Project to dam the Nu River set to move ahead

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South China Morning Post 17 February 2008

By Shi Jiangtao in Beijing

The plan to dam the Nu River, the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia, is poised to move ahead in Yunnan province after final preparations began on Wednesday amid strong public opposition.

Dozens of enraged villagers, who were forced out to make way for the Liuku hydropower station a year ago but have yet to get full compensation for their farmland, were still protesting at the site yesterday – a third day after returning to their land, local sources

"About 50 villagers went to their farms early on Thursday morning, trying to stop bulldozers and tractors from clearing the sites," said a source who did not want to be named. "They are still there."

China Huadian, the developer of the dam project, began preparations on farmland belonging to two families by emptying and unearthing an oil tank.

At least one of the 13 dams would be allowed to go ahead and work on the Liuku power station would start as early as June, government sources said.

But it remains unclear whether an attempt to break a four-year deadlock over the dam project, which has been shrouded in controversy and met fierce resistance from about 400 villagers in Xiaoshaba, Lushui county, received approval from Beijing.

A top local government official denied that Beijing had finally approved the project, which was suspended in 2004 because of rampant environmental concerns and public protests.

"It is all hearsay," Hou Xinhua , governor of Nu River region, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post before the Lunar New Year.

He said the project would remain on hold pending approval from the National Development and Reform Commission and the result of a mandatory green assessment by the State Environmental Protection Administration.

Sepa was unavailable for comment, but government sources said the agency would be unable to indefinitely hold up the project, which the development commission backs.

Touted by authorities as a shortcut to eradicate widespread poverty in one of the mainland's most underdeveloped areas, the proposal to build up to 13 dams on the Nu River, also known as Salween, has been criticised by local villagers, mainland experts, green activists and international media since 2003.

They said the project would have a grave impact on culturally diverse local communities, the unique ecosystem of the Nu River and endanger a Unesco World Heritage site.

Prompted by a public outcry, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a halt to the project in early 2004 and pledged to carry out a comprehensive assessment of its impact.

Dozens of mainland environmental groups and renowned figures have called for the release of the environmental impact report under mainland law, but have been unsuccessful.

Local authorities hoped to make headway in the building of the 1 billion yuan Liuku power station, the smallest of the proposed dams, believing it would break the impasse and pave the way for the other dams.

But the Xiaoshaba villagers protested, complaining about unfair compensation for their old houses and poor arrangements for their future.

Although 80 families accepted the government's latest compensation deal, the rest have vowed to keep fighting.

"We have heard the rumour about the imminent start of the project, and it seems quite likely now," said a Xiaoshaba villager. "But we will not back down this time until we get the fair compensation we deserve."