A new policy on basin-wide strategic assessment of relations between hydropower and environment called “Provisional Measures for the Evaluation of River Hydropower Plans (RHPs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs)” (“????????????????????????”) was issued by National Reform and Development Commission (NRDC). Methodology is intended for use in “Important River” Hydropower Plans, which include large rivers, transboundary rivers and rivers along provincial borders(including state border). But relevant agencies are encouraged to use new policy on “non-important rivers” as well. The evaluation process should ensure objectivity, impartiality and scientific quality. EIA conclusion and evaluation recommendations should be the main basis for decision making when approving the plan.
The following findings should force evaluation panel to conclude that project has not passed EIA: A) Given present level of scientific knowledge and technology it is impossible to predict extent and\or severity of the negative environmental impacts resulting from the plan; B) Plan implementation would result in medium or large negative environmental impacts, which could not be prevented or reduced using available policies and methods. In cases of other deficiencies EIA should be returned to developers for amendments. EIA evaluation is supervised by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, while the River Hydropower Plan is reviewed under NRDC leadership.
As a prompt follow up Ministry of Environmental Protection in the beginning of January issued a notice “On the Further Strengthening the Environmental Protection of Hydropower Construction” which clarifies most important aspects of the new policy like considering cumulative impacts and prohibiting hydropower construction in areas of outstanding natural value. MEP stresses linkage between basin-wide Strategic EIA and single hydropower project EIA. Finally it calls for firm control and supervision at all stages of hydropower development.
Domestic and international press has already expressed certain skepticism regarding future implementation of this policy. Thus Reuters reminded that “The ministry’s intervention comes in the wake of a controversial decision to reduce the size of a protected nature reserve in southwest China’s Chongqing in order to allow the construction of the massive $4.75 billion Xiaonanhai hydropower plant on the Yangtze River. The size
of the reserve was already reduced in 2005 to make way for the Jinsha hydropower plant, currently being built by the Three Gorges Project Corp.”
Truly, there are many potential problems with implementation such as:
– outdated 1995 guidelines on “River Hydropower Planning” and other old regulations ;
– absence of provision that sets a cap on overall hydropower development in a given
basin and thus omitting central question: how to determine limits of allowable change on the basin-wide scale;
– lack of clarity how to coordinate with other countries sharing a river basin (see paper on Sino-Russian Hydropower in Amur River Basin)
But the weakest point is that new policy does not outline clear public participation mechanism. However NRDC “procedure” declares: if the EIA did not consider the voice from public participation, the EIA report would need to be done again. And, if the EIA is not approved, the Plan would not be approved. However there is no public participation in the evaluation process and no transparency granted in the form of publication of results. Evaluation of EIA also does not mention serious public opposition to hydropower scheme as a reason for returning EIA for further development, and river hydropower plan review process does not consider reaction of the public whatsoever.
Nevertheless emergence of basin-wide hydropower plan impact assessment procedure in China is really good news. Adjacent Russia and
Mongolia are yet to develop such forward-looking policy. If consistently applied to whole river basins it will give a chance to perform very needed strategic assessment of various hydropower development options at early planning stages. Only careful comparison of alternatives may help to achieve optimization: maximizing hydropower production while limiting impacts in a given river basin. This is also one of main purposes of new methodology for Basin-wide impact assessment of hydropower development developed by RwB. And with new policy in place we hope our methodology soon could be utilized to assess hydropower plans in transboundary basins of China.
Rivers without Boundaries