The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has personally intervened in the construction of dams on the Salween River, once again, "calling for more careful environmental assessment and prudence before going ahead with the plan," according to the South China Morning Post. This will halt the project at least for some time, as happened when the Premier first intervened in 2004. I am very pleased to hear this news, but I wonder why he is intervening again.
China's official news agency Xinhua has quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu today saying that the "Chinese government attaches great importance to the utilization and protection of transnational rivers inside Chinese territory." Yeah right. Isn't the Mekong an international river?
The reasons provided by SCMP are far more believable: "Mr Wen ordered a halt to work on the Liuku hydropower station last month, telling authorities not to resume the plan until its impact on the ecology and local communities was fully understood." These are the same reasons provided in 2004. Chinese environmental activists campaigning to save the Salween River have been working very hard to keep the Premier's office apprised of these concerns and the situation on the ground. The real credit thus goes to the dedicated and well-coordinated work of these campaigners.
Before I go further on this topic, I want to quickly bring up this notion of "two undammed rivers of China". This Times article quotes an activist saying that the Salween "is one of only two rivers in China that have not yet been dammed." I think the activist is assuming Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) to be the other undammed river. Chinese officials have made statements in the past that there are no dams on the main stream of the Brahmaputra River. This is misleading because China is building a 510 MW hydro project on the mainstream of the river, about 140 km southeast from Lhasa, between Zangs-Ri (Sangri) and rGya-Tsha (Jiacha) counties.
Coming back to the work of environmental activists, one may wonder how they are able to campaign so successfully in a country like China where public works undertaken by powerful bureaucracies such as the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Machine Building and the Ministry of Construction are notorious for their lack of social and environmental concerns. How did a project in a remote location (in Yunnan Province and on the Salween River) attract national and international attention? Where were these activists during the construction of the Three Gorges Project, the world's biggest dam?
The Three Gorges Dam is (probably) the most controversial construction projects undertaken by the PRC -- more than a million people were relocated to make way for the dam and its reservoir . Its construction began in 1994, directly under the supervision of the then Premier Li Peng. There are countless stories of corruption and mistreatment of relocatees and protestors. Dai Qing is a prominent case. Opposition was not tolerated because the project was closely tied to the legitimacy of the Communist Party (by invoking, for example, Mao Zedong's support for the project) and the economic interests of key party leaders (e.g., China's power sector has been described as the "fiefdom of Li Peng family"). For more information on the dam, visit www.probeinternational.org and www.internationalrivers.org . In many ways, the sacrifices of the victims and activists of the Three Gorges Project paved the way for a new generation of critical environmentalists in China.
By early 2000, China had a critical mass of environmental activists and journalists who were beginning to form an informal alliance to check on China's dam construction madness. China has half of the world's large dams and it has been building more than one large dam per day since the inception of the country as PRC in 1949. The trend continues to this day. The only difference is that the size and the scale of these projects are getting bigger and bigger. In June 2003, a group of academics, journalists and civil society leaders gathered for a conference at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing to discuss the implications of irresponsible dam construction in the country. The conference was in fact China's first anti-dam meeting.
The participants of the conference discussed many dam projects, including several that were planned on the Eastern and South-Eastern fringes of the Tibetan Plateau such as the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam, the Yeti Lake dam, and the Salween dams. It was informally decided that they will focus their campaign on the Salween Dams and the Tiger Leaping Gorge project. Unlike environmental activism in the West where campaigns often criticize the government, Chinese activists must work with the government. Their goal is to assist the government, specifically the State Environmental Protection Agency, in implementing its extensive environmental laws related to construction of development projects. And they had identified a perfect tool, the new Environmental Impact Assessment Law that was passed in 2003. The standards and specificities of regulations in the new EIA law are considered to be world class. The broader international campaign strategy was to save the Salween River as a World Heritage Site.
Thus an unprecedented network of activists, journalists, ordinary citizens and government officials began a campaign, mainly of public education of the cultural and ecological heritage on the Nu Jiang or Salween River. On the ground public education work was spearheaded by veteran environmental activists like Wang Yongchen and Yu Xiaogang. Their campaign measures were remarkable because not only were these supportive of China's laws but also had a kind of ripple effect of activism. Their innovative activities include sight-seeing and rafting tours in collaboration with local residents for officials, journalists and concerned citizens, and photo exhibitions in public places like the Beijing post office! This wonderful video provides an insight into the kinds of issues that have been advocated by these activists.
Not surprisingly this amazing campaign became very famous. International media, governments, research think tanks, UN bodies, and not to mention ordinary people around the world took notice. The campaigners also provided direct briefings to the office of national leaders. Thus in 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao intervened in the project and called for proper environmental assessment of the project.
A fresh round of environmental impact assessment was conducted and the review panel decided in 2005 that only four of the 13 proposed dams were allowable. The nine dams that were rejected by the review panel includes Songta Dam, which is planned in Tibetan inhabited areas. The government has refused to disclose the EIA study. The study was classified as a "state secret" because of transboundary (international) implications of the project.
Then I read a report some time ago, which I am unable to locate right now, that preparation work for the construction of Salween Dams is going on covertly. This is alluded to the in the video above, expressing concern for the start of construction work for Liuku Dam, the first and the smallest of the four dams approved. So, the news about Wen Jiabao's intervention came as a delightful surprise.