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China Lifts Ban Against Dam Construction on Nu River


The Chinese government last week decided to lift its self-imposed ban against dam construction on the Nu River in Yunnan province. Previous Premier Wen Jiabao had implemented the halt against the construction of five controversial mega-dams due to environmental concerns.

The decision was announced in the updated five-year (2011-2015) energy-sector plan, released late at night on January 23 by the State Council.

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

The decision is seen as an attempt to promote the cleaner hydropower production over coal energy. However, many critics are expressing concerns over ecological, social and seismic risks.

"China's plans to go ahead with dams on the Nu, as well as similar projects on the Upper Yangtze and Mekong, shows a complete disregard of well-documented seismic hazards, ecological and social risks," Katy Yan, China Program Coordinator for environmental group International Rivers, said in an organization statement.

The five-year blueprint also included approval of the controversial Xiaonanhai Dam on the Upper Yangtze River, despite the effect it will have on a nearby national fishery.

"This is really shocking," Li Bo, a director at Friends of Nature, a leading environmental group, was quoted by South China Morning Post as saying. "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."

In 2004, Premier Wen, a trained geologist, was able to stop construction of 13 dams along the Nu River, saying authorities need to “widely heed opinions, expound on (the plan) thoroughly and make prudent decisions.”

"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.

Now, five of the original 13 dams have been approved. Since Wen’s decision to suspend dams on the Nu River, Huadian Corporation continued to explore the feasibility of the Songta, Maji, Yabiluo, Liuku and Saige projects, and received approval with this update to the 12th Five Year Plan.

Songta Dam, which will be the furthest north and within Tibetan territory, should begin construction within the 2011-2015 plan dates. The other four should begin preparatory work during this time, according to the plan outline.