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Beijing suspends plan for large dam

Jim Yardley  /  The New York Times
Thursday, April 8, 2004

In surprise move, Wen cites concern for environment
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 Chinese media reports and environmentalists informed of the decision.

Wen's intervention signals that China's top leaders have not approved a
plan that most opponents had considered a fait accompli.

His personal involvement is a rare and surprising response in a
nondemocratic government that in the past has shown little concern
about the environmental impact of major public works projects.

In a written instruction handed down to a key government ministry, Wen
ordered officials to conduct a major review of the hydropower project,
which calls for a 13-stage dam. Environmentalists consider the Nu one
of the last pristine rivers in Asia. Its upper reaches flow through a
canyon region so rich in biodiversity that a United Nations agency last year
declared it a World Heritage Site.

"We should carefully consider and make a scientific decision about
major hydro-electric 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 the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao.

Elated environmentalists praised the decision, expressing surprise and
also hope that the move reflects a growing environmental awareness by the
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 opposition to the project. "I don't
think I've ever heard of anything like this ever happening before."

Environmentalists cautioned that the dam project could still eventually
go forward in some form. Construction had been scheduled to begin this
year on the first dam at the city of Liuku. But Wen's instructions make it
clear that environmental objections, which were largely steamrolled before,
must be given serious consideration.

"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, a Chinese
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, where
the river flows on a path just inside China's border with Myanmar. Yunnan
officials predicted that it would help provide jobs and raise incomes
in one of China's poorest regions.

Advocates have also argued that the dams were critical at a time when
China is suffering energy shortages and sporadic electricity blackouts in
certain areas.

Opposition from 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
agency, 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 came out against
the plan and wrote a formal letter of opposition to President Hu Jintao of
China.

The social costs of the project also brought opposition. An estimated
50,000 people would have to be relocated. Most are ethnic minorities
who farm and herd animals in the isolated mountains above the river. For
many, the promise of urban jobs at a time of rising unemployment rang hollow,
since most people have little education.

China's Communist government has a longstanding and atrocious record on
the environment. Pollution levels for water and air are among the worst in
the world. Recently, though, Wen has spoken about the need to emphasize
environmental protection.

"This gives us some hope that the river can be saved," said Qian.

 
 

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