Wen calls halt to Yunnan dam plan

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South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) 21 May 2009 

By Shi Jiangtao in Beijing

Premier orders further environmental checks

Premier Wen Jiabao has pulled the plug on a controversial project to build a dam on one of China's last free-flowing rivers in Yunnan, calling for more careful environmental assessment and prudence before going ahead with the plan.

Sources said Mr Wen ordered a halt to work on the Liuku hydropower station last month, telling authorities not to resume the plan until its impact on the ecology and local communities was fully understood.

The plant was the first of many dams planned on the Nu (Salween) River. Although construction of the Liuku station has not officially started, preparation work is under way and many residents have already been moved out of the area.

Due to the project's "far-reaching impact", Mr Wen said authorities should "widely heed opinions, expound on [the plan] thoroughly and make prudent decisions".

This is the second time the premier has thrown his weight behind calls to put the controversial plan on hold. In February 2004, Mr Wen ordered a suspension of the Liuku project until its social and environmental impact had been "carefully discussed and scientifically decided", following a public outcry.

His remarks five years ago were seen as a victory for the project's opponents, including environmental activists, experts and journalists.

Up to 13 dams are planned by the Yunnan government and state-owned power giant China Huadian on the middle and lower reaches of the river, with a total capacity of 21,320MW - about 17 per cent more than that of the Three Gorges Dam.

But hydropower, especially on a river shared by several countries, has always proved controversial.

Although local authorities said tapping the hydropower was essential to eradicate widespread poverty in one of the mainland's most underdeveloped areas, local villagers have complained of forced eviction.

They said local officials thwarted their attempts to air grievances over unfair compensation.

Opponents argued that the proposal overlooked the grave impact on local communities and the unique ecosystem of the Nu River.

The plan was also opposed by many in downstream countries and prompted concerns from the UN heritage body Unesco that the dams would endanger a world heritage site recognised in 2003, covering the headwaters of the Nu, Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers.

The debate on the Nu river dams has over the years - with the rise of environmental awareness in China - become a much broader debate on the mainland's fevered drive to build big dams.

In his remarks last month, sources said, Mr Wen urged caution on hydropower development, saying that lessons from the proposed dam on the Jinsha River - at the scenic Tiger Leaping Gorge - had yet to be learnt.

Construction of a dam at Xinanqiao started before the central government approved plans for the Jinsha development, which environmentalists said would cause irreversible damage to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Beijing later ordered a halt.

Dam building in Yunnan and Sichuan - two provinces prone to geological hazards - became even more controversial after the Sichuan earthquake last year.

Due to fierce opposition, the Nu River hydropower plan was scaled down to four dams in the middle reaches, including the one at Liuku.

Although the scaled-down plan was backed by the National Development and Reform Commission, Mr Wen's instructions would halt the project "for a while", analysts said.

"Mr Wen's personal intervention has offered us fresh hope," said a mainland environmentalist. "But it is obvious that the project's advocates, especially local authorities and the power company, have far from given up hope and the fight will go on."