Open letter puts pressure on Beijing over secretive dam plans

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7 September 2005

By Kelly Haggart

Dozens of Chinese environmental groups and close to 100 concerned experts have joined forces to publish a dramatic open letter urging the government to release documents related to secretive plans to dam the Nu River in southwest China.

The forceful statement, signed by 61 organizations and 99 individuals, argues that the environmental impact assessment that apparently has been completed for the controversial Nu River project must be made available for public scrutiny, in accordance with Chinese law.

"We sincerely call on the decision-making authorities to disclose the EIA report of the Nu River dam plans before making a decision, because the right to be informed is a prerequisite for public participation," they write, and cite Chinese law that requires public input into project planning.

"Dam building in an area of high mountains, deep valleys and extremely poor farmland threatens the livelihoods and future of tens of thousands of people," the authors of the letter warn.

But amid the secrecy surrounding the Nu River plans, "there is no way for the public to learn how the developers and local government will avoid environmental damage, how they plan to carry out the resettlement of 50,000 people, and how they will assure the safety and economic feasibility of the dams."

Noting that 92 per cent of the local population belongs to minority groups, the authors observe that, "once resettlement starts, the loss of cultural diversity is inevitable."

As well as arguing vigorously for the rights of citizens to be informed about Ð and to influence Ð projects that will have a profound impact on their lives, the petitioners are scathing in their criticism of current practice in China's big-dam industry.

"We should no longer tolerate the low-cost or even free exploitation of public resources and the earning of huge profits at the expense of our environment," they write.

"Dam-builders should not externalize the huge costs of dam construction on affected people, the public, the nation's finances and future generations."

No coverage of this important appeal, which was issued in Chinese on Aug. 25, could be found in an on-line search of the Chinese press.

Patricia Adams, executive director of Probe International and publisher of Three Gorges Probe, said, "The Chinese NGOs and concerned citizens are absolutely correct to demand that the Nu River EIA be released to the public for review and input.

"Secret EIAs are paper exercises intended to lull the public into thinking that project proponents have considered the environmental consequences of their actions thoroughly and accurately. "

But secret EIAs are tantamount to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. They have no credibility, but are seen as ham-fisted attempts to deceive the public. They would not be tolerated in the West," she said.

"The only way to get an accurate evaluation of the costs and benefits of a dam project is to subject its environmental assessment to public scrutiny and input. Then a better picture of the true consequences of the project will begin to emerge."

Controversy has swirled around the proposal to dam the Nu River since it was first revealed two years ago that the China Huadian Group and local power firms had been granted permission to build a cascade of 13 hydroelectric dams on the river.

As it wends its way through Yunnan province, the Nu forms part of the Three Parallel Rivers National Park, where three mighty rivers Ð the Yangtze, Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) Ð flow through steep parallel gorges.

It is a region of such rich biodiversity and "outstanding universal value" that UNESCO declared it a world heritage site in 2003.

At its recent annual meeting, held in South Africa in July, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued a resolution expressing "grave concern" about the development plans for the Nu River and stating that "any dam construction within the World Heritage property would provide a case for inclusion of the property in the List of World Heritage in Danger."

The Nu is one of only two major rivers in China that have not yet been dammed. (The other undisturbed river is the Yaluzangbu in Tibet.) Chinese scientists want the two rivers left alone so that future studies can compare conditions in dammed and free-flowing rivers.

Moreover, the Nu is an international river, and upstream development could cause problems for downstream countries Burma and Thailand.

News of the proposed development of the Nu River's hydropower potential sent shockwaves through China's scientific and environmental communities when the plans became known in August 2003.

After heated debate about the project's likely environmental and social impacts, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a halt to the scheme in April 2004, sending it back for more "scientific research."

Recent local media reports have suggested that a scaled-back version of the project, perhaps involving the construction of four dams, is likely to be approved soon Ð despite the complete lack of public input into the decision-making process.

In their open letter, the experts and activists write: "We have been informed that the central government's planning and environmental departments have reviewed the hydropower development plans for the Nu River."

However, they point out, public participation in large infrastructure projects is now required by law in China.

The Environmental Impact Assessment Law, which came into force on Sept. 1, 2003, stipulates that public tribunals must be held to take account of the views of people who stand to be directly affected by such projects.

But, the authors of the letter complain, the public continues to be excluded from decision-making related to the Nu River scheme, all of which is going on behind closed doors.

In fact, no big project in China has yet been forced to consult with affected communities. The signatories of the open letter would like to see the Nu River scheme become a test case, and the first of many such projects to be subjected to public scrutiny.

Hydropower development on the Nu River "is not an individual case," they write. "We hope the process can help develop a set of science-based and democratic decision-making mechanisms, in order to cope with the overheated and unregulated hydropower development boom in China."

In the absence of proper procedures, they write, "such an abnormally fast pace of development may result in resource exploitation and environmental degradation. Then the beauty of China's natural rivers will be lost, and the affected people in southwest China's mountainous areas may fall into dire poverty."

Groups that have signed the open letter include prominent non-government organizations Friends of Nature, Global Village Beijing, the Global Environmental Institute, Green Island, and many others.

The distinguished individuals who have endorsed the document include:

Niu Wenyuan, chief scientist and head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Sustainable Development Strategy Unit;

Fan Xiao, geologist and secretary-general of the Sichuan Tourism Geological Research Centre, who has raised concerns about the seismic threat posed by the planned Nu River dams;

Lu Yuegang, journalist with China Youth Daily who has written extensively on dam-related social and environmental issues;

Mao Yushi, one of China's leading economists, whose work has focused on protecting the rights of the silent majority as civil society develops in China; and

Ma Jun, an environmental consultant and author of the acclaimed book, China's Water Crisis.

Another signatory, Wang Yongchen, a radio journalist and co-founder of the environmental group Green Earth Volunteers, was instrumental in the campaign to stop an earlier unpopular dam project.

The Yangliuhu dam was to have been built just upstream of Dujiangyan, a 2,200-year-old irrigation scheme that is thought to be the world's oldest such system still in operation. Ms. Wang helped spearhead opposition to Yangliuhu. The spirited public debate that sprang up around that scheme grew into a nationwide media campaign that ultimately led to cancellation of the project.