New call to scrap dams after geologist loses leg

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Bangkok Post 5 May 2006

By Michael Richardson

Controversy has swirled around a proposal to build a series of hydroelectric dams on the Nu River – one of the last free-flowing waterways in China. Decisions made by central government authorities on the final shape of the project will affect countries downstream, namely Myanmar and Thailand. Yet the plans are shrouded in official secrecy.

The issue is emerging in China as a test of national priorities. To what extent are communist party and government officials, both central and local, prepared to listen to dissenting voices? And how will they balance the needs for energy and growth against those for conservation and sustainable development?

Beginning high on the Tibetan plateau, the Nu, which means angry, passes through a remote mountain region of southwestern China before entering Myanmar. There, it is known as the Thanlwin, or the Salween in English. The river forms Myanmars border with Thailand for 120km, then flows through Myanmar and into the sea. More than two-thirds of its 2,800km length is in China, where a group of state-owned companies announced in mid-2003 that it planned to build 13 power dams. Together, they would generate 22,000MW, the equivalent of about two dozen big nuclear-power stations.

But Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the project in April 2004, telling officials it needed more careful scrutiny. Environmental activists, and some Chinese scientists, had opposed any dams along the river, arguing that they would displace thousands of villagers, threaten fisheries and wildlife, and disrupt the flow of the Nu into Myanmar and along the Thai border.

The United Nations also entered the dispute. Last year, its culture-protection agency, Unesco,  expressed its gravest concerns about the potential damage to a wilderness area in Yunnan province , which the Nu flows through. In July 2003, Unesco had listed the area as a world heritage site.

The latest reports suggest, however, that Chinese authorities have decided to proceed with the hydropower project on a smaller scale. They apparently plan to begin by building only four dams, ostensibly to limit any local disruption and damage to the environment. Under Chinas Environmental Impact Assessment Law, comprehensive reviews are supposed to be made in the planning stages of major projects – involving public participation, such as hearings where objections can be raised and considered. But the Ministry of Water Resources has blocked the release of the environmental impact assessment report on the Nu project, saying it contains state secrets.

The governments of Myanmar and Thailand havent been much more forthcoming about their plans for hydropower development on the river. They agreed, in December, to build at least five dams on the Salween, which would generate 11,800MW. But that deal was not published until a British journalist posted it on a website in March.

China has a strong case for harnessing its rivers. It is short of energy and needs to reduce reliance on burning coal, which pollutes the atmosphere and releases gases that are warming the world to dangerous levels. But keeping its people and neighbouring countries in the dark about its plans will only fan fears about adverse consequences, making it seem that there is much to hide.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.