Controversial plans to dam the Nu River in southwest China’s Yunnan Province will remain on hold until research into the viability of the projects has been completed, Yunnan’s top official said yesterday.
“We need to deepen research into the projects and only then can construction begin,” Bai Enpei (白恩培), Chinese Communist Party chief of Yunnan, said on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
“My attitude has not changed — we have to continue ecological and environmental research ... into the impact on the upper and lower reaches [of the river] and if there is a single problem anywhere we need to clarify and resolve it before we can move into the construction phase,” Bai said.
Local media reports late last year suggested that a commitment to dam the Nu River would be part of the new five-year plan for the energy sector. Officials with the National Energy Administration (NEA) said last month that progress could be made in the period between this year and 2015, but Bai said nothing had changed.
“I’ve seen the five-year plan and it calls for the deepening of research work into Nu River hydropower development and once the research is clear we will say whether we will build [the dams] or not,” Bai said.
The Nu River, known outside China as the Salween, originates in the Himalayas and winds its way along the western edge of Yunnan before entering Myanmar and Thailand.
Local government officials have said that the development of hydropower in the remote and impoverished region is crucial to economic growth and the exploitation of its mineral resources, but the projects, with a potential total capacity of 42 gigawatts (GW), have been put on hold since 2004.
Non-governmental organizations say the impoundment of reservoirs on the UNESCO-protected river could damage the region’s already fragile ecosystem and add to earthquake risks and that dams could disrupt water flows to Myanmar and Thailand.
“The Nu River is the last major river in China that hasn’t been dammed, so I think it is extremely important to have due process and make sure all the environmental and social impacts are thoroughly considered,” said Ma Jun (馬軍), of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an NGO that monitors water pollution.
China grew wary of large-scale hydropower following the completion of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in 2005.
The 22.5GW project was the high watermark of a dam-building boom likened by some critics to the construction of ramshackle backyard steel smelters during the Great Leap Forward, China’s ill-fated 1958 campaign to overtake the West.
While two more large-scale hydropower facilities on the upper reaches of the Yangtze were approved, the government has been reluctant to approve any new projects amid concerns about their long-term environmental impact as well as the massive costs of relocating displaced local people.
However, China is now committed to bringing the share of non-fossil fuel energy to 15 percent of its total energy mix by 2020 and with wind and solar power still unreliable sources of electricity, there are signs that it is falling back on its dam-building expertise.
According to the NEA, China — already the world’s biggest hydropower producer — plans to add another 140GW of capacity in the coming five years.