Grave environmental harm, earthquake hazard feared in project backed by well-connected firm
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WASHINGTON — ; Environmental experts in China say they were pressured into backing plans for a new hydroelectric dam in an historically Tibetan area that they believe will cause grave harm to the environment, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.
Chinese officials "scheduled only a one-day meeting for us" on the proposed 2 billion yuan ($300 million U.S.) hydroelectric dam on Kangding [in Tibetan, Dartsedo] Mugetso Lake in Sichuan Province, according to Tang Xueshan, a professor at China's Forestry University in Beijing and an adviser to the Ministry of Construction's Landscape and Scenery Section.
"Several experts didn't even get the chance to take a look at Mugetso Lake, but they signed their names to papers [endorsing the project]," Tang said, according to a secret government document obtained by RFA's Tibetan service.
"The officials emphasized that it was a project under special circumstances. Even if it wasn't feasible from the angle of preserving ecological balance, it had to be done regardless."
The document--marked "secret" and dated June 11, 2003--asserts that a number of officials from China's Environmental Protection Agency and the Sichuan Environmental Protection Bureau who endorsed the dam two years ago now hope it won't be built.
"No country in the world allows dam projects to be built in its national parks," Chen Anze, a researcher at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, is quoted as saying. "We shouldn't build this one either."
Chen said he feared feared tourism revenues would drop sharply if the dam were built--offsetting any potential revenues. He noted, however, that commercial developers projected additional revenues of 60 million to 70 million yuan (about $8 million U.S.) annually to the impoverished region if the dam goes ahead.
Proponents of the dam told experts that "building this hydroelectric station would help promote unity and stability in the region," Chen said. "We understood their situation and therefore agreed to support the project, but we wanted to ensure that they do as little damage as possible."
The controversy has reached the highest levels of the Chinese government. Local authorities and the well-connected Huaneng Co. of Beijing want the dam to go forward. In May, Puntsok Wangyal, a Tibetan scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and former member of the powerful Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), wrote to China's new premier, Wen Jiabao, and attached letters from local residents asking that the project be reevaluated and stopped.
"I think these requests by local residents are reasonable," Puntsok Wangyal wrote. "Since I have served as a delegate to the NPC and member of the Standing Committee of the Sixth and Seventh People's Congress, they hope I can bring their concerns to the top leadership and that the government can handle it properly."
Wen responded by dispatching an inter-agency task force to the region to investigate. Upon returning to Beijing, they reported that the dam would boost local incomes and failed to detail any environmental concerns, sources said. But Tibetan officials remained skeptical and differed openly with members of the task force and Huaneng Co. officials at a meeting June 13.
The Tibetan officials and the task force have now taken the highly unusual step of sending conflicting reports to the State Council, which has the authority to block construction of the dam.
Huaneng Co. is owned by Li Xiaopeng, the son of former Chinese premier Li Peng. Under their plan, Huaneng Co. and Karze Prefecture would share the cost of building the dam, although how much each party would pay was unclear. They would also share revenues generated by the dam, with Huaneng Co. taking 60 percent and the prefecture taking 40 percent, according to sources who asked not to be identified.
"Huaneng Co. is handling everything," said one official from Karze Prefecture's Environmental Protection Agency who asked not to be named.
Other experts cited in the document expressed serious and specific concerns about the environmental impact of the project.
Yin Kaipu, a researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Biology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is described as having visited Mugetso Lake repeatedly.
The area "is home to 1,000 sub-tropical, high-mountain plant species, more than 2,000 types of vertebrate animals, more than 100 types of rare birds, and a variety of amphibians, fish, and insects. The region is internationally known for producing 30 kinds of red azaleas," he said.
"Building a 30-meter, concrete-steel dam will be disruptive. Some 20,000 acres of primeval forest will be flooded, and the Qicaihai (Seven-Colored Sea) will be dried out and turned into desert--so many streams and rivers in the lower reaches will also dry up... Several smaller hydroelectric power stations built previously have already caused many of the hot springs to disappear or dry up," Yin is quoted as saying.
Tang, of China's Forestry University, said he viewed the dam as a serious hazard because it would be located inside the Xianshuhe (Fresh Water River) earthquake zone just 21 kilometers from Kangding Township.
"It will undoubtedly pose a threat-like a time-bomb but with no indication when it will explode," he said. "A 30-meter dam is a huge project, in terms of water weight and volume. There are many risk factors. Yin Kaipu thinks that even if we conduct sufficient geological surveys, it will still be hard to build a dam that will not be affected by unpredictable earthquakes."