Damming China's River Wild

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Michael Reynolds / EPA

Villagers from Da Xingdi village walk alongside the Nu River in Yunnan province in April 2006

Yu Guifu's farmland is still above water, and for that he can thank China's environmental movement. For years power companies have longed to dam the Nu River, which flows flat and olive drab below the fields where Yu and his family earn $1,200 a year growing corn, rice and strawberries. So far they haven't succeeded. "That river hasn't changed in my lifetime," says Yu, 50, as he rolls a cigarette and squishes his bare feet in a soft embankment. "But I donít know what will happen next."

Yu's uncertainty is widely shared. The Nu — its name means "angry" — flows through one of Chinaís most remote corners, down from the Tibetan highlands through western Yunnan province, a few miles from Burma. It is one of China's last two rivers to not be blocked by dams — the other is Tibet's Yaluzangbu — and environmentalists want to keep it that way. But China is hungry for energy, and with the country choking on its addiction to highly polluting coal, Beijing has mandated that more power should come from renewable sources. The fast-flowing Nu offers vast potential for hydropower. The local government sees dams as a way to boost tax revenue and raise the incomes of the local people, who earn less than half of the national average.

In June 2003 a consortium led by China Huadian power company announced plans to build 13 dams along the main stem of the Nu. That prompted stiff opposition from international and domestic green groups. In April 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao put the plans on hold and ordered further assessment of the project. For China's nascent environmental movement, it was a rare and welcome success. Not only did the Nu win a reprieve, but the "scientific development" ideology of Wen and President Hu Jintao — which emphasizes sustainable development and social welfare — seem to mean that more light would shine on the murky decision-making that accompanies huge infrastructure projects in China. "It was encouraging," says Wang Yongchen, co-founder of the NGO Green Earth Volunteers. "Wen said it should be looked at scientifically. That's not the same as saying you canít build dams. But we were very excited to have the Premier say this."

But any celebration now appears premature. Along the river, signs are emerging that dams will be built, and soon. In March the State Development and Reform Commission published its five-year plan for energy development, which listed the commencement of work on two dams on the Nu as key projects. Equally galling to the anti-dam campaigners is the secrecy that has surrounded the decision. Details of the plans have not been made public, and the environmental assessments ordered by Wen have not been released. Because the Nu is an international river — it flows into Burma on its southward journey to the Andaman Sea — development plans fall under state secrecy laws.

Scholars and environmentalists in February signed an open letter calling for the plans to be released. "Such a major decision will be illegal under existing laws and regulations if the project goes ahead without public participation," the letter states. "The decision will lack public support and can hardly stand the test of time."

Public discussion or not, work along the Nu is moving ahead. Xiaoshaba, a riverside village of 120 families just a few miles upstream from the regional capital of Liuku, has been leveled and its residents relocated to higher ground. The project was officially carried out under the national "New Socialist Countryside" program. Villagers were compensated for the loss of fields that will be flooded. Earth movers, laborers and survey teams from the Sinohydro company, a member of the consortium that wants to dam the river, crawl over the site.

Sixty miles downstream other crews are at work on a bridge and dam foundation at Saige, which along with Xiaoshaba are the two sites mentioned in the develoment and reform commission's five-year plan. While signs say the Saige work is for a transportation project, a surveyor standing on the roadside by the site readily admits they are building a hydropower dam. (The Nu prefecture government and the Yunan provincial government did not respond to requests for comment.)

To Beijing-based environmental groups, the loss of the wild Nu is unacceptable. Sheltered by the Gaoligang and Biluo mountain ranges, the Nu valley has fostered diverse human and animal life. More than a third of Chinaís 56 recognized minority groups live in the area. Many, like the farmer Yu Guifu, are Lisu, a Tibetan-Burmese group with a high percentage of Christians owing to the early 20th century work of British missionary James Fraser. In Nu prefecture the Han people, who are a vast majority nationwide, make up less than 10% of the population.

The river is also the site of some of China's richest biodiversity, with over 50 species of fish, more than one third of which are found nowhere else. The relatively untouched environment has earned the region recognition as a World Heritage site. "We think there shouldn't be any dams," says Wang. "We need to save this for future generations."

But as one gets closer to the river, the answers get less absolute. The projects could bring some prosperity to a region where the poverty is palpable. Leave some scraps behind after dinner at a Liuku restaurant, and a trash hauler may walk in and wolf them down. Many people live high in the mountains and walk all day to make it to the weekly village markets, prompting the nickname "double dark" — when they head out the sky is dark, just as it is when they finally return home.

Just how much a hydropower boom will help is uncertain. The steepness of the hillsides along the Nu mean that much of the valuable farmland abuts the river and will be flooded by dams. The new residences for the Xiaoshaba residents looks more like a middle-income Hong Kong housing estate than a rural Chinese village. But despite the exterior improvements, villagers are upset that they can no longer raise livestock outside their homes. One former resident of the now-demolished village says his family lost valuable cropland and the payment offered by the government is not enough to compensate. Job growth due to hydropower work is unlikely, the resident says, because the dam builders rely on outside labor. "Building this dam is good for the local government because of the tax revenue they can get off the electricity," says the resident, who asked to not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But the local people will just come to grief."

Despite villagers' misgivings, there is no organized local opposition to the dams. Kristen McDonald, an American graduate student who interviewed 200 villagers along the river while researching a thesis, said that roughly one third support the project, one third oppose it and one third are undecided. The local government says that 20% of the prefecture's residents don't have electricity, a problem the dams would solve.

Yu Xiaogang, director of the Yunnan-based environmental NGO Green Watershed, says he's not opposed to dams, but believes they can do more harm than good if they arenít planned carefully. "If it contradicts scientific development and harms society, if it's a quick and dirty and even foolish decision, then that will be a pity," he says. And once the farmers' fields are inundated by the once-wild Nu, they will be left asking what happens next.