January 12, 2006
China Says Controversial Dam Plan Won’t Harm Neighbors
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING -- China will consider countries downstream as it weighs controversial proposals to dam a river that flows from the country's remote southwest into Southeast Asia, an official said on Thursday.
On Wednesday, a Kong Kong-based newspaper controlled by the mainland said Chinese experts had recently completed an official environmental impact study of the 13 tiers of dams and hydro-power plants proposed for the untamed Nu River.
But the Chinese-language Wen Wei Po said the experts had proposed first developing hydro-plants at four points along the river to avoid environmental concerns.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters he could not confirm completion of the environmental assessment, but said China would take into account countries downstream, where the 2,000-km (1,250-mile) river is called the Salween.
"The Chinese government will certainly consider the ecological, economic and other factors throughout the whole river system when it undertakes appropriate development and exploitation," Kong said of the Nu River project.
Supporters have said the project would generate 4,000 more megawatts of electricity a year than the Three Gorges Dam, now the world's largest hydro-electric project, which will generate 18,000 megawatts when finished in 2009.
But Chinese environmental activists and some scientists have opposed any dams along the river, saying that they would displace villagers, threaten wildlife and disrupt the river's flow into Myanmar and along the Thai border into the Indian Ocean.
Proposals to dam other Chinese rivers flowing across China's southwest borders have also attracted criticism from Southeast Asian officials and environmental campaigners.
In December, China announced it was restarting work on the country's second largest hydro-electric dam on the Jinsha River, in Sichuan province.
Chinese environmental officials had frozen work there in early 2005 because the dam lacked environmental impact approvals.
Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the environmental study of the proposed Nu River dams in early 2004, after Chinese environmental officials and scientists mobilized opposition to the plans.
At that time, many critics of the project assumed it was entirely dead.
But Yunnan officials eager to promote economic growth, and energy officials eager to slake China's thirst for electricity, have continued to promote the dams.
The Hong Kong report said experts believed the smaller project would avoid environmental damage and "satisfy the demand for coordinated development of the economy and environmental protection."
The report said the current proposal would not require resettling of any local residents. It cited an "authority" as saying the study would now be considered by China's National Development and Reform Commission, a super-ministry that steers major economic decisions.
Late last year, Chinese environmentalists petitioned the government to make public the Nu environmental study, but the Hong Kong report said the study was classified "top secret" and would not be released.
Kong, the ministry spokesman, said other countries should trust China to act responsibly in deciding on the dams.
"Whether it's hydro-power stations or general repair of the river system, the Chinese government is serious-minded, has rigorous policies and will be responsible," he said.