By Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
15 September 2011
Rapid and poorly regulated expansion in this stunning region by small,
hydroelectric power plants have choked rivers with dams, covered
mountains in pipes and left locals without livelihoods.
The mountain road that winds above the steep ravines of Shennongjia
ought to offer one of the most attractive views in China. From dense,
pristine forests to criss-crossing rivers, it passes near an area of
ecological wealth that is recognised both by the United Nations as a
World Biosphere Reserve, and by popular culture as the impenetrable home
of the mythical "Shennongjia wild man."
But in recent weeks, this stunning region has drawn the nation's
attention to the uglier side of economic development as details emerge
of a rapid and poorly regulated expansion by small, hydroelectric power
plants that have choked local rivers with dams, pierced mountain slopes
with pipes and left locals fuming about the loss of their livelihoods.
The debate - which has spread to issues of governance, censorship and
citizen rights - was sparked by reports last month that revealed four
rivers have dried up, dozens of hydropower diversions have been built
without environmental impact assessments, and local government officials
have been profiting from shares they hold in the companies they are
supposed to be regulating.
Shennongjia illustrates what can go wrong. Most than half of the 88
hydropower plants in the region were built before environmental
assessments were made obligatory in 2003. Two out of every five built
since then were illegally pushed ahead without the necessary checks on
the likely impact on people and ecosystems.
Driving from the county town of Songbai, almost everyone the Guardian
meets along the roadside is angry at the reckless development of water
resources. Although this is one of the poorest areas in Hubei province,
locals say they get little benefit. The plants generate small amounts of
power, the profits are taken by officials and their environment suffers.
Liu Jianguo (name changed) was a farmer until his land was flooded by
the Raojiahe hydroproject three years ago. Now he breaks rocks on river
beds that have dried up after their water was diverted.
His wife was jailed for three days for throwing stones at the
developers. Her frustration was prompted, he said, by the loss of their
livelihood and the government's refusal to listen to their complaints or
offer fair compensation.
"What can we do? We are just ordinary people. They are officials," he
lamented. "I want people to know about this."
Closer to the plant, Zhou Xiaoqi (name changed) was furious that the
Raojiahe dam cut through her farmland and eroded the riverbank below her
house. "You can see the cracks on my wall," she says.
The power company, Xingfa, has offered compensation of 110,000 yuan for
the third of a hectare she has lost, but she was given no choice and has
little opportunity for negotiation or legal redress.
"I have complained again and again, but they fob me off and say, 'Go
ahead and sue us. You will never win'," Zhou says. "The government
officials have all invested in these projects. Everyone knows that. How
else do they force them through so quickly?"
There are parallels with the illegal coal mines that the central
government claims to have been cracking down on for decades. Both are
privately run with investment kick-backs for local officials who ignore
state regulations so the plants can generate profits. Even after the
environmental assessment law was passed in 2003, the local government
admits that 39% of new projects continued to go ahead without proper
They normally attract little attention. While mega-projects like the
Three Gorges Dam or the South-North water diversion affect millions of
people, the impact of each small diversion in remote areas is often felt
by a less than 1,000 families. But with 85,000 dams in China, the
multiple affect is huge and even when small, can cause immense
ecological damage, particularly when clustered together, poorly designed
and irresponsibly operated.
The latest river to be targeted is the Chengfeng, which is home to giant
salamander called "wawayu" or baby fish because of the wailing sounds
they make. Locals depend on the pellucid waters for food, irrigation and
Two years ago, construction workers began blasting a tunnel in the
mountainside and constructing a dam across the river. Once completed,
the aim is to divert water from the Chengfeng though the mountain and
then down a steep pipe to the valley on the other side, where turbines
would milk the electricity. This would generate profits for the power
company, but kill off the village by flooding its road and taking most
of the water from its river.
"This is the land of peach blossom," said a villager, referring to the
classical Chinese story of a mythical paradise. "But if they build the
plant here, we will have no water and the fish will die."
Residents are trying to fight back. They have tried legally petitioning
the authorities and illegally blocking the traffic in protest. When this
failed, they approached a newspaper.
"We are just villagers. We don't know how to argue so we thought we
would just invite journalists to come and look for themselves," said one
of those behind the plan.
The Chutian Metro Daily newspaper and the Farmer's Daily, based in
Wuhan, led the charge with a searing exposï¿½. This was followed by
reports on state broadcaster CCTV. The local propaganda department has
since clamped down, but the flurry of publicity has attracted the
attention of the central government.
Under pressure, Shennongjia announced last month that environmental
impact assessments will be carried out on all existing plants, some of
which may be closed. "We realise that supervision is not good enough.
Some hydropower stations have not operated according to environmental
regulations. They have stopped more water than they are supposed to,"
said Shennongjia propaganda director, Luo Yongbin. "We are still
assessing the environmental situation. We aim to have a policy in one
month to regulate all the hydropower stations."
Locals said senior leaders from Beijing were expected to visit, pass
judgment and punish the local directors of the environment and
hydroelectric power departments and other officials alleged to have
shares in the firms they should be regulating. Some hope Shennongjia
will use its unique status to lead a closure of ill-conceived hydropower
plants in return for state compensation to the hydro companies.
"The lack of environmental assessment happens all over China. But the
issue has made bigger waves here because Shennongjia is famed for its
special ecology and wants to promote tourism," said one of the leading
intellectuals in the region, who asked to remain anonymous. "Local
people all feel the same. We want our water back. All the rivers here
have dried up. The problem is that ordinary people have no say in these
projects. There is no benefit for them, but they can't do anything about
The central government has acknowledged problems with many small
hydroprojects in China and has pledged money for repairs. Late last
month, the Communist party newspaper, Global Times, highlighted the
scale of the challenge in an article about 40,000 "ill and dangerous"
But the authorities are committed to an expansion of hydropower, which
means the best that environmentalists can hope for is probably the
closure or postponement of a handful of particularly damaging or illegal
projects in the most ecologically sensitive areas.
Environmental values remain second to economic priorities, as was
evident outside Shennongjia on a roadside propaganda slogan: "Green is
just fashion. Ecology is just a brand."
ï¿½ Additional reporting by Cecily Huang
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