Destroying a Natural Treasure in the Name of Progress

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Mugecuo lake, known to local Tibetans as Yeti lake, remains one of China’s few untainted ecological treasures. Situated in the Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Sichuan province, it is surrounded by other pristine glacial lakes, primeval forests, and hot springs. The area is home to more than 1,000 species of rare tropical plants and 2,000 varieties of animals and birds.

But this unspoiled land has been targeted for a hydroelectric dam project, pitting Huaneng Power International – China’s largest independent power producer, headed by the son of former premier Li Peng – against environmentalists and locals. The battle has intensified in the past months, especially after the new Chinese leadership took over in March. Both Huaneng and opponents of the project hope to get support from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

In June, the US-based Radio Free Asia reported that Huaneng and the local Sichuan government were lobbying the central government to implement the plan to build a hydroelectric power station on Mugecuo lake. Under the scheme, Huaneng and the local government would jointly raise US$300 million. About 40 per cent of the revenue generated from the station would go to the cash-starved prefecture and help alleviate poverty.

Despite these short-term economic and political benefits, many experts have reservations. In June, a journalist with the China Youth Daily interviewed several members of the government-appointed environmental review panel, which approved the project in 2001. Several are now urging the government to cancel the project, citing environmental and safety concerns. They revealed that, during the review process, Huaneng only scheduled a one-day meeting. Several experts did not even get the chance to visit the lake, but were nonetheless pressed by Huaneng to sign the report. According to the company, the dam would bring prosperity to the region and help promote ethnic unity and stability, a political priority in China.

In a recent unpublished China Youth Daily article, distributed to senior leaders, the review panel members were quoted as saying that building the 30-metre concrete and steel dam would create a blot on the landscape, flood more than 8,100 hectares of primeval forest and cause the extinction of the area’s rare plants and animals. Many glacial lakes, such as Qicaihai (the seven-coloured sea) would dry up, while streams and rivers in the lower reaches would disappear.

Moreover, experts warn that the dam would be located near an active earthquake zone. They say the structure, combined with the large volume of water in the reservoir, could even trigger earthquakes.

Many local Tibetans, who have long cherished the ecological treasures, have written to the provincial and central governments, registering their opposition. In June, Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly ordered an intra-agency taskforce to investigate the issue.

However, Radio Free Asia claimed that the team, under pressure from Huaneng, concluded that the project was feasible. In June, the company flew its supporters – several senior Tibetan officials – to Beijing to lobby the government on its behalf. With Mr Li’s son, Li Xiaopeng, at the helm of Huaneng, local officials could find it hard to resist the political pressure from above. Sources at the Environmental Protection Agency in Ganzi say the project is now beyond the prefecture’s control and Huaneng is taking the lead.

The firm’s stated intention to generate electricity to meet increasing demand due to the region’s rapid economic expansion may be legitimate. But the worry is the lack of a public hearing or debate.

In recent years, pressure has been building within the Chinese government to be more accountable to the people. Mr Hu and Mr Wen have spoken extensively about the importance of running a transparent government. If we apply this to the Mugecuo project, it follows that the public – especially experts and local Tibetans – should be allowed to participate in the decision-making process. Moreover, the newly revised Chinese environmental impact evaluation law, which comes into force next month, requires all dam developers to incorporate the views of experts and local residents into the evaluation and review process. For bigger projects, the law requires public hearings to be held. The Mugecuo project should not be an exception.

The Mugecuo region is considered one of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity. Surely, an international committee, comprising Chinese and foreign experts, should be set up to review the project’s environmental impact.

Moreover, if the government’s goal of building this dam is to improve local economic conditions, the people should be consulted first. Officials in Sichuan told the China Youth Daily that tourism in the Mugecuo lake region, a government-designated national park, has begun to take off and residents are directly benefiting from the unique ecological resources. On top of this, local officials say there are already a number of hydroelectric power stations in the area and power supplies are plentiful. If this is the case, ploughing ahead with the project, without hearing or considering the feelings of the local Tibetans, could further exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions.

Tang Xueshan, a professor at the Forestry University in Beijing, was a member of the review committee. He says he understands the government’s priority of promoting economic development and ethnic unity in the Tibetan region, but believes preserving China’s ecological resources is equally important. “No other country in the world allows a dam to be built in national parks,” he told the China Youth Daily. Once these precious ecological resources near Mugecuo are gone, he continued, “it would be irreparable”.

Wen Huang is a writer based in Chicago.