January 17, 2012 / 8:20 AM / 8 years ago

China urges hydropower developers to heed environment

BEIJING, Jan 17 (Reuters) - China’s hydropower developers must “put ecology first” and pay strict attention to the impact of their projects on local rivers and communities, the country’s environment ministry said on Tuesday, as the country embarks on another dam-building boom.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection said in a notice posted on its website (www.mep.gov.cn) that projects should be planned “comprehensively” and must pay attention to “economic and ecological benefits, local and overall interests (as well as) immediate and long-term interests.”

It ordered developers to make sure that residents affected by hydropower development are fully informed and given a role to play in the decision-making process, and stressed that building dams in protected zones remains prohibited.

The ministry’s intervention comes in the wake of a controversial decision to reduce the size of a protected nature reserve in southwest China’s Chongqing in order to allow the construction of the massive 30-billion yuan ($4.75 billion)Xiaonanhai hydropower plant on the Yangtze River.

The size of the reserve was already reduced in 2005 to make way for the Jinsha hydropower plant, currently being built by the Three Gorges Project Corp.

“It is the last freshwater wildlife reserve on the Yangtze, but even with the legal protection, it is still a strong possibility that it will be dammed,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“That by itself demonstrates how far the dam builders like the Three Gorges Project Corporation want to move forward.”

China’s hydropower building boom slowed considerably following the completion of the controversial 185-metre Three Gorges Dam in 2005, with regulators unwilling to approve new construction plans amid concerns about environmental risks and massive relocation costs.

Regulators vetoed controversial plans to dam the Nu River and the Tiger Leaping Gorge, two ecologically fragile zones in southwestern China’s Yunnan province.

Over the 2006-2010 period, around 50 gigawatts of hydropower capacity went into operation out of a total 77 GW originally planned, according to Zhang Boting, vice-secretary general of the China Hydropower Society.

A cabinet session last May chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, who has been critical of hydropower development, also admitted the Three Gorges project had caused serious social and environmental problems that needed to be urgently addressed.

But with new nuclear reactor construction suspended as a result of last year’s disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan, analysts say big hydro is back in favour as the government tries to meet a pledge to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy to at least 16 percent of the total by 2020.

China’s hydropower capacity stood at 230 gigawatts by the end of 2011, 22 percent of the total, and another 55 GW are now under construction, according to figures issued by the National Energy Administration last week.

Zhang of the China Hydropower Society said 120 GW of new hydro capacity was likely to be built over the 2011-2015 period. ($1 = 6.3165 yuan) (Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Ken Wills)

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