future.

'Apparently Chongqing authorities were desperate to push for the project because they were afraid that the dam would be indefinitely delayed if Bo was removed from his Chongqing post,' said an environmentalist familiar with the dam project. Environmentalists and officials at the top environmental watchdog say Bo has used his personal influence to clear the way for the costly and controversial project.

23m

The number of people forced from their homes by construction of the nation's 25,800 large dams

Source: World Commission on Dams