Troubled waters: huge Poyang Lake dam 'back on the agenda'

Government's top planning body said to be discussing scheme at Poyang Lake that has been widely condemned by environmentalists

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 10:40am

The government's top economic planning body has discussed controversial plans to build a dam on the mainland's biggest freshwater lake, suggesting that the scheme might be moving closer to approval, according to a provincial official.

The National Development and Reform Commission discussed the Poyang Lake dam project late last month, said Liao Jinyuan, an official at the province's water bureau. The outcome of the meeting is not known.

Environmentalists say the dam in Jiangxi province would destroy the natural ecosystem in the area, which is rich in wildlife.

The idea for the project was first suggested in 2008 to maintain water levels in the lake, which have been falling steadily since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam upstream on the Yangtze River.

The lake project was championed up to last year by the former Communist Party chief in Jiangxi, Su Rong. Su was promoted to vice chairman of the nation's political advisory body in March last year, but was sacked this June after he came under investigation for alleged graft.

Officials in Jiangxi say water is stored behind the Three Gorges Dam during the winter months to power turbines, starving Poyang of supplies. Water levels in Poyang have been dropping since 2003 and in December fell by 7.5 metres, a record low, according to official figures.

The Poyang project would involve building a series of sluice gates along a 3km stretch of the narrowest section of a channel that links the lake to the Yangtze.

Green groups have been protesting against the scheme since 2008, fearing it could destroy wetlands and further disrupt the natural flow of water between Poyang and the Yangtze.

The seasonal changes in water level make Poyang a unique habitat for many rare birds. It offers a winter habitat for nearly 98 per cent of all Siberian cranes. The lake is also home to the highly endangered Yangtze finless porpoise, of which there are thought to be fewer than 1,000 left.

After years of hard lobbying by Jiangxi officials, the project has already been backed by the Ministry of Water Resources.

But since Su was placed under investigation for corruption in June some officials in the province seem to have reservations about the plan.

"[The dam] has become such a difficult choice for us now," the 21st Century Business Herald quoted one official as saying.

"On one hand, we've put so much effort into pushing for approval, it'll end up nowhere if we call it quits now. On the other hand, we'll become targets of environmentalists if the plan gets the go-ahead."

The case has echoes of the Xiaonanhai dam on the Yangtze River in Chongqing, which was championed by the municipality's disgraced former boss Bo Xilai, who is serving a life term for corruption.

Green groups say work on the dam damaged nature reserves. The project appears to have been shelved since Bo's fall, according to Wang Yongchen, a mainland environmentalist.

"The dams are cutting the great river into pieces. They will eventually turn into dead lakes if this building frenzy continues," she said. "It's time politicians quit making such decisions."