Written by Oliver Hensengerth.

On 23 January 2013, China’s State Council published its 12th Five-Year Plan for Energy Development (能源发展“十二五”规划). It forms part of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) and outlines plans to begin the construction of more than 50 hydropower projects before the year 2015. The plan includes resumption of dam construction on the Nu River in Yunnan province. The episode is significant for the state of China’s environmental protection institutions. In 2004, then premier Wen Jiabao personally ordered plans for dams on the Nu halted after a coalition of environmental NGOs, academics, media and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress created a nation-wide campaign to stop the project.

The point of contention at the time was that a conservative coalition of Huadian, the Yunnan provincial government, and the National Development and Reform Commission attempted to construct thirteen dams on the Nu River without recourse to environmental assessment regulations. In particular, Huadian attempted to obtain project approval before the coming into force of the 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment Law. In the event, the country-wide campaign resulted in the Chinese government ordering Huadian to conduct a proper environmental impact assessment. This resulted in the cascade being reduced to four dams. But it was only in January 2011 that Shi Lishan of China’s National Energy Administration pointed out that damming on the Nu River would be likely to resume as part of the energy targets of the 12th Five-Year Plan and China’s emissions reduction targets for 2020. The 12th Five-Year Plan for Energy Development singles out the dams at Liuku, Maji, Yabiluo and Saige. It tips the balance back in favour of hydropower proponents.

Five days after the release of the 12th Five-Year Plan for Energy Development, on 28 January 2013, the Ministry of Environmental Protection published a report saying that China’s institutions for environmental impact assessment do not meet the required standards: ‘Unprofessional practices include weak quality control, lack of follow-up surveillance reports and poorly compiled evaluation documents’.

This suggests that despite the 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment Law and subsequent legislation to improve public access to environmental information and public participation in environmental impact assessment, hydropower development is still dominated by the old hydropower policy networks in the National Development and Reform Commission, local governments, and the five electricity companies that were formed from the former State Power Corporation in 2002, which in turn was created from the Ministry of Electric Power in 1997.

Hydropower has always featured highly on the agenda of the Chinese government. In 2006, as part of the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010), Hydrochina published a map of thirteen hydropower bases, most of them in South-western China and including the Nu and Lancang Rivers. Controversially treated as a clean form of energy, hydropower dams have adverse social and environmental consequences when badly implemented. China’s hydropower bases are mostly located in the country’s poorest areas where socio-economic vulnerability is high.

Vulnerability is the antonym of resilience. Resilience ‘is the potential of a [social-ecological] system to remain in a particular configuration and to maintain its feedbacks and functions, and involves the ability of the system to reorganise following disturbance-driven change’ (Walker et al. 2002). Adaptive capacity, then, is the ‘ability or capacity of a system to modify or change its characteristics or behaviour so as to cope better with existing or anticipated external stresses’ (Brooks 2003: 8). A lack of adaptive capacity renders social-ecological systems unable to maintain or re-constitute their functions and processes. Developmental interventions such as large dams are a deliberate intervention into the social-ecological environment of mostly rural and poor communities. Such dams may carry the promise of better roads or access to electricity and therefore enhanced opportunities for local development. In most cases however such promises remain empty. It is therefore crucial to recognise the link between vulnerability, adaptive capacity, and development.

Communities threatened by resettlement face loss of livelihoods linked to their natural environment with associated skills in farming or fishing (for example where lack of farmland leads to the relocation of farmers to cities, or where fishing communities are cut off from access to water). They also face loss of social networks linked to their traditional social environment that includes traditional ways of income generation. Thus social, economic and ecological systems are linked. As large dams have the capacity to disrupt them beyond repair, an emphasis on local knowledge, skills and needs in the resettlement process is essential for a reconstitution of social and economic institutions in resettlement communities. This must include participation of local communities in decision-making. To enable this, local communities must not only be made aware of their legal rights, but they also need to have access to project and environmental information, the release of which is in theory covered by China’s 2006 Provisional Measures for Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment, the 2008 Government Information Disclosure Regulations, and the 2008 Environmental Impact Disclosure Measures.

Yet, experiences with New Xiaoshaba village, where re-settlers from the original Xiaoshaba village were moved to make way for the Liuku Dam, do not give cause for hope. A report by International Rivers shows that the compensation scheme violates some of the Rules of Land Compensation and People Resettlement in Medium and Large Hydroelectric Projects, first released in 1991 and updated in 2006. For example, people were forced to purchase their houses and were not given the opportunity to build their own. Farmland was not distributed in an amount equal to that lost. The quality of construction is poor, with houses showing cracks, leaks and mould just two years after they were built.

One part of the problem is embezzlement of resettlement funds by local governments and the political influence of the five electricity companies that allows them to circumvent national legislation. For example, Huadian is chaired by Yun Gongmin, who previously was Vice-Chairman of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Vice-Governor of Shanxi Province and Vice-Secretary of the Shanxi Communist Party Committee. Li Xiaolin, daughter of former premier Li Peng and nicknamed the First Sister of the Electricity Industry (电力一姐), is Vice President of China Power Investment Corporation and President of its subsidiary, China Power International Development.

