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China dam project in Tibet quietly passes key hurdle

August 18, 2014

August 14, 2014 - Controversial efforts in China to construct a dam on the free-flowing Nu River recently got a quiet boost.

In a little-noticed July decision made public last week, a corporate statement quoted an expert panel in approving a pre-feasibility study for a dam on the river in Tibet. According to the statement, also published on official news portal China Energy News, the panel formed by China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute, Tibet’s economic planning department and associated organizations concluded the feasibility study “basically meets the survey and design requirements at this stage.”

Environmentalists hail the Nu, a waterway that cascades off the Tibetan Plateau through Yunnan Province and into Myanmar, as China’s largest river without a dam.

The approval stops short of green lighting the first dam. A final feasibility study is still required, in addition to approval by at least two major ministries. Yet, the milestone provides a reminder that the project remains alive more than a decade after it appeared to get scrapped.

Unlike most major infrastructure undertakings in China, dams tend to rally vocal debate. The Nu River projects are a last holdout for environmentalists and a prize for the state power companies that would harness it.

Faced with concerns about widely trumpeted environmental risks of the Three Gorges Dam, policy makers took decades to approve the central Yangtze River project. When Three Gorges won approval in 1992, a record one-third of the National People’s Congress voted no or abstained. It now supplies massive amounts of power to China, but continues to vex many.

Proposals to erect more than a dozen dams on the Nu River got mothballed in 2004 by Wen Jiabao shortly after he assumed China’s premiership. (Mr. Wen later publicly questioned merits of the Three Gorges project and ordered the government to address its shortfalls.  But as Mr. Wen’s term was drawing to a close, the State Council that he chaired lifted a moratorium on damming the Nu River as part of setting a national power strategy for the five years through 2015.

In the recently approved preliminary feasibility study, experts endorsed plans for the project envisaged furthest up the Nu River, a 307-meter dam in Tibet capable of producing 4,200 megawatts of hydropower. The Songta station would be one of 13 ultimately envisaged for the river, which is also known as the Salween.

International Rivers, an environmental group in Berkeley, Calif., that is a longtime opponent of the Nu River projects, says last month’s seemingly small step is worrying.

Once a dam feasibility study is submitted for approval in China, the group says, preparatory work for the project can begin.

“There is a long history in Chinese dam building of commencing work before all the approvals are in hand,” Grace Mang, director of the group’s China program said by email.

–James T. Areddy with contributions from Yang Jie

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