Monday, February 21, 2011

Yuans, Rupeees and Dams

Do you know that in recent years China has built some 25,800 large dams? More than any other country on the planet. Unfortunately, there is no free meal: these projects have forced the relocation of more than 10 million people and have caused unimaginable damage to the environment.
But in China as well as in India, powerful lobbies work hard to get the government’s green light to recklessly continue the construction of hydropower plants.
In the case of China, the know-how is even exported: Chinese banks and dam companies are involved in the construction of some 269 dams in 67 different countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia …and PoK (legally an Indian territory).
India does not want to be left behind, the business is too lucrative. A recent BJP report on the functioning of the Congress governments in the Northeast has equated the ‘hydropower project scams’ in Arunachal Pradesh with the 2G scandal.
The Report alleges that since the Congress government came to power in 2004, some 137 MoUs were signed and awarded ‘to dubious companies’: “The hydropower scam in Arunachal Pradesh is one of the biggest scams of the region.”
Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu would have allotted contracts ‘through agreements’. “The MoUs have been signed flouting all procedures and norms set by the Union power ministry,” says the Report., adding that “hydro power projects totaling 70,000 MW and worth Rs 400,000 crore were signed in a short period. Companies with zero business activities and zero experience and with little financial strength had been allotted hydro power projects worth Rs 100 to Rs 1,000 crore”.
Whether the allegations will prove correct, only the future will tell, but there is no doubt that in India, like in China, the dam-building lobby is extraordinarily powerful.
An article published in the ‘official’ Global Times shows such the lobbies have been able to change the decision taken by Premier Wen Jiabao in April 2004. Wen had then given an assurance that the large hydropower plants (on the Salween to start with) would be “seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.”
As a result for several years, not a single major hydropower project was given the green light by Beijing. Now ‘Science’ has taken a U-turn and says build, build, build.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) noted the ‘scientific’ change of wind: “analysts say mainland authorities have clearly pinned their hopes on renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydropower, to help reduce the mainland's reliance on coal amid mounting concern over the country's environmental woes and huge carbon emissions”.
Weng Lida, former head of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau told the SCMP: “Power companies and planning authorities have apparently gained an upper hand in the debate over hydropower development and used the need to cut carbon emissions and pollution as an excuse to gloss over problems resulting from irrational dam-building across the country."
The SCMP states: “Environmentalists said the mounting international pressure on the mainland over its refusal to accept a mandatory cap on carbon emissions should not be used as an excuse to sacrifice the environment.”
Today, in the name of global warming and environment protection, the dam lobby is able to restart their nefarious activities.
China's southwest, particularly the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan are famed for an abundance of waters, most of the major Asian rivers having their origins in Tibet. The dam builders (often managed by Princelings or children of Politburo members) have been biding their time. With the new policy, scheduled to be announced next month, they will make a killing using the huge hydro-potential of Tibetan rivers; ironically with an ‘environmental’ rationale.
The ‘planners’ of the Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design of the Ministry of Water Resources are delighted, they will be able to build enough hydropower stations to reach their 83 million kilowatts target. The temporary ban had resulted in less than one third of the proposed projects in China's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) being constructed.
Now, the powerful development lobbies are back with a vengeance. Wang Jian, a river specialist from Beijing who visited sections of the major rivers in December told the Global Times that smaller projects, which do not need Central Government approval, have burgeoned, "They are as dense as the stars in the sky", he said.
Some local officials told the Economic Observer, a Chinese weekly considered as one of the best economic publications in China, that 60 tributaries of Nujiang (Salween) will be dammed (42 hydropower projects have been completed and 88 are in the pipeline).
Zhang Boting, vice-general secretary of China Hydropower Engineering Society, speaking for the dam builders, said that they are now sure to meet their target, arguing: “Building hydropower stations actually helps protect the rivers and the environment."
Many do not share his opinion. Dai Qing, a senior journalist believes that the present trend will show that China is always one step behind the world. "In many Western countries, dam builders are out of favor, but here in China, we are still busy building dams."
The most interesting aspect of the current controversy is that several articles appeared in the main stream Chinese media objecting to the construction of large structures on the Tibetan rivers. Wang Yongchen wrote an op-ed in The Global Times: “In the past, hydroelectric power has been assumed to be a clean energy, since it consumes no fossil fuels and emits no pollutants. However, plenty of recent scientific research suggests that the environmental consequences of the construction of dams and operation of hydropower stations are considerable”.
He gives the example of the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas resulting from the decaying forests submerged by the higher water level.
Many in China still remember the Banqiao Dam. Built on the Ruhe River in 1952 to ‘control’ the Yellow River, it collapsed on August 8, 1975. Though it was designed to withstand a ‘one-in-1,000-year’ flood, it was washed away and 26,000 people died in a few minutes. Later 145,000 people perished from epidemics and famine. The number of people affected by the disaster exceeded 12 million. In 2005, a Discovery Channel program rated the disaster as No.1 on a list of the ‘Top 10 Technological Catastrophes of the World’ before Bhopal.
The building of dams on the Salween, Mekong or Brahmaputra has also strategic consequences. Unfortunately in India, the Union Ministry of Power believes that a “timely grant of environment and forest clearances for the proposed hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh is crucial to ensure India’s right over the Brahmaputra”. This is an absolute legal non-sense for the simple reason that India and China are not bound by a convention or a treaty (like the Indus Water Treaty or the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses).
The facts remains that in authoritarian, as also as in ‘coalition’ governments, dam-builders are kings. In a couple of years, the Prime Minister will probably say that he was not informed, but it may be too late.
Who listens when billions of Yuans or Rupees are involved? Money is needed for the next elections, isn’t it?

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