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The Dams of Chongqing

Mapmakers and geologists divide the Yangtze River, the third largest in the world, into three sections: China's mighty "Mother River" begins in the Tibetan plateau, slowly gathering strength as it meanders through a relatively barren expanse of rock and ice; then rather suddenly, the river begins to run rapidly as it plunges down a steep gradient, meanwhile swerving around hairpin turns and through steep gorges; in the final stretch, the river courses across relative flatlands and past increasingly large cities before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean near Shanghai.

The upper-middle section is the Yangtze's contested stretch. The steep gradient and fast-running water make it enticing to dam developers, yet this section is also spawning ground for about 40 species of endangered fish, including the Chinese paddlefish, Dabry's sturgeon, and the Chinese suckerfish.

After construction began on Three Gorges Dam -- which changed the river's hydrology and drastically reduced the habitat of fish dependent on low-range rapids to lay and hatch eggs -- China's central government established a protected zone where dams could not be built: the "Upper Yangtze National Nature Reserve for Rare and Endangered Fish" was designated along a free-flowing stretch of the Yangtze between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Three Gorges Dam. It lay, notably, within the boundaries of sprawling Chongqing municipality.

Yesterday, however, ground was broken in Chongqing for development of the Xiao Nan Hai power station. A massive cascade of at least 14 dams is now slated for construction between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Three Gorges Dam. How can this happen? The reason is that in late 2011, the boundaries of the national fish reserve were moved upstream, in spite of the protests of Chinese environmental groups and a series of critical articles in state-run media.

To move a national reserve's boundaries would have required the sign-off of the national Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Agriculture (which oversees fisheries), and the State Council. To make this happen would have required the advocacy of someone with substantial political capital.

The developer of the dam cascade is the Three Gorges Dam Corporation, and local media estimate project costs will tally about 33 billion RMB ($5 billion). That's a hefty sum, even though the overall economics of the project are questionable. In terms of per-kilowatt costs, "it will be 2 to 4 times more expensive than dams above and below it," says Li Bo, head of the Beijing-based NGO Friends of Nature, adding: "It's really the last straw for the fish - this is the only remaining free-flowing stretch on the main course of Yangtze River."

Plans to build dams on this section of the Yangtze have been floated since at least the early 1990s, but economic and environmental concerns have repeatedly tabled dam proposals. That changed in 2009 when the Chongqing municipal government, under the leadership of recently deposed Party Secretary Bo Xilai, began to advocate strongly for the Xiao Nan Hai hydropower project, adding it to its list of key projects for the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015).

One might wonder if pushing the dam project forward was as much about raising Chongqing's GDP -- padding it with that 33 billion RMB -- as about keeping the lights on. "The beneficiary of this dam is going to be Chongqing municipality completely," notes Li Bo. "And we don't understand why one municipality has such a power to abuse nature and threaten the biodiversity of the whole nation."

Since 2009, Li Bo and other Chinese environmentalists have repeatedly surveyed scientists about potential impacts and written concerned letters to Beijing ministries and to the Chongqing Municipal Government. (A video created by the Chinese NGOs about the expected impacts of the dams is visible here.) "This is an extremely important area for biodiversity - and yet all these unbelievable [regulatory] barriers have fallen," says Ma Jun, author of China's Water Crisis and director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. "It's a very hastened process, even by Chinese standards."

Yet perhaps none of this is surprising in Chongqing. In recent years, the southwestern metropolis has earned a reputation as a place where breakneck development has been advocated at any cost - where varied obstacles, from green regulations to local mobsters, have been unsentimentally flattened. Chongqing's growth target for 2011 was 13.5 percent GDP, the highest in China. And it was this startling growth rate that helped propel Chongqing's former Party Secretary onto the national radar and almost into the very innermost sanctum of Chinese politics. Until his star came crashing down.

The sad irony now is this: The brakes have been slammed on Bo Xilai's political career - but not on all his tenure wrought.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

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