China’s green groups are trying to halt construction of dams in Yunnan province some 1500 km upstream of Three Gorges. They expect a major battle with local and national government over a planned project on the Jinsha river in the Leaping Tiger gorge, one of the world’s most spectacular beauty spots and a UN world natural heritage site.

China plans a series of eight large dams in the area, construction of which would require 100 000 people to be relocated and the flooding of 13,300 hectares of farmland. Opponents maintain that the developer, Huaneng Group, and the government have been secretly pushing through the giant project in advance of formal permission and environmental studies and in contradiction of the government’s own promise to abandon the policy of single-minded economic growth at the expense of the environment.

The cascade would lie on a 564km stretch of the river from Shigu near Lijiang downstream to Panzhihua in Sichuan province and would supplement the Three Gorges dam, regulating water run-off and, importantly, blocking silt from the upstream river being carried to the downstream reservoir sites. Their power output will be similar to that of Three Gorges and they would provide water for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, which suffers from severe water shortages caused mainly by the mismanagement of past reservoir projects.

Construction work has already begun, with concrete pouring at the foundations of the Jinanqiao dam, as well as some site clearance. Lijiang authorities are keen for the dam to begin operation as soon as possible, as it will bring in an estimated tax revenue of $50 million a year. This compares with the current total revenue of Lijiang of $25 million a year.

In July 2003 UNESCO listed the Three Parallel Rivers National Park as a world natural heritage site but there is some dispute about whether this includes the areas covered by the project. An official of the Three Parallel Rivers Administration said that it does not, whereas officials at the State Environmental Protection Administration disagree.

Dr Nu Zhi, an environmentalist with the Chinese non-governmental organisation Protection International, has said that the most important consideration should be how the decision is reached. He said that the dam could be built if it were assessed in a democratic way, and the benefits were found to outweigh the costs. “We want a healthy decision making process,” he said.

Chinese green groups enjoyed a surprise victory in summer in their fight against the damming of the Salween river, which has international implications involving Thailand and Burma.