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Chinese Premier Orders Halt To Controversial Dam Project Advertisement

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/04/09; April 9, 2004.]

By Jim Yardley New York Times News Service

April 9, 2004

BEIJING -- Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has unexpectedly suspended plans for a massive dam system on the Nu River in western China that scientists have warned could ruin one of the country's last unspoiled places, according to news reports in China and Hong Kong.

Wen's intervention signals that China's top leaders have not approved a plan that most dam opponents had considered a fait accompli. His personal involvement is a rare and surprising response in a non-democratic government that in the past has shown little concern about the environmental effects of major public-works projects.

In written instructions, the news reports said, Wen ordered officials to conduct a major review of the hydropower project, which calls for a 13-stage dam. Environmentalists consider the Nu, which rises in Tibet and flows 1,750 miles through Yunnan Province between the Mekong and Yangtze rivers, one of the last pristine rivers in Asia. Its upper reaches flow through a canyon region so rich in biodiversity that last year a United Nations agency declared it a World Heritage Site.

"We should carefully consider and make a scientific decision about major hydroelectric projects like this that have aroused a high level of concern in society, and with which the environmental protection side disagrees," Wen wrote, according to Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper.

The appearance of the announcement in a variety of news outlets suggests that the government wanted to make public Wen's decision.

Elated environmentalists praised the decision, expressing surprise and hope that the move reflects a growing environmental awareness by the Chinese government. China is widely regarded as one of the world's most polluted countries.

"I was very surprised to hear the news that the prime minister himself sent down an instruction suspending the project," said He Daming, a professor at Yunnan University who helped lead the opposition.

Environmentalists cautioned, however, that the dam project still could go forward. Construction had been scheduled to begin this year on the first dam at Liuku, near the China-Myanmar border. But Wen's instructions make it clear that environmental objections must be weighed.

"He wants to hear more opinions and gather more views, especially from the conservation side that has been left out," said Qian Jie, deputy director of the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, an environmental group. "I think at the least it sends a signal that our leaders care about the environment and about social development and not just about the economy."

The project has been advocated by officials in Yunnan province. They predicted it would provide jobs and raise incomes in one of China's poorest regions. Advocates also have argued that the dams were crucial at a time that China is suffering energy shortages.

A Yunnan official reached by telephone said she had heard about Wen's decision but did not know any details.

Opposition to the project by Chinese scientists and environmentalists began coalescing last year. In a surprisingly public rift within the government, the State Environmental Protection Agency, the country's leading environmental authority, announced its opposition to the project. The Chinese Academy of Sciences also warned that the plan could cause enormous damage.

In recent weeks, a consortium of international groups publicly opposed the plan and wrote a formal letter of opposition to President Hu Jintao. In March, during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's Communist Party-controlled legislature, a number of delegates wrote to central authorities asking that the project be halted, according to the report in Ming Pao.

Opponents say the dam project also would disrupt one of China's most diversely populated regions. An estimated 50,000 people would have to move, most of them ethnic minorities who farm and herd in the isolated mountains above the river. For many, the promise of urban jobs at a time of rising unemployment ring hollow, particularly because villagers in the region have little education.

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