Green Groups' Hopes of Blocking Controversial Xiaonanhai Dam After Abrupt Leadership Change Fade

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One of the most controversial decisions that former Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai made during his four-year stay in the southwestern mega-city has been upheld, despite the princeling-politician’s spectacular fall from grace.

Plans for the Xiaonanhai dam, widely seen as Bo’s pet project, have emerged unscathed and made significant headway in recent weeks amid much-rumoured scrutiny of major projects in the city that were allowed to proceed under Bo’s stewardship.

Although the plan to place a dam at the upper reaches of the Yangtze River has long been controversial due to concerns about its environmental impact, economic feasibility, the secretive decision-making process and Bo’s heavy involvement, preparatory work for the project received the go-ahead late last month.

Environmentalists are very disappointed that years of efforts to stall the project – which they argue will wipe out several endangered fish species, including the Chinese sturgeon and Chinese paddlefish, and deal another irrevocable blow to the river’s bio-diversity – proved futile.

Chongqing authorities managed to overcome all major obstacles to the dam’s construction, mostly due to the personal intervention of Bo, a former Politburo member who’s a son of a revolutionary elder.

Critics are most bitter about the silencing of leading mainland scientists who were previously allied with environmentalists in opposing the Xiaonanhai dam and the downsizing of a neighbouring national fishery reserve to make way for the project.

Later, environmentalists thought they had found a silver lining in Bo’s dramatic ousting.

Many pinned their last hope of blocking the project – to be built 700 kilometres upstream from the Three Gorges Dam and 40 kilometres upstream of the city – on the abrupt leadership change.

Specifically, the appointment of Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang to replace Bo as Chongqing’s party boss on March 15.

However, Zhang was apparently preoccupied with other things, such as containing the political fallout from Bo’s downfall in the city of 30 million and eradicating his predecessor’s political influence.

“We had thought it was an opportunity for new leaders to rethink damming the Yangtze River, which was largely a politically motivated decision,” a veteran mainland environmentalist said.

Another Chongqing-based environmentalist put it more bluntly: “We have yet to see any major difference between Bo and his successor in terms of their handling of environmentally sensitive issues, on which political and economic interests always take precedence.”

On March 29, Chongqing mayor Huang Qifan , a former ally of Bo, and the heads of the dam’s developer, China Three Gorges Corporation, jointly launched the start of the dam project’s preliminary work.

Although Zhang did not attend the ceremony, according to the Chongqing Daily , analysts say the fact that the controversial project was allowed to proceed two weeks after Bo’s downfall shows Zhang must have given it his blessing.

Huang said the project was necessary to tackle the city’s power shortage, help improve navigation along the Yangtze and tackle siltation at the Three Gorges dam reservoir.

But analysts believe the real reason behind the local government’s enthusiasm for the project is its total investment, which stands at 32 billion yuan (HK$39.3 billion), according to Huang, making it the most expensive single project ever built in the municipality.

China Three Gorges, which has built and controls all the major dams upstream and downstream of the Xiaonanhai dam, had no option but to take up the project because the last thing it wants to see is other power companies stepping on its hydropower turf.

Weng Lida, a former director of the water resources bureau at the Yangtze River Commission, has said that senior China Three Gorges executives admitted that they had to give in to pressure from the Chongqing authorities even though the Xiaonanhai dam was not appealing in terms of its power-generation capabilities and cost-effectiveness.

Just two days after preparatory work began on the Xiaonanhai dam, dozens of mainland green groups and environmentalists signed an open letter addressed to Premier Wen Jiabao and Zhang, who remains a vice-premier, calling for an immediate halt to the project.

They suggested that there were many other options for resolving Chongqing’s power shortages, such as supplying it with electricity generated by the Three Gorges dam. Chongqing media have reported that the central government has agreed to do just that, beginning later this year.

Critics have also focused on the dam project’s high cost. The open letter sent to Wen and Zhang says it is up to four times more expensive than other mega-dams along the Yangtze’s upper reaches in terms of per-kilowatt investment. The Xiaonanhai dam is expected to generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity, according to Chongqing Daily , taking its per-kilowatt investment to 16,000 yuan, compared with 4,950 yuan at the Three Gorges dam, 3,538 yuan at the Xiluodu dam and 5,749 yuan at the Xiangjiaba dam.

The Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams are China’s second- and third-largest, built upstream of the Xiaonanhai project on a main tributary of the Yangtze.

A fact barely mentioned by the project’s supporters is that the Yangtze River Commission reached the same conclusion as environmentalists in an official report in 2003, saying the Xiaonanhai dam was not recommended due to its unremarkable economic returns.

Although the main dam project remains subject to the environment ministry’s final approval, Weng and other experts concede that the possibility of stopping is only theoretical.

“There is no precedent for dam projects on the mainland to be scrapped once their preliminary work, which requires large upfront investment, kicks off,” Weng said.

But environmentalists are refusing to budge.

“We will not give up hope as long as the dam project has yet to be officially approved,” said Wang Yongchen , of Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers. “We will tell the people and the world why we should protect the Yangtze River from being dammed yet again.”

South China Morning Post Publishers Limited