Fri, Mar 17, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Chinese environmentalists fight great wall of officialdom

Opposing local officials' development plans is a risky proposition for green activists - notwithstanding Beijing calling for environmental protection


Two years ago the Chinese non-governmental organization (NGO) Green Watershed successfully led a fight to halt construction of hydropower stations along the pristine banks of the Nujiang river.

But its victory was pyrrhic.

While the temporary stay it secured on the power project is still in place, Green Watershed lost it its operating license and its founder Yu Xiaogang (於曉剛) had his personal freedoms restricted.

As the group found, opposing local officials is fraught with risk.

While China has vowed to step up protection of its heavily degraded environment, local politics all too often trump national policy and effective independent policing, environmentalists say.

The group's troubles began two years ago when it called on the central government to review the planned construction of 13 hydropower stations along the Nujiang, one of only two of China's major rivers that still run dam-free.


If all dams were to be completed along the river, which is on the UN's list of Protected Areas, they would extend 700km and produce more than 100 billion kilowatts per hour of electricity to feed China's voracious appetite for power.

The Thanlwin, as the river is called in Burmese, originates on the snowy peaks of Tibet, its azure, angry waters wending 2,400km through steep terraced canyons in southwestern China and then Myanmar before emptying into the Andaman Sea.

China's more than 22,000 dams already comprise 46 percent of the world's total, according to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP).

Although the UNEP has given its eco-friendly stamp of approval to many of China's dams projects in the past, environmentalists at Green Watershed argue that damming the Nujiang would damage the local environment, threatening the area's fragile eco-balance as the reservoirs flood fertile land.

New dams could also wipe out fish species whose migration routes to traditional breeding grounds would be blocked, but perhaps more importantly would threaten millions of livelihoods, the group said.

Determined to make the Beijing listen, Yu, who founded Green Watershed in 2002, began to drum up support in the community by letting residents know about plans spearheaded by state-run China Huadian Corp, one of the country's largest power groups.

Yu took residents to Lancan river, known in Southeast Asia as the Mekong, to let them see the impoverishing effects on the populace living around the Manwan dam, a hydro station active since 1993. They also went to Beijing for discussions with the government.


At the time of the conflict, a confluence of concerns about China's over-investment in industry and the effects of environmental damage wrought by 25 years of heated economic development played into the hands of Green Watershed's campaign.

Increasingly concerned that the nation's economic growth model was environmentally unsustainable -- an issue that was high on the agenda during the National People's Congress -- Beijing began to heed warnings from the State Environmental Protection Agency and NGOs like Yu's.

Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) ordered the suspension and reassessment of all the multi-billion dollar electricity stations along the Nujiang in April 2004, a decision that has yet to be reversed.

Yunnan officials were not amused.

"One deputy governor of Yunnan Province said in a very public occasion that Green Watershed ... had damaged Yunnan's hydropower development plan, and therefore damaged the economic development of the entire province," Yu said.

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