8 August 2011
Zhouqu, in northwest China's Gansu province, might have remained unknown
to many of us had it not been for the fatal mudslide one year ago that
killed 1,471, injured 2,500, and left 294 missing.
It is suspected that persistent deforestation was one of the main causes
for the devastation.
When we commemorate the tragedy today, we cannot help worrying whether
the people there can keep themselves from harm's way even after paying
such a high price. The dozens of small hydropower plants that are being
erected on local waterways constitute a serious cause for concern.
Deforestation and the Wenchuan earthquake that occurred prior to the
massive landslide have rendered the Zhouqu area very fragile and
unstable geologically, so the dam-building frenzy may be particularly
dangerous and may have very high risks.
Even more worrying is that the dam-building craze in Zhouqu is in
outright disregard of due procedures. Of the 68 hydropower projects
approved by the county authorities, reportedly 67 have not undertaken
the required environmental and geological assessments.
And we know Zhouqu is not alone. Many local authorities, particularly
those in the water-rich southwest, share a keen interest in developing
hydropower. Hydropower is believed to have become more profitable than
electricity generated from fossil fuel. In many under-developed areas,
hydropower plants can be major contributors to local government revenues.
Given its conspicuous contribution to local GDP figures, hydropower has
become a favorite development program for officials eager to boost their
personal performance record.
That is exactly why the authorities in Zhouqu have persistently ignored
criticisms and complaints from geological and environmental departments
as well as from the local people. The temptation of higher GDP appears
irresistible to them.
We understand local authorities' keenness to take advantage of what they
have available. This is actually how many places have fulfilled their
rise from rags to riches.
But good-looking GDP figures are useless if they are at the price of the
loss of a basic sense of security. If local officials truly bear in mind
the Scientific Outlook on Development, which places people's interests
before economic indices, they would not have launched projects, which
will put local people in jeopardy.
Besides the mourning of the dead, the commemoration of the first
anniversary of the tragedy should not go without a review of its true
causes, as well as ways to prevent similar disasters from happening.
A new disaster resulting from uninformed decision-making would be
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