Another, related, part of the problem is the disconnect between national development goals and the wellbeing of local populations. Indeed, alternatives to large dams such as small hydros able to supply local communities may be more beneficial if the overall goal is to increase the improvement of economic conditions in China’s Western areas, as the Western Development Strategy suggests. The problem here lies in the conflicting goal of the West-East Energy Transfer scheme that is designed to ship hydropower produced in China’s Western areas to the coastal provinces. Local Yunnanese communities that face loss of livelihoods and social networks may thus be suffering due to the energy needs in distant parts of the country. National development goals and the wellbeing of local populations are thus interconnected, but they are not seen as equally important when the emphasis is on national development. There is scant recognition for the fact that adaptation is a long-term process reliant on effective governance structures, both locally and nationally, particularly where local communities have a low capacity to adapt to external developmental interventions. Long-term government assistance for livelihood reconstruction is essential where vulnerable communities with a lack of resources for adaptation face sudden transformative changes of their social, economic and ecological environment. The creation of a Harmonious Society surely rests on the legitimacy of national development strategies, which includes reducing the vulnerability of those who are most marginalised and have most to lose from national development.

Where the national government fails to recognise these needs and local governments refuse to implement national legislation, China’s environmental NGOs have an important mediation function. This is especially important in the poor and landlocked Western Chinese provinces such as Yunnan where local governments have a strong incentive to increase industrial output and suppress opposition to their economic strategies along with unwelcome information about the social and environmental effects of projects. As Yunnan’s Governor Qin Guangrong commented in 2008, NGOs may only ‘communicate and cooperate on environmental and biological diversity protection’ with local governments in Yunnan, the implication being that they may not oppose them.

Yet, the peculiarities of China’s fragmented authoritarian system have provided Chinese NGOs with certain spaces for action. Depending on their strategies, different types of environmental NGOs in Yunnan can be distinguished.

Green Watershed has driven the most aggressive campaigns, engaging in advocacy and open confrontation with the provincial government. When plans for the Nu River cascade first became public in 2003, Yu Xiaogang, the head of Green Watershed, drove villagers from proposed resettlement sites on the Nu River to communities that had been resettled from the Manwan Dam on the Mekong River, built in 1986, and which were still living in desperate poverty. As the Nu campaign moved from a local event into a national campaign, Yu’s actions put him under intense scrutiny of the Yunnan government. While Yu is relatively protected from persecution owing to his revolutionary credentials (although – as the Bo Xilai affair in 2012 has shown – this is not necessarily a fail-safe insurance), the provincial government watched his subsequent actions closely and restricted contacts between Green Watershed and other NGOs in Yunnan.

Awareness-raising campaigns range amongst the most important tools of Green Watershed. This includes teaching local communities about their legal rights vis-à-vis local governments, such the right of consultation in environmental impact assessment processes. However, Green Watershed also engages in teaching communities skills for organisational capacities and capacity-building for resources management with an attempt to decrease vulnerability and improve capacity to cope with change.

Other local NGOs in Yunnan, such as the Shan Shui Conservation Centre and the Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK), are active in biodiversity conservation including in areas that are covered by the Mekong Headwaters Biodiversity Corridor. Shan Shui is headquartered at Beijing University and has contacts into the National People’s Congress, thus maintaining high-profile political links. Locally-based CBIK tends to approach local governments, often on prefecture level, with project proposals that feed into government development strategies. CBIK’s specialist local knowledge such as in traditional methods of ecological agriculture has been consistently used by local governments to improve local livelihoods and ecological conservation.

As a result, local environmental NGOs form an important part of China’s environmental governance networks, employing strategies from – still very rare – direct confrontation and advocacy to more frequently used forms of cooperation. This has helped to improve environmental governance in China in two ways: in a country where the scope for contentious politics is continuously tested, local action is becoming increasingly important to correct malpractice of local governments by forcing them to implement national environmental legislation. Second, local governments have drawn on the specialist knowledge of NGOs to improve local livelihoods where governments lack appropriate capacity and knowledge.

The lesson from this should be that building adaptive capacity requires the acknowledgement of local governments that they must be responsive to the needs of people who are most adversely affected by developmental policies and in the process of development interventions must enhance their coping abilities. The increasing environmental protests in China are testimony to the fact that the environment has become a hotbed of popular discontent. Development can be socially sustainable only when it addresses the nexus between social and ecological systems. This includes improving the ability of vulnerable people to cope with and adapt to change. The enormous improvement of Chinese environmental and resettlement legislation since the beginning of the reform period means that the Chinese central government has recognised this link at least in theory, has learnt from past policy failures, and has become responsive to nation-wide discontent. The danger is here that environment protests are often led by the new middle class and thus by people that are not particularly vulnerable or marginalised. Local governments now have to follow suit, including overcoming the difficulties of the central government’s cadre evaluation system that puts more emphasis on economic development than on environmental protection.

Dr Oliver Hensengerth is a Lecturer in Politics at Northumbria University. 

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