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UN Warning Could See Dams Scrapped

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006
South China Morning Post

Yunnan intends to scrap a controversial dam project along the Nu River, a few months after Unesco threatened to take one of the province's attractions off its World Heritage list, environmental sources say.

A decision could come as early as next month, the sources said, although even with the surprising U-turn, provincial authorities were likely to push ahead with plans for dams on two other international rivers in Yunnan.

By abandoning the Nu River dams, the authorities hoped to ease concerns the UN cultural body had over the protection of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, a World Heritage site, the sources said. It covers a vast area through which run the upper reaches of three great rivers, the Nu (Salween), Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze).

The Unesco decision means the Yunnan government had to make a hard choice between the dam projects and the heritage site, which Unesco believes has been endangered by the proposed hydropower development on the three rivers, one source said.

Unesco threatened in July to put the site on an endangered list, the second warning in about a year and one that could have resulted in losing protection status, after advisers from the World Conservation Union, or IUCN, inspected the area.

The sources said the warning came amid assurances from mainland officials that any future dams would not affect the site.

Unesco and IUCN were not happy with Beijing's deliberate unclear boundary definition of the protected areas, which left room for modifications in favour of damming and mining activities, another source said.

Unesco found the area of the site would be reduced by 20 per cent under a government-led boundary modification plan, which local media reported would also allow mining activities and other development around the site.

If it is listed as World Heritage in danger, it would have a very negative impact on the country's international image, one mainland environmentalist said.

The plan to build up to 13 dams on the Nu River caused an international outcry that prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to suspend preparations in February 2004.

However, some sources suggested the media reports might cause authorities to delay abandoning the Nu River dams to avoid the perception they were bowing to international pressure.

IUCN said it would welcome the decision if confirmed. That would be great news and we would be delighted, said Bastian Bomhard, a world heritage officer at IUCN.

Dropping the Nu River projects, however, is likely to prompt local authorities to plan more dams on the Lancang because of economic considerations. State media reports have favoured damming the Lancang despite opposition from five downstream countries, including Thailand. Xinhua said on Monday that dam construction on the Lancang would not affect countries downstream.

Copyright (c) 2000. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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