BEIJING - The country is set to resume its development plans for the Nujiang River in Southwest China due to increasing demand for energy.
The hydropower project was shelved eight years ago because of environmental concerns.
"I think it's certain that the country will develop the Nujiang River," Shi Lishan, deputy director of the new energy department under the National Energy Administration, told a meeting in Beijing on Sunday.
"Preparations for the preliminary stages of the project, including research and design, are now under way," Shi told China National Radio.
"Based on extensive research and canvassing of public opinion, we hope the construction of hydropower stations on the Nujiang River can start as soon as possible," Shi said.
Details of the project have not been decided yet, he added.
This is the first time central authorities have shown a clear determination to exploit the resources of the river, the report said.
Originating in the Tangula Mountains in the Tibet autonomous region, the Nujiang River, also known as the Salween River, runs through China's Tibet and Yunnan province, then flows into Myanmar and Thailand before entering the Indian Ocean.
The drainage area of the river in Yunnan is 33,500 square kilometers, accounting for 8.7 percent of the total area of the province.
The hydroelectric capacity of the section of the river in Yunnan is estimated to be more than 42 million kilowatts, the China National Radio report said.
Hydropower projects on the Nujiang River have caused controversy since 2003, when plans for a facility were halted after Chinese environmental groups objected.
The following year, the central government urged the relevant authorities to be prudent and to conduct extensive reviews into the project's potential impact on the local ecology and communities.
However, Shi said on Sunday that the environment along the Nujiang River in Yunnan has already been greatly damaged, because local residents have to live and farm on cliffs and steep mountains along the two sides of the river, causing serious soil erosion and ecological harm.
He quoted figures from the government of the Nujiang Lisu autonomous prefecture that said all forests there below 1,500 meters above sea level had disappeared and at least 600 locations in the prefecture are at risk of geographical disasters.
"Some people say that Nujiang people are not growing grain, but brewing disasters," Shi said.
"So proper development of the river is crucial to improving local people's lives and protecting the environment."
However, Li Bo, a nature conservation expert with the environmental NGO Friends of Nature, said building hydropower stations on the river will definitely cause great damage to local biodiversity.
"For instance, many high-voltage transmission lines must be set up to transfer electricity. So trees on the way have to be cut down, which will be disastrous for birds," he said.
The government needs to publish more information on environmental impacts before building hydroelectric stations, Li said.