China gives nod to long-disputed Yantze dam project

December 31, 2011

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 the project’s environmental critics — and showcasing the clout of one of the most powerful and ambitious politicians in China, according a report in the New York Times.

In a little-noticed ruling made public on December 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 effect of the decision is likely to clear the way for construction of the Xiaonanhai Dam, a USD3.8 billion project that environmental experts say will flood much of the preserve anyway and probably wipe out many 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 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.

Chinese environmental groups and The Nature Conservancy have waged a long battle against the Xiaonanhai Dam, one of 19 that are 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 MW, the Xiaonanhai project is comparatively small by Yangtze standards, but still three quarters the size of the Hoover Dam, Scientific American reported in 2009.