The story of the Xiaonanhai dam

The Xiaonanhai Dam will damage the only national level fish reserve on the Yangtze river. So how did officials in Bo Xilai's Chongqing ignore objections?

This article won the Best Scoop award at the China Environmental Press Awards jointly run by chinadialogue and the Guardian.

Chongqing has been pushing the Xiaonanhai Dam onto the agenda since 2005. After Bo Xilai became Party Secretary, preparations for the dam intensified, leaving state authorities and even the Three Gorges Group on the back foot. Yet the dam will have an enormous impact on the only national fish reserve on the upper Yangtze and be catastrophic for many rare and unique fish species.

Cao Wenxuan from the Institute of Hydrobiology has said that the aquatic ecosystems of a 600km stretch of the Yangtze have been significantly changed by the Three Gorges Dam, with reduced habitats and breeding conditions for the rare Chinese paddlefish, Dabry’s sturgeon and the Chinese banded shark, as well as over 40 unique species. The first phase of dam construction on the Jinsha has exacerbated these effects, and the fish reserve was originally established to mitigate that harm.

The reserve is the only stretch of the upper Yangtze offering a suitable habitat for these fish. The site for the Xiaonanhai Dam will submerge one fifth of the length of the Yangtze within the reserve. According to Cao, water management projects which change the aquatic ecosystems of the reserve are illegal.

There is a long history of opposition to the dam. In 2005, the State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection), in response to the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment stressed that “in revising plans and in construction it should be clear that there should be no hydropower development within the reserve which will notably change the reserve’s aquatic ecosystems.” In 2006, Cao refused an invitation to a seminar organised by Chongqing on the impact of the dam on the reserve, as he did not believe the city had the right to hold such a meeting. “Of course it’s going to have an impact, what’s to discuss?” he says.

Cao is adamant that it is unacceptable for the national nature reserve to be regarded as unimportant by those developing hydropower. He revealed that even the Three Gorges Group was unwilling to get involved – the project is too costly. Bo Xilai said at one meeting with the company that the city needed electricity – despite its natural gas resources, Beijing would not permit the building of gas-fired power plants. Company boss Cao Guangjing told him to wait until a higher water level was approved for the Three Gorges Dam, after which they’d give them all the extra electricity.

This did not dissuade Chongqing from their efforts to promote the project. Former chief of the Yangtze Water Resources Protection Bureau Weng Lida said that in 2007 Bo and Qian Zhengling, formerly a vice-chair of the NPPCC with responsibility for hydropower development, met in the Yuzhou Hotel – Weng himself was also present. As they ate Bo said the proposed Xiaonanhai Dam would help alleviate silt build-up at the Three Gorges. “There are no worries,” Qian reassured him, “about silt at the Three Gorges.”

The following year the National Development and Reform Commission solicited views on the Xiaonanhai dam from central ministries and commissions. The reply from the Ministry of Environmental Protection began: “The Xiaonanhai Dam would be built in the Upper Yangtze Rare and Endemic Fish Reserve, and so is inappropriate.” It went on to point out that in a 2005 reply to the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Xiangjia Dam on the Jinsha, SEPA had made it clear there was to be no hydropower development within the reserve.

The document also described the reserve as “a last refuge … of huge significance” and “irreplaceable”. It also explicitly stated that, “planning for the Yangtze basin does not meet the needs of conservation and should be changed.” Finally, it suggested an attitude of “extreme caution” towards the dam, but agreed to preliminary work such as discussion on the impact on the reserve.

Despite the MEP’s wariness, a month earlier its earlier incarnation SEPA had met with the Chongqing Party committee and government – and the minutes of the meeting made Cao Wenxuan angry. They said that “SEPA will look into the matter of the Xiaonanhai with an attitude of active facilitation, and will soon organise discussions on fish protection in order to remove obstacles to a final decision.” Cao says, “They regarded us as obstacles to be cleared. It made me furious.”

Weng Lida said that the Ministry of Agriculture was not in favour either, until October 2009 when a change was made to the Chongqing section of the reserve. After that, the dam was “no longer in the reserve”. In November 2010, the Ministry of Environmental Protection also accepted the change. Weng said that “Chongqing has also done their ‘PR’ work on me. I told them I understood the sacrifices and contributions they’d made for the Three Gorges Dam, including the ecological dam at Kai county, which I’d supported – it was just Xiaonanhai I couldn’t support. I’ve never changed that stance.”

Even “stubborn” academic authorities such as Cao Wenxuan found themselves being gently worn down. Political bosses visited to get him involved – he says they said “If there’s an impact, fine, come and look at how to remove that impact,” and so on. His name started to appear on research reports and expert lists. Helpless, he tried to do what he could to reduce the damage. Cao explained that: “the channels planned for the fish mimic natural waterways, with a small river dug away from the dam. In theory these should be of use, it’s what they do overseas. But at Xiaonanhai the channel isn’t at the side of the dam, it’s on the island in the middle, and that means it’s very short. As for whether or not the fish are smart enough to know where to go, I’m not sure.”

On March 29, 2012, a ceremony was held to mark the start of work to prepare the site for construction. Vice Party Secretary and Deputy Mayor Huang Qifan, Three Gorges Group boss Huang Guangjing and officials from the Ministry of Water Resources and the Three Gorges Office were also present, along with Cao Wenxuan. Cao recalls that “part of the ceremony was pulling off a red satin covering. I’d been standing at the back, then Huang Qifan came and brought me to pull it with him, so I got dragged into it.”

Liu Yiman is a reporter at
Oriental Outlook, where Ding Zhouyang is a special correspondent. This article was originally published in the 2013 China Environmental Development Report