Contentious Dam Begins Power Generation

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing
Monday, June 23, 2008

Originally published in the South China Morning Post

A new dam on the Lancang River in southern Yunnan province started
power production amid environmental concerns and scepticism from
countries on the lower reaches of the waterway, also known as the
The announcement by China Huaneng Group, the investor in the 12.3
billion yuan (HK$13.95 billion) hydroelectric project, coincided with
an appeal by dozens of mainland scientists and environmentalists for
the government to suspend the approval of big dams in the quake-prone
southwest, especially in the wake of the Sichuan disaster.

A major earthquake struck the region on May 12, killing almost 80,000

Xinhua said last Thursday that one of three generating units of the
Jinghong power station, named after the capital city of the
Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous region near the border with Myanmar, had
come into operation.

The power plant, with a capacity of 1,750 MW, will be fully
operational next year, China Huaneng chief executive Na Xizhi said.

It is the largest power plant to be completed in Yunnan and the third
dam built on the Lancang River, which flows from the mountains of
Tibet through five countries besides China - Myanmar, Laos, Thailand,
Cambodia and Vietnam, to the South China Sea.

A further 12 dams are being constructed or have been planned on the
river, with a total installed capacity of 25,200 MW, including mega
dams such as the Xiaowan and the Nuozhadu with a planned installed
capacity of 4,200 MW and 5,000 MW respectively. The Jinghong plant was
the mainland's first joint venture with a foreign country.

Thailand is helping to develop the power plant and will be the primary
consumer of electricity generated by the dam, according to media

The two countries have also been building a 1,070km power line linking
Jinghong to Bangkok to be completed in 2013.

Conservationist Yu Xiaogang voiced concerns over the environmental
impact of the project, which cuts through the Xishuangbanna national
reserve. But the project has received support from the country's top
environmental watchdog, according to Professor Yu.

Like other dam projects built or planned in Yunnan and Sichuan, it has
been sold as an economic engine in the underdeveloped region, aimed at
easing the chronic energy shortage in coastal areas.

But scientists and green groups have fiercely criticised the feverish
dam-building in the region, warning against environmental and
geological hazards.

In an open letter issued last week, experts noted that Sichuan and
Yunnan, the heart of the mainland's  hydropower programme, have seen
the most earthquakes in the country. In the wake of the deadly quake
last month, which wrecked or damaged more than 2,000 dams, they called
for a thorough review of plans to build more dams in geologically
unstable areas.

The harnessing of the international river has been particularly
controversial as people in countries downstream have voiced growing
concerns over China's ambitious hydropower development plans.

Complaints about irregular water levels and reduced fish stocks have
been commonplace since the completion of the first two dams on the
Lancang, the Manwan in 1995 and the Dachaoshan in 2003.

But Beijing has insisted the projects would not harm the interests of
downstream countries, saying conservation areas would be built for
fish and citing benefits such as shipping, flood control and tourism

Zhang Guobao , deputy director of the National Development and Reform
Commission and chief of its energy bureau, said: "The Chinese
developers have paid great attention to the trans-border impact of
hydropower development from the very beginning, carried out research
on potential ecological impact and took into consideration the
interest of areas along the upper and lower reaches of Lancang River."