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Source: Global Times Global Times

An environmental protection dilemma

Published: 23 Jun 2009 09:02:01 PST

By Wu Meng

The Ministry of Environmental Protection reported early this month that a few companies had seriously violated the country’s environmental protection regulations.

The ministry ordered China’s two biggest power giants, China Huadian Corporation and China Huaneng Group, to halt their construction of hydropower stations in the Jinsha River in Yunnan Province, projects that had been moving forward without mandated governmental approval or environmental assessment.

A report on the Ministry’s website said the two dams had been blocking water from upstream and had caused serious environmental problems in the area. The report said construction of the two dams – projects which were both valued at more than 10 billion yuan ($1.46 billion) – had been halted.

The order to suspend construction on the dams is the toughest action taken yet by the Ministry, which was established in March 2008. Construction of the dams had involved some well-known enterprises and the Ministry’s order to stop construction triggered heated public discussion.

However, a recent CCTV report said the two dams are actually still being built, with the riverbed and banks now serving as construction sites. Zhang Xiaotao, chief of safety and technology for the Ludila dam project, said in a CCTV interview that receiving approval on the project is simply a matter of procedure, and no hydropower project has ever been denied by the Chinese government on the basis of an environmental assessment. Building a dam first and seeking approval later is the normal pattern.

The Jinsha River, where the two dams are located, is one of the most bountiful sources of hydropower in China and is the hottest spot for development by power enterprises. But in the area where the dams are being built, the ecological system is fragile and vulnerable. The mountains along the Jinsha River are unstable and such massive construction could easily cause serious disasters like landslides that would put everything nearby in danger, including the dams and power stations.

Additionally, rare species of fish are disappearing from the river. There are already plans to build 12 more hydropower stations downstream. Even though most local power companies don’t build dams without approval, they have still been utilizing the practice of getting approval after the dam is built.

The loophole granting enterprises after-the-fact approval of their projects risks making supervision by environmental authorities an empty formality.

If environmental assessments are done after a project is completed, either the dam will be allowed to operate – benefiting the economy but damaging the environment – or it will have to be shelved, wasting the large amounts of money and effort already invested. Meanwhile, the environment will already have suffered.

Economic growth can’t be achieved at the cost of the environment. Environmental authorities must step up their efforts to ensure that assessments are made before projects start and violators are punished.

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