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China Proceeds on Plan for Disputed Yangtze Dam

January 1, 2011

December 29, 2011

By Michael Wines

BEIJING — The Chinese State Council has removed a crucial roadblock to building one of the nation’s most contentious hydroelectric dams, dealing a decisive defeat to environmentalists critical of the project — and showcasing the clout of one of the most powerful and ambitious politicians in China.

In a little-noticed ruling made public on Dec. 14, the council approved changes to shrink the boundaries of a Yangtze River preserve that is home to many of the river’s rare and endangered fish species. The decision is likely to clear the way for construction of the Xiaonanhai Dam, a $3.8 billion project that environmental experts say will flood much of the preserve and probably wipe out many species.

“This is almost the last reserve for the whole river basin, especially after the construction of Three Gorges,” the world’s largest hydroelectric project, said Qiaoyu Guo, Yangtze River project manager for the Nature Conservancy in Beijing. “There will be very dramatic damage to these kinds of species.”

The decision is a big victory for Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, the central Chinese megalopolis where the dam will be built. Plans for the dam, one of Mr. Bo’s pet projects, were suspended by the central government in 2009 under pressure from environmental critics.

The dam’s apparent revival adds to Mr. Bo’s long list of economic achievements since becoming Chongqing’s party secretary in 2007. And it offers him another bragging point in what many people call a barely concealed campaign to win a seat on China’s most powerful ruling body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, when seven of its nine members retire next year.

The 16.6 percent rise in Chongqing’s gross domestic product in 2011 is the nation’s best, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported Thursday, up from the No. 5 spot when Mr. Bo took power. The region’s growth will continue to outstrip that of its competitors in 2012, the Chongqing Daily newspaper quoted Mr. Bo as predicting last Saturday.

“Chongqing wants this dam very much,” Ms. Guo said. “It will be a very big investment, it will help increase the G.D.P. for the short term, and they also say they need a more stable water supply.”

The Xiaonanhai Dam cannot be started until the Chinese Environment Ministry approves an assessment of the dam’s impact, which critics say should back experts’ predictions that the fish reserve will be wiped out. But the Chinese State Council’s decision to reduce the reserve boundaries strongly suggests that a favorable assessment has been predetermined, some environmental experts said in interviews.

Chinese environmental groups and the Nature Conservancy have waged a long battle against the Xiaonanhai Dam, one of 19 dams proposed or under construction on the upper reaches of the Yangtze. The dams will turn the river from a swift-running stream that drops from its source in Qinghai Province, three miles high, into a series of large, slow-moving lakes.

The projects are part of a frenetic and much-criticized rush into hydroelectric power by the Chinese government, which, with 26,000 such dams, already has more than any nation in the world. At 1,760 megawatts, the Xiaonanhai project is comparatively small by Yangtze standards, but still three-quarters the size of the Hoover Dam, Scientific American reported in 2009.

Critics say the project makes little economic sense except as a temporary job creator. The reservoir will flood 18 square miles of prime farmland and displace 400,000 people, driving the cost of every kilowatt of generating capacity to $2,144 — triple that of the Three Gorges dam, according to Fan Xiao, a geologist who has fought the project for years.

The national reserve that critics say will be destroyed by the dam was, in fact, established to address concerns that the Three Gorges dam would endanger the fish population. Of the Yangtze’s 338 freshwater fish species, 189 live in the reserve — and many of those are found in no other river basin in China.

Opponents had staved off the project in past years by bombarding public officials with letters and reports documenting what they saw as the dam’s environmental and economic flaws. Chongqing’s response was to address the major concern — the destruction of the rare-fish reserve — by moving the reserve farther from the dam site.

When first established in the 1990s, the reserve covered about 500 fast-flowing miles of the Yangtze. Officials sliced about 95 miles away in 2005 to support construction of another dam. The latest change cuts an additional 62 miles.

“The conservation zone is the last stretch of free-flowing water body on the Yangtze that is absolutely essential for the reproduction of many rare fishes,” Li Bo, the head of the group Friends of Nature, said in an interview. “Once the border of the conservation zone is moved, those fish would not have enough space to reproduce.”

Mr. Li has played a main role in pushing the project. The South China Morning Post reported this week that the environmental and agriculture ministries, which have authority over the reserve, had refused to release important documents about the reduction of the reserve.

Most telling, perhaps, was a review of the proposal to shorten the reserve conducted this autumn by a panel of 15 certified experts and 15 representatives of government agencies. The experts’ approval was required for the central government to act on the proposal.

Critics had hoped to lobby the panels, said Ma Jun, a former journalist who is the head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Instead, the panel voted unanimously to approve the reduction — and told environmental groups only after the decision was made.

“We sort of expected at the end of the day they would vote to support it,” Mr. Ma said. “But 30 members, including really key experts — it’s quite a surprise.”

Mia Li contributed research.
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