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.



The Election 2012 Weekly Report: New friends and old foes

Russia Rumble

This week, the campaign was unexpectedly dominated by a debate over Russia policy. The back-and-forth was sparked by an embarrassing "hot mic" incident on Monday at a summit on Seoul, when President Barack Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more "space" to tackle controversial issues such as missile defense after the election. "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility," he told the outgoing Russian leader, who promised to "transmit this information to Vladimir."

Mitt Romney was quick to seize on the incident to bolster his argument that Obama has ignored the security threat posed by Russia. He went a bit over the top with the rhetoric, however, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer that "this is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe, they fight every cause for the world's worst actors, the idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed."

Democrats -- and a few Republicans -- disputed the notion that Russia is the nation's primary foe. "You don't have to be a foreign policy expert to know that the Cold War ended 20 years ago and that the greatest threat that the president has been fighting on behalf of the American people is the threat posed by al Qaeda," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

Romney doubled down on his charge against the president with an op-ed in Foreign Policy, writing that "In his dealings with the Kremlin, as in his dealings with the rest of the world, President Obama has demonstrated breathtaking weakness -- and given the word ‘flexibility' a new and ominous meaning."

A group of Romney's senior advisors also published an open-letter on the website of the National Review detailing a list of the president's main foreign policy failings. The Obama campaign's senior foreign policy advisors pushed pushed back with a letter to Romney published in FP demanding that Romney "clarify exactly how and why you would depart from many of President Obama's policies."

Romney even got into it with Medvedev himself this week. The Russian president said the candidate's rhetoric "smacks of Hollywood" and advised him to "check his watch" to see that it's no longer the 1970s. The Romney campaign struck back with a press release calling him "President Medvedev (D-Russia)" and accusing him of "campaigning for Obama."

Santorum's Jelly Belly foreign policy

Rick Santorum chose an unusual venue on Thursday for a national security-focused address meant to reinvigorate his struggling campaign: The Jelly Belly headquarters in Fairfield, California. Attempting to associate himself with the foreign-policy acumen of GOP icon and famous jellybean fiend Ronald Reagan, Santorum made the case that "Of all of the failings of this administration, of all of the failings, perhaps the greatest is on national security."

Santorum also seized on the hot mic gaffe: "Ronald Reagan didn't whisper to Gorbachev, ‘Give me some flexibility.... He walked out of Iceland and said, ‘You either do this, or we have no deal.'"

H.W. goes all in

While Santorum while trying to channel the Gipper, his vice-president and successor George H.W. Bush officially endorsed Romney -- no surprise as he had publicly praised the candidate earlier in the race and his son Jeb endorsed last week. The 87-year-old (mis)quoted Kenny Rogers when asked about Romney's rivals, saying, ‘It's time when to hold ‘em and time when to fold ‘em."

The meeting raised questions as to when George W. Bush will make an endorsement in the race. "I haven't met with President George W. Bush. We speak from time to time," Romney said.

Newt loses his sugar daddy

The struggling campaign of Newt Gingrich, who has won only South Carolina and his home state of Georgia so far, has been kept afloat by the largesse of Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The staunch Israel hawk has donated over $20 million to Gingrich's Super PAC. It appears, however, that Adelson's generosity has its limits. Speaking at the Jewish Federations of North America's annual TribeFest conference in Las Vegas this week, the billionaire said this week that Gingrich may be "at the end of the line" since mathematically, "he can't get anywhere near the number" of delegates needed. Adelson has reportedly been reaching out to supporters of the Romney campaign.

Gingrich, the onetime frontrunner, laid off one-third of his staff this week.

Is Paul coming around to Romney?

Ron Paul, currently running in fourth place with a total of 50 delegates in the bag, has previously suggested that foreign policy might be an obstacle to him throwing his support behind Romney. This week, however, Paul paid the frontrunner the mildest of compliments in an interview with Bloomberg television: "I think Mitt Romney is more likely to be more willing to listen to his advisers.... If he decides he wants to go and bomb Iran, maybe he might listen to somebody else. I'm afraid the other [candidates] would just go do it anyway."

What to watch for:

Maryland, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia hold primaries on Tuesday. Romney is favored to win all three contests. (Santorum isn't on the ballot in D.C.)

After that, it's a long wait until a set of five northeastern primaries on April 23. Santorum's Gotterdämmerung may very well come in his home state of Pennsylvania, where the latest polls show him in a statistical dead heat with Romney.

The latest from FP:

Romney's Russia op-ed.

The Obama campaign's response.

Scott Clement says that Americans really don't think of Russia as an enemy anymore.

Daniel Drezner on the dirty, little secret of second-term presidents.

Michael Cohen argues the president's real constitutional overreach wasn't healthcare, it was Libya.

In honor of Santorum's Jelly Belly address, Uri Friedman recaps the year in political food fights.

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