Greens Demand Halt to 'Feverish' Dam Building

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing
Friday, June 20, 2008

Scientists want review of major hydroelectric projects in unstable areas

Originally published in the South China Morning Post

Mainland experts, environmental groups and activists have urged the
government to review plans to build big dams in the earthquake-prone

An open letter issued yesterday appealed to mainland authorities to
launch risk assessments of big hydropower projects in quake-devastated
Sichuan and neighbouring Yunnan before giving the go-ahead to the
building of more dams in geologically unstable areas.

The letter came after a survey by the Ministry of Water Resources
revealed that dams and reservoirs had been hit hard by the 8-magnitude
quake last month, with 2,380 dams wrecked or damaged in the quake
zone, posing threats to the lives of millions of people downstream.

Signatories to the letter included more than 40 academics, writers,
geological, social and environmental scientists, and green activists
and 18 non-governmental groups, such as Green Earth Volunteers and
Friends of Nature.

Ma Jun , a water pollution expert who drafted the letter, said the
move was aimed at voicing public concerns over high geological hazards
amid feverish dam building in Sichuan and Yunnan. "We were stunned to
know the tremor has wrought devastating damage to dams located on or
near earthquake belts, and we felt obliged to raise our concerns in
the hope that similar tragic mistakes could be avoided in the future,"
said Mr Ma, head of the non-governmental Institute of Public and
Environmental Affairs.

The signatories argued that dams and reservoirs in danger of bursting
may cause much greater devastation and casualties than the earthquake
itself. "The quake has highlighted the urgency to make a thorough
investigation of damage to the dams, which would embrace another
severe test of imminent floods," the letter said.

It said Sichuan and Yunnan, the site of the mainland's top hydropower
development plans, have seen the most earthquakes in China.

The harnessing of hydroelectric power in major rivers in southwest
China has long been shrouded in controversy, with environmentalists
warning against environmental and geological risks.

Many big dams had already been built in earthquake-prone areas, such
as those on the Min, Dadu, Yalong and Jinsha rivers, while many more
had been proposed in disregard of geological risks, the letter said.

A mainland hydraulic expert who did not sign the letter said the
appeals, especially the part about suspending approval of new dams in
the region, might not be heeded by the government, which had placed
priority on easing the country's energy shortages.

Citing geological experts' opinions, the letter also challenged
authorities who attempted to play down the damage to the Zipingpu Dam
on the Min River, located upstream of the Chengdu plain and near the
epicentre of the quake.

Mainland officials have insisted that the dam is stable despite cracks
and other safety problems that have been discovered, according to the
Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News.

Damage to the Zipingpu Dam, completed in 2006 and branded quake proof,
had shown flaws in previous risk assessments and prompted further
questions over the safety of other big dams in the quake zone, the
letter said. The letter also called for the release of results of the
review in accordance with a new State Council edict on improving
government information transparency.

But the signatories were divided over whether the public should be
enlisted in the reassessment.

The letter will be posted online soon, and copies will be directed to
the National Development and Reform Commission - the country's top
planning body, responsible for the approval of energy and hydropower
projects - and the Ministry of Environmental Protection.