Ban lifted on controversial Nu River dam projects

Beijing has decided to reopen controversial plans to dam the Nu River in Yunnan province - eight years after Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the plans out of environmental concerns.

The decision was mentioned in a 2011-15 energy-sector blueprint that was released by the State Council late on Wednesday night, sparking criticism about a lack of openness in the decision on the dams.

"Hydropower bases on the Nu River and the upper reaches of the Jinsha and Lancang [Mekong] will be kicked off in an orderly manner," says the document posted on the central government's website.

Some environmentalists were stunned by the plan's revival, which is part of an effort by the government to promote hydroelectricity as a cleaner alternative to coal.

Opponents said the decision marks a long-awaited victory for the country's mighty state-owned power companies and local governments that have been lobbying top leaders to promote the building of mega dams, regardless of the potential safety risks and social consequences.

"This is really shocking," said Li Bo, a director at Friends of Nature, a leading environmental group. "There were signs during the past year that mega dams were staging a comeback after being put on hold for years, but I'm still shocked by the lack of transparency in the decision-making process behind this.

"If implemented, these projects could destroy the baseline for ecological security, which completely goes against a promise highlighted by the new leadership to preserve a beautiful homeland for our future generations."

The plan would see plants with a capacity of 120 gigawatts begin construction by 2015, with at least 54 hydropower bases listed as "key construction projects" and a further nine in the works, mostly in the seismically active southwest.

Four hydropower bases will be developed on the Nu River, known as the Salween River outside China.

This comes following "scientific and prudent reviews", the plan says, officially lifting - just weeks before his departure - a dam-building moratorium on the river imposed by Wen in 2005 due to ecological and geological concerns.

The highly controversial Xiaonanhai Dam on the Yangtze River - a pet project of disgraced former party chief of Chongqing Bo Xilai - is also among the 54 key stations under development, despite the devastating impact that it would have on a nearby national fishery reserve, as well as its poor economic feasibility and Bo's heavy involvement.

Under mainland law, however, each of the projects is still subject to environmental impact reviews before construction starts.In 2005, Premier Wen, a geologist by training, shelved plans to build 13 dams on the Unesco-protected Nu River, one of the country's last free-flowing rivers. Wen told authorities to "widely heed opinions, expound on [the plan] thoroughly and make prudent decisions". At least four of the dams have been revived in the new plan.

"Wen was able to put those projects on hold for eight years, but with his tenure coming to an end … the pro-hydro interest groups are getting an upper hand again," said Wang Yongchen of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental NGO.

Both Wang and Li warned of the geological risks associated with building mega dams in seismically active regions of the country's southwest, which sees frequent earthquakes and landslides, along with the destructive impact the dams would have on residents and the ecology.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ban lifted on controversial Nu River dam projects