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decision. It doesn't have the expertise or the capacity. The process needs to be supervised
by a third party. The existing system won't work.” 4
In my interviews with scientists and policy makers, I discovered that most were aware of
the need to balance public participation with government oversight, a process that can be
fraught with difficulty. Dr. Liu continued, “That kind of input from public opinion is good.
But the agency ultimately has to make the decision. Otherwise, you get the NIMBY [not in
my backyard] problem.” Using English to refer to this common scenario in which power-
ful constituent groups exert undue influence over the process in order to push costs onto
others, Dr. Liu conceded that the most difficult aspect of public participation was ensuring
that it truly represented the public interest.
A case in point is the MWR's move toward comprehensive river-basin planning ( quan
liuyu gong jihua ) in recent years, a process involving multiple stakeholders in envisioning
the future of China's major rivers. This participatory process is undoubtedly a step in the
right direction, but without checks and balances it can be dominated by powerful parties
such as hydropower-development corporations, who often use their close ties with local
and regional governments to co-opt the process. Media outlets have reported that each time
one of the Five Energy Giants participates in river-basin planning, the result is a new com-
prehensive plan that pushes upward the approved installed capacity for hydropower on the
river in question. Current planning documents on the Jinsha River, for example, call for a
dam roughly every 100 kilometers, which would turn the river into one slackwater section
after another ( People's Daily 2012). A rhetorical call for public participation, in short, does
not always result in optimal environmental or social outcomes, particularly in the absence
oftransparency andaccountability.Thispointstoasystemic problem withEIAthat iscom-
mon throughout the world: EIA is both an “applied science,” using empirical methods and
models to understand the potential impacts of a given project, and a “civic science,” with a
mandate to provide information to decision makers, engage the public in the process, and
ultimately improve environmental governance (Cashmore 2003).
The EIA process is one tool for improving the environmental and social outcomes of dams,
but the hydropower industry also needs holistic and transparent mechanisms that ensure
stakeholders' ability to participate in decision making, which requires broad cooperation
across scientific disciplines. As an anthropologist, I am interested primarily in dams' hu-
man dimensions: how they uproot communities, alter economies, disrupt social relation-
ships, and drive cultural change. But I have learned over the years that it is impossible to
separate these human concerns from the effects of dams on riparian ecosystems, on wa-
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