Earthquake casts doubt on hydropower

Updated: 2011-03-12 08:59

By Li Xing and Wang Huazhong (China Daily)

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Earthquake casts doubt on hydropower

BEIJING - The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Yingjiang county, Yunnan province, was a deadly reminder that local officials should be careful in planning hydraulic power projects for the Nujiang River valley in the province.

Wang Jirong, a member of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC), has prepared a proposal calling for the central government to "pay attention to the special and complex geological and seismological conditions in the Nujiang River valley and take caution in making decisions about hydraulic power development there."

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Even so, Hou Xinhua, an NPC deputy and head of the Nujiang Lisu autonomous prefecture, is asking the central government to hasten the construction of a hydraulic power project along the Nujiang River's main stream. Consisting of a reservoir and four dams, the project is to be capable of generating up to 180,000 kilowatts.

Nujiang River is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world and is one of the Three Parallel Rivers listed as a world nature heritage in June 2003. It flows to Myanmar, where it is called Salween, and to Thailand, where it is called Salawin.

Despite the river's physical grandeur, the Nujiang valley is one of the least-developed areas in China. According to the statistical bureau of the Nujiang prefecture, more than 80 percent of the 510,000 people who live there are farmers in mountainous areas.

The valley itself lacks much in the way of flat fertile land. But its sharp vertical walls and abundant water supply make it nearly ideal for generating hydraulic power.

"People in Nujiang prefecture live on the fringe of poverty according to the new national poverty line, which was set at 1,196 yuan ($182, annual income)," Hou told China Daily, adding that poverty is prevalent among more than 90 percent of the members of the small ethnic groups in China.

"We should be able to scientifically develop (hydraulic power) while protecting the environment," Hou told China Daily.

He said the project and the power it generates will improve the local economy and residents' standards of living, while increasing China's use of renewable energy.

"The people in Nujiang hope to push forward with the hydraulic project," Ma Zhengshan, an NPC deputy also from Nujiang, told China Daily.

Ma, deputy secretary-general of the prefecture government, said about 120,000 local people will be relocated if the project is approved.

Ma said close to 500 scientists have studied the valley.

Wang Jirong, who is also vice-chairwoman of the NPC's Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee, said that a series of national studies have revealed that the area is especially prone to geological and seismological disasters.

There is a consensus that the area's geological conditions are complex, Wang said. But those who favor pursuing the generation of hydraulic power argue that they can still find "solid ground" for such a project.

"My question is: Can a lot of cement do anything about instability deep down in the earth's crust?" Wang said. "We must be able to make clear the connections between one location and the whole region."

Above all, decision-makers should consider what harm a geological or seismological disaster of the worst proportions imaginable would do to the proposed project, she said.

Guo Anfei contributed to this story.


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