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COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Beijing considers letting nature take its course

Financial TimesPublished:
Nov 01, 2007
In a former national park 1,000kms up the Yangtze River from the ThreeGorges, construction has already begun on the massive Xiluodu andXiangjiaba hydropower stations. These will be China's second- andthird-largest dams respectively and involve the forced relocation ofnearly 100,000 people.

Despite finally acknowledging the many problems associated with the ThreeGorges project, Beijing's state-owned dam-building machine rolls on, withhundreds of smaller dams planned for the Yangtze and its tributaries.

Elsewhere in the world, hydroelectric dams are increasingly viewed asanachronisms. This is particularly true of the US, where huge sums arebeing invested to remove ageing dams and clean up rivers. In China,however, a surging demand for power and the country's reliance on heavilypolluting coal for more than 70 per cent of its energy are driving a boomin hydropower construction.

The dam-building frenzy is not confined to the Yangtze. Countless projectsare planned for Chinese portions of the Mekong, the Brahmaputra and mostother rivers that flow out of the Himalayas. China's hydropower companiesare also peddling their technology and services to the rest of the world.

Not everyone welcomes China's dam exports. Last week, an environmentalgroup in Burma appealed to China to stop work on a hydropower stationbeing built on the Irrawady River. Chinese companies will build andoperate the dam, which will displace around 10,000 people and is intendedin part to supply power to China. The group warns that the project willhave serious environmental consequences and is being built less than 100kmfrom an active seismic fault line.

Considering it did not heed the warnings of its own citizens and officialsover the Three Gorges, the Chinese government is unlikely to listen to aBurmese environmental group, especially at a time when Beijing is activelyencouraging its state-owned firms to invest around the world.

But there are signs that the disastrous effects of the Three Gorges damhave provoked a reassessment at the highest political level in Beijing. Inthe past two years there has been a revolution in the Communist party'srhetoric on environmental issues. Wen Jiabao, the premier, and other topleaders have publicly questioned the merits of giant hydropower projects.

There is an actively encouraged impression among officials that problemsrelated to the Three Gorges are the result of mistakes made under JiangZemin, the former Chinese president. Even the new line-up at the top ofthe party suggests a change in attitude towards giant infrastructureprojects - the proportion of engineers in the 28-person ruling Politburowas reduced in mid-October from three-quarters to just half.

"We are hoping the lessons from the Three Gorges will convince authoritiesto allow a more open and balanced decision-making process when buildingnew dams," says Ma Jun, a prominent water-pollution activist and founderof the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

It is too late to stop the Xianjiaba and Xiluodu dams but Li Yongan,deputy director of the State Council's Three Gorges Project ConstructionCommittee, concedes that the greener political atmosphere in Beijing willprobably force his company to reconsider at least one or two of the 14large new dams it has planned for the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.

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