Thu, February 10, 2011
Technology > Science

Ecologists dread new dam boom in China

2011-02-10 06:32:44 GMT2011-02-10 14:32:44(Beijing Time)  Global Times

One of eight projects planned or under construction in the middle reaches of the Jinsha River, the Liyuan Hydropower Project has not had an environmental impact assessment by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It is illegal to start construction without an assessment. Photo: Sun Jiong

A mudslide near a tributary of the Nu River killed 92 villagers on August 18. Photo: CFP

On the night of August 18 last year after days of torrential rain had soaked the steep mountain slopes, a mudslide struck a remote village in the northwest tip of Yunnan Province, killing 92 villagers.

"I was woken up in the middle of the night by a loud bang of rolling rocks and I ran outside with my family," 27-year-old villager Yu Lichun told the Xinhua News Agency the next morning.

"When we reached the road, the mud was already up to our knees. It was lucky all my family made it to safety."

Others were less fortunate: Another villager Zhou Shunfang told the Yunnan Information News she lost eight family members to the slide.

Although officially cleared of any wrongdoing, an iron mine that sits too close to the riverbed two kilometers upstream on a tributary of the Nujiang River was blamed for blocking the river flow and causing havoc. Large mining machinery including 40 trucks from the plant was swept away into the river.

"When morning light broke, we could only see the tip of the mine in the floodwater," He Shilong, a villager who lived across the river, told Xinhua.

The mud flow - up to five meters thick - carried 600,000 cubic meters of debris and inundated homes and roads in an area of nearly seven square kilometers. Upstream from the debris, river levels were six meters higher than normal.

The site of a 300-meter-high dam in the early stages of planning 30 kilometers downstream at the Maji hydroelectric plant on the Nujiang River, remained largely intact.

Days after the deadly mudslide, the government of the Nujiang Prefecture found 750 mudslide-prone sites of about 20 square kilometers each in its 14,700-square-kilometer territory.

Less than six months after the tragic night, a two-story high rock that had been swept down from the mountains during the mudslide, was placed at the center of a memorial site for the lives buried under the debris.

"You have to stand in awe of the power of nature," said Guo Yuhua, a sociologist from Tsinghua University who visited the site in early December. "We humans must be out of our mind, wishing to harness nature."

Earthquake fears

This seems exactly what the country's dam builders are still trying to do. In 2003, a proposal to build 13 dams on the Nujiang River was submitted to the National Development and Reform Commission, just one month after UNESCO listed the river as a World Heritage site. Premier Wen Jiabao called off the project in April 2004 saying it should be "seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.''

China's southwest, loosely known as the greater Shangri-la region, is famous for its water. For years hydropower companies in China have been eyeing the potential of rivers here, generated by steep drops in elevation along their course.

Attempts to penetrate the region have been foiled over the last five years by the country's en-vironmentalists effectively lobbying the government to tighten its approval policy.

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