June 20, 2008

Greens, Experts Demand Halt to ‘Feverish’ Dam Building

Text of report by Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post website on 20 June

[Report by Shi Jiangtao in Beijing: "Greens Demand Halt To 'Feverish' Dam Building"; headline as provided by source]

Mainland experts, environmental groups and activists have urged the government to review plans to build big dams in the earthquake- prone southwest.

An open letter issued yesterday [19 June] appealed to mainland authorities to launch risk assessments of big hydropower projects in quake-devastated Sichuan and neighbouring Yunnan before giving the go-ahead to the building of more dams in geologically unstable areas.

The letter came after a survey by the Ministry of Water Resources revealed that dams and reservoirs had been hit hard by the 8- magnitude quake last month, with 2,380 dams wrecked or damaged in the quake zone, posing threats to the lives of millions of people downstream.

Signatories to the letter included more than 40 academics, writers, geological, social and environmental scientists, and green activists and 18 non-governmental groups, such as Green Earth Volunteers and Friends of Nature.

Ma Jun, a water pollution expert who drafted the letter, said the move was aimed at voicing public concerns over high geological hazards amid feverish dam building in Sichuan and Yunnan. "We were stunned to know the tremor has wrought devastating damage to dams located on or near earthquake belts, and we felt obliged to raise our concerns in the hope that similar tragic mistakes could be avoided in the future," said Mr Ma, head of the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

The signatories argued that dams and reservoirs in danger of bursting may cause much greater devastation and casualties than the earthquake itself. "The quake has highlighted the urgency to make a thorough investigation of damage to the dams, which would embrace another severe test of imminent floods," the letter said.

It said Sichuan and Yunnan, the site of the mainland's top hydropower development plans, have seen the most earthquakes in China.

The harnessing of hydroelectric power in major rivers in southwest China has long been shrouded in controversy, with environmentalists warning against environmental and geological risks.

Many big dams had already been built in earthquake-prone areas, such as those on the Min, Dadu, Yalong and Jinsha rivers, while many more had been proposed in disregard of geological risks, the letter said.

A mainland hydraulic expert who did not sign the letter said the appeals, especially the part about suspending approval of new dams in the region, might not be heeded by the government, which had placed priority on easing the country's energy shortages.

Citing geological experts' opinions, the letter also challenged authorities who attempted to play down the damage to the Zipingpu Dam on the Min River, located upstream of the Chengdu plain and near the epicentre of the quake.

Mainland officials have insisted that the dam is stable despite cracks and other safety problems that have been discovered, according to the Guangzhou -based Southern Metropolis News .

Damage to the Zipingpu Dam, completed in 2006 and branded quake proof, had shown flaws in previous risk assessments and prompted further questions over the safety of other big dams in the quake zone, the letter said. The letter also called for the release of results of the review in accordance with a new State Council edict on improving government information transparency.

But the signatories were divided over whether the public should be enlisted in the reassessment.

The letter will be posted online soon, and copies will be directed to the National Development and Reform Commission -the country's top planning body, responsible for the approval of energy and hydropower projects -and the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Originally published by South China Morning Post website, Hong Kong, in English 20 Jun 08.

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