February 28, 2012
By Li Jing
Project to block China's largest freshwater lake sparks widespread
controversy, Li Jing reports from Beijing.
In areas where rain is scarce it is common to see people storing water
to get them through dry seasons.
Using the same principle, officials want to dam a major lake in Jiangxi
province that has shrunk noticeably but their plan has run into opposition.
Dam proposal opens the floodgates of debate
Their proposal to dam Poyang Lake took a major step forward this month
when it won the backing of the Hydroelectricity Planning Institute.
Since 2008, the eastern Chinese province has strongly lobbied leaders in
Beijing, lauding the project as a way to tackle drought as well as
adjustments to the water flow caused by the massive Three Gorges Dam
But critics of the 10 billion yuan ($1.58 billion) plan say authorities
have played down the potentially disastrous ecological impact that a dam
might bring to China's largest freshwater lake. It is also a crucial
winter habitat for endangered migrating birds protected under
Environmentalists have also cast doubt on the independence of crucial
The province's proposal, which features a 3-kilometer-wide dam with
sluice gates across the narrowest part of a channel linking Poyang Lake
and the Yangtze River, was put to the Hydroelectricity Planning
Institute on Feb 12.
After two days of discussions, the institute, which is affiliated to the
Ministry of Water Resources, offered its support, China News Service
The verdict takes the project into the final stages of the
decision-making process, the report said, yet to get full
central-government approval it still needs to clear the State Council
and the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's
Poyang Lake is fed by five rivers and is connected to the lower reaches
of the Yangtze. Its water flows into the Yangtze during dry seasons
(September to March) and is replenished by flooding during rainy seasons
(May and June).
The annual change in the lake's water level has helped maintain one of
the most important wetlands in the world, home to more than 120 species
of fish and 300 varieties of bird.
Yet, the water has been continuously low over the past year. A prolonged
drought the worst in 60 years saw the lake dwindle to less than 200
square kilometers in January, down from a peak of 4,900 sq km.
The drinking water supplies of people living nearby and their livestock
have been threatened, while fishing resources are dwindling, making life
difficult for both fishermen and water birds.
Figures from Jiangxi's hydrological bureau show Poyang Lake received 30
percent less rain than usual last year. Yet, experts say the lack of
precipitation is not the only reason for the frequently low levels.
In addition to changing climate patterns on middle and lower reaches of
the Yangtze, water storage at Three Gorges Dam and increased water
consumption by surrounding communities are also contributing factors,
said Wang Shengrui at the China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.
Citing official statistics covering 1952 to 2010, he said extremely low
water levels (shallower than 8 meters) were reported seven times six
times after 2003, when Three Gorges Dam began to store water for
"The seasonal decline of the water level each winter also starts earlier
and lasts longer," said Wang, who previously worked on a water pollution
study for Poyang Lake.
Such concerns appear to give Jiangxi officials a legitimate reason to
push the dam proposal with urgency.
The website of the provincial water conservation bureau has a detailed
record of how often its staff members have traveled to Beijing to lobby
the central government. Over the last 12 months, top officials have
regularly visited the ministries of water conservation, environmental
protection and forestry, as well as the National Development and Reform
Commission and other departments, to "plead with them to speed up the
review of the Poyang project".
However, provincial authorities have mentioned little about the
irreversible environmental impact the dam could have.
Environmental expert Wang warns that the water quality in Poyang Lake's
peripheral areas is likely to deteriorate because the sluice gates will
slow down if not completely cut off the winter water flow that dilutes
and flushes out pollutants.
"A dam will definitely change the natural hydrological process," he
said, "The pollutants will be kept in the lake if the water flow is cut
Poyang Lake has so far escaped major industrial pollution, due largely
to the relative slow economic development in Jiangxi. It is also one of
only two sizeable lakes in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze
that still retain a natural connection to the huge river.
Its natural ecosystem clear but shallow water, aquatic resources and
scattered wetlands sustain a large population of water birds, with about
98 percent of the world's endangered Siberian cranes depending on its
marshes for survival each winter, according to the International Crane
A dam would destroy the lake's natural state, critics say, although
water authorities insisted that the province will store supplies only in
dry seasons and will ensure the water remains clear.
With more water available for agricultural and industrial use, however,
Wang predicted that more factories will likely be built, bringing new
sources of pollution, especially as Jiangxi authorities are desperate to
boost the local economy.
Meanwhile, a more direct result of the project will be the flooding of
the Siberian crane's winter habitat, said Chen Kelin, director of
Wetlands International China.
In 1992, about 5 percent of the lake's wetland was listed as being of
international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an
intergovernmental treaty on conservation and the use of wetlands.
"China actually has an international obligation to protect the status of
Poyang Lake, which Jiangxi officials seldom mention in their pursuit of
the project," Chen said.
Assess the impact
Wang and Chen are not the only ones worried about the dam's negative
In September 2009, 15 top academicians signed a joint letter to Premier
Wen Jiabao expressing their concerns about the plan, which was included
in a blueprint for the Poyang Eco-economic Development Zone.
The central government approved the blueprint three months later, but
the dam was ruled out. Instead, the province was asked to prepare
scientific assessments on the potential impact.
Jiangxi invited a collection of academics, including some of those who
opposed the plan, to look into key aspects, such as how the dam would
affect the water quality, wetlands and migrating birds. The studies
funded entirely by the provincial government to the tune of 10 million
yuan were intended to provide scientific recommendations on whether the
dam project should go ahead.
Several people who reviewed the studies told China Daily on condition of
anonymity that they had concerns about the independence and transparency
of the reports. One researcher even said he had been pressured by
Jiangxi officials to highlight the benefits of the dam and to draw the
conclusion that the project will "do more good than harm".
All six studies were completed in 2010, but the Jiangxi government did
not make the complete reports public. Requests by several conservation
groups to see the studies were turned down.
The province also organized another environmental assessment for the
Poyang Lake Development Plan, of which the dam is a major part, to be
carried out by the Yangtze Water Resources Protection Institute, which
is affiliated with Ministry of Water Resources, and the Jiangxi
Environmental Protection Institute.
The joint report concluded that the plan "will have both positive and
negative effects on the ecology and environment, but there will be more
good than harm". It said the negative impact will be on migrating birds,
aquatic animals and water quality, but added that this could be
prevented by certain measures.
Authorities solicited public opinion on the assessment between Sept 27
and Oct 7, a period that included the weeklong National Day break, and
won approval from the Ministry of Environmental Protection in January,
Jiangxi Morning Post reported.
However, Bai Chenshou, a senior official at the ministry, said a
separate environmental impact assessment for the dam itself is still
needed, and vowed that the ministry will be tough when reviewing the
project due to the international wetlands treaty.
Another ministry official, who did not want to be identified discussing
the project, told China Daily that Jiangxi is obviously pushing hard for
"We actually don't approve environmental assessments for development
plans. Instead we give feedback," he said. "For Poyang Lake, we made it
clear that the dam will have significant negative effects, and a
separate evaluation is definitely necessary."
Even so, the future of Poyang Lake looks far from clear.
Environmentalists say the efforts of Jiangxi are just another example of
how local governments relentlessly push projects that involve damming
rivers and lakes for economic gain.
"It's still all about GDP and temporary economic growth," said a
wetlands expert for an international environmental group who did not
want to be identified. "The officials who make accomplishments (in
getting approval and building dams) will soon get promotion, before the
ecological woes start taking shape.
"With the dam, I'm really worried that Poyang will turn into another
dead lake," he said.
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