Yunnan Communist Party chief Qin Guangrong said yesterday the southwestern province had not begun controversial projects to dam the Nu River.
But environmentalists are worried that progress could be covered up, given the poor transparency of such projects.
A national energy blueprint released in late January resurrected plans to dam the Nu River, part of the Unesco world heritage-listed Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. At least five of the 13 dams planned for the river that were shelved by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao in 2005 following an outcry by environmentalists were revived in the blueprint, which said construction would start by 2015.
Li Siming, head of the Nujiang autonomous prefecture, where the dams will be built, said the Nu River, one of the country's last free-flowing rivers, was perfect for hydropower projects. He said the prefecture would "obey the national energy strategy" and admitted that preparatory work had begun.
But Qin said no new development was taking place, promising that construction would not start until "the damming projects get approved and the environment well protected".
Wang Yongchen, director of a Beijing-based environmental NGO, said power companies had previously begun construction of dams on some other rivers before getting approval, including on the upper Yangtze. "By their definition, the 'preparation work' includes constructing roads, levelling the ground for hydro plants and even the water diversion tunnel, making the cost too high for the central government to scrap the projects," she said.
Reuters, citing Li, said about 60,000 people along the Nu River were expected to be relocated, most of them members of the Lisu ethnic minority.
A notice issued by the National Development and Reform Commission last year said construction of hydropower projects should not start until all people affected were resettled.
"But when we visited the sites of the five dams proposed on the Nu River last year, local people had no idea where they were going to move to," Wang said.
Moving away from the river meant the Lisu people would bid farewell to their long-cherished culture and traditions, she said.