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Prime Sarmiento interviews respected Chinese environmentalist YU XIAOGANG

MANILA, Sep 7 2009 (IPS) - The Chinese government needs to engage local communities in harnessing its vast water and hydropower resources and pursuing sustainable development, says environmental advocate Yu Xiaogang, recipient of the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Participatory Social Impact Assessment for Watershed Management.

“China’s GDP (3.86 trillion U.S. dollars) is now the third largest in the world. But China is also one of the world’s most polluted countries. Now is the time for Chinese government to consider what’s the next step” it needs to take to pursue sustainable development, Yu said in a forum at the University of the Philippines.

The 57-year-old Yu, known for his work with dam-affected communities in China and in pushing public discussion of social issues around dam projects, was in Manila recently to accept the Ramon Magsaysay Award, considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He heads a non-government organisation called Green Watershed, which set up an integrated watershed management program in his area.

China is home to 85,000 dams or nearly half of the world’s such structures, notes the Manila-based foundation’s citation for Yu. China’s central government is keen to build more to meet the needs of a growing economy, but this has also damaged the natural environment and displaced millions of Chinese.

Yu, who hails from the south-western province of Yunnan that has some of China’s richest hydropower resources, has studied the social impact of the Manwan hydroelectric project in the Lancang, or the upper reaches of the Mekong River. His research into the negative impacts of the dam led then Premier Zhu Rongyi to conduct an investigation, and the Yunnan government to take steps to ease the villagers’ plight.

IPS spoke to Yu about China’s challenges in balancing energy needs with environment and empowering locals to get involved in dam and other projects that affect them.

IPS: Are you against the building of dams?

YU XIAOGANG: Dam building is like any technology. You can’t simply say you’re against it. Dams have many benefits. They irrigate farmlands and generate electricity. But several dams that were built in China are — socially and environmentally — not acceptable. People get monetary compensation (from companies which build the dams) and relocate. But when they give up their land (to the companies), they don’t only lose their land. They also lose their traditions, natural resources, their culture, their social capital.

The monetary compensation (is not enough). You will use all that money. After you spend it out, you don’t have any resources any more to support your life.

IPS: What is the central government doing to address problems like these?

YX: The central government provides social security. If you lose your livelihood (because a dam was constructed in your community), the government will provide some subsidy, like giving you 50 U.S. dollars a month.

But people need to be productive. They can’t depend on social security. People must create something, do business, have their own jobs. They can’t be too dependent because (if they do), they become sad about themselves. Many people suffer from psychological problems.

IPS: So what is the alternative? Is there such a thing as a good dam?

YX: People should participate, they should know from the very beginning how the dam will affect their community. The dam can also generate more benefits. . . . For example, the dam-affected people can be shareholders in the dam company. A good dam, then, must contribute to local development and have less social impact.

IPS: How were you able to persuade the people that they need to protect their communities from the harmful impact of dams?

YX: Most people who contact us (Green Watershed) live in communities where a dam has already been built. The dam has very big social impact on them. They lose their land, their houses and their livelihoods. We also invite researchers and the media, and the people talk about their problems with them.

When we go to these communities, we find that people are very active in participating in this discussion (on social impact assessment). We hold group meetings and workshops where they learn to do their own analysis of (how the dam will affect them). We invite local officials to come, and then villagers can present their social impact report. We also bring people to other communities where the dam was already built, so they can learn what can happen to them if a dam is built in their village.

IPS: What is the central government’s view on social impact assessment?

YX: They think it’s not necessary, that it’s a western concept. They think that ‘my party is the communist party, the people’s party’, ‘my government is the people’s government’, ‘my court is called the people’s court’.

Everything is about the people, so why do this (social impact assessment)? The central government follows the traditional philosophy on leadership — that as a leader you should take care of the people, but the people shouldn’t tell you how to do it. If people tell you how to do a better job, then you’re not a good leader.

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