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China's green leap forward?

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Yu follows such developments closely. Leaning forward in his chair, he points to a map unfurled on his desk, noting the planned construction sites he finds most alarming. “Some places, unique in the world, may be lost that can never be replaced,” he says.

“We cannot be against all hydropower,” he adds, “but we must have the precondition that projects pass environmental- and social-impact assessments. We still need to find that middle way.”

By this he means that dam planners should be required to pay greater attention to the impact of dams on local populations and ensure that adequate measures are taken to provide “poverty alleviation, local education support, and restoration of livelihoods,” as he puts it.

According to Yu’s estimates, in the past 50 years some 40 million people have been resettled as the result of large infrastructure projects in China, about 12 million due to dam construction alone. About half now live “in absolute poverty,” he says.

On paper, China’s resettlement compensation policies have become more generous in recent years. But while resettled families are often moved into newly built homes, land allotments are often inadequate to sustain farming. Villagers receive little help in finding new livelihoods. Such communities are called “empty economy towns.”

A lack of transparency in how compensation funds are distributed encourages corruption, with less money reaching intended recipients.

Yu’s idea is based upon similar requirements in many countries, including China, for environmental-impact assessments, which evaluate the ecological impacts of dams and other major infrastructure projects before construction begins.

He wants to extend that concept to include the concerns of local communities in China: “What would the Nu River be without the Nu people?” The Nu are a minority who live only in a small territory alongside the river.

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