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Dam Building in Yunnan

By Xu Xiaodan, China Daily, China

Despite increasing concerns over the social and environmental impacts of China’s Manwan Dam, the country continues its plan to build a cascade of eight dams across the Mekong River in Yunnan Province.

"The power stations are a key part of China’s west-east power transmission plan. They will be a great incentive for the economic-adjustment and poverty-alleviation efforts of Yunnan Province," said Bai Enpei, Party Secretary of the province.
The hydropower development forms part of China’s "Go West"  campaign, which aims to narrow the growing gap between China’s fast-developing eastern regions and the relatively underdeveloped southwest region. An important part of this campaign is for the West to supply energy to the industrial regions of the east – Shanghai, Guangdong, and Jiangsu.
However, Yu Xiaogang, director of Green Watershed, a Chinese environmental NGO, said, "there is limited domestic market for Yunnan due to competition from other provinces."
With the help of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Yunnan plans to tap the energy market in the downstream Greater Sub-Region countries. From 2013, 3,000 mw of electricity will be sold to

Thailand, according to a memorandum between China and Thailand.
 However, there is concern that these massive development projects in the Lancang-Mekong River will have a detrimental social and environmental impact on both local and downstream inhabitants of the Mekong basin.
"China’s building of dams may offer something good for navigation and irrigation, but the dams will also have a negative effect on fish, vegetable gardening and the ecology of the river,"  said Ian Baird, director of the Global Association for the People and Environment (GAPE), an NGO based in Laos.
The 4,880-kilometer-long Mekong River, originating from China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and running through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea, is home to more than 60 million people. Most of them rely on fishing and riverbank farming for the living.
Extensive dam building has caused deforestation and sedimentation in the Mekong upstream, said Yu, who has 20 years of experience in watershed resource management in Yunnan Province and who assessed the social impact of Manwan on local people.
In Pingzhang Village, “the meadow, a large part of paddy rice fields plus part of arid land and forest were inundated,” Yu’s Social Impact Assessment (SIA) said.

"Villagers lost their livelihood. They are poorer than before. Some of them even suffer from psychosis,"  Yu said.
Yu also points out the dam has lost about a third of its capacity through silting.
The degradation of the environment is blamed for a growing number of natural disasters in the province. This year there were landslides, one of which hit the construction site of Xiaowan Dam.
 Some experts also point out that China’s dam building contributed to this year severe flooding downstream. " A dam reservoir could release 20 percent more water downstream, when it is under pressure from too much rain,"  said David Hubbel, an environmentalist of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance based in Bangkok.
" (There is) emerging recognition among China’s leaders that large-scale infrastructure projects may benefit the country but they also have a social and environmental impact,"  Yu wrote in a recent article.
While addressing concerns over environmental problems brought about by dam construction, the Chinese Government has given top priority to environmental protection in the area while carrying out development, claims Xinhua News Agency.
Two weeks ago, a new law came into force in China. This requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be incorporated into the planning and decision-making for all large-scale projects.
A comprehensive plan for environmental protection in the Lancang-Mekong River basin has been launched in Yunnan. Natural conservation areas are reserved and anti-desertification campaigns are being carried out along the river.
About 200 million yuan (US$ 24.1 million) has been allocated for tree planting in the province.
Aware of the growing criticism, China has initiated dialogue in river management with downstream nations. This year, Yunnan starts to provide hydrological data, such as water levels and rainfall, on a daily basis to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). They hope this will allow downstream countries to take early flood prevention measures.
"Losses caused by flooding in Mekong River countries have been greatly reduced thanks to hydrological data from China,"  said the letter sent by the MRC in July to the Yunnan Province.
The government is also starting to pay more attention to the impact on the livelihood of local people, especially those resettled people, caused by the dam building.
In August, the central government ordered Yunnan to reduce the social and ecological impact on local people displaced by the Manwan Dam.
Now, as the Xiaowan Dam is being constructed, more than 41,000 people are to be relocated. Their compensation is running at a rate considerably higher than that paid for Manwan Dam. Each farmer would receive 30,000 yuan (US$ 3,600) as compensation.
And local people see some value in the dams. Due to the increase of employment opportunities related to the dam construction, Zhao Yulei, head of the Xiaowan township said, " our per capita annual income increased from 370 yuan (US$ 44.60) in 1999 to 801 yuan (US$ 96.50) in 2001."
But some experts also expressed their concerns over villagers’ livelihood after the construction period.
"The governments and international financial institutions that are planning, funding and building large dams in the Mekong River must make a much greater effort to study the potential impact and cost of these projects before construction begins,"  stressed Yu.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.