Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-CHINA: Dam Plans Open Gates to Tough Choices Ahead

Gordon Ross

NU RIVER VALLEY, China, Feb 25 2010 (IPS) - The Nu River flows from the Tibetan highlands through China’s western Yunnan province, cutting between two mountain ranges before rushing through Burma into the Andaman Sea. It is home to a third of the country’s ethnic groups and a diverse ecosystem of 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals and fish.

China needs electricity. But what does this mean for the Nu River,one of only two major rivers in China yet to be dammed? Credit: Gordon Ross/IPS

China needs electricity. But what does this mean for the Nu River,one of only two major rivers in China yet to be dammed? Credit: Gordon Ross/IPS

It was here that Christian missionaries from Burma first entered China, and today communities of ethnic Nu and Tibetans remain passionately Catholic, attending mass in small churches and chanting under pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

It is one of the country’s most remote and fascinating places, and one of only two major rivers in China yet to be dammed.

But that may not last.

In 2003, a consortium of power companies proposed building 13 dams along the Nu (the name means “angry”, referring to the river’s spring surge), a project that would produce more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze in Hubei province. The move brought together China’s fledgling environmental movement, which launched a vocal campaign to keep the Nu free-flowing.

National and international press picked up the story, and in 2004 Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a halt to the project and a full environmental assessment – a crucial victory for China’s environmentalists.

The victory was shortlived. The environmental assessment was never released to the public. The government claimed that because the Nu is an international river – known outside of China as the Salween – development plans fell under state secrecy law.

The project was scaled down from 13 dams to four, and preliminary work went ahead despite Wen’s edict. In March 2008, the State Development and Reform Commission published its five-year plan for energy development, which listed dams on the Nu as key projects.

Today, the construction of a small dam on a tributary to the Nu, just south of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), is nearly complete.

In 2007, residents of Xiaoshaba, a village of some 120 families upstream from the city of Liuku, were relocated into newly-built apartment blocks to make way for a power station. Meanwhile, in Burma to the south a planned dam project will produce electricity that will be sold back to China.

Last May, Premier Wen once again stopped the projects until a full environmental assessment is completed. But observers say that when the 67-year-old premier steps down in 2012, the projects will resume.

While environmentalists remain staunchly opposed to damming the Nu, the controversy is not black and white. China is hungry for energy and 80 percent of the country’s electrical supply is currently provided by dirty coal-fired plants. Hydropower, which accounts for just 15 percent of China’s electricity, is seen as a cleaner – albeit controversial – alternative.

The dams could also bring much needed jobs to the impoverished Nu region. The local government has estimated that just 20 percent of residents in the region have electricity, something the dams could remedy.

Along the Nu, opinion varies. Kristen McDonald, an American who interviewed 200 villagers along the river for her graduate thesis, found that roughly one third support the project, one third opposes and one third are undecided.

In Xiaoshaba, the relocated village made up primarily of Lisu people, residents said they are generally happy with their new homes – rows of spacious two-storey apartments a few kilometres from the old village.

“The old village and the new one are pretty much the same,” says Li Yu Xin, a 40-year-old mini-bus driver who receives a monthly relocation subsidy of 800 renminbi (117 U.S. dollars) along with his apartment. “The only problem is we can’t keep animals – there’s no room for them. But I like the new one fine. I support the central government’s decision.”

Further upstream, near the town of Bingzhongluo, one villager, a Tibetan trekking guide, is less certain about the benefits of damming the Nu. The villager, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, is in the fifth year of what he hopes will be a 20-year video documentary project chronicling the impact of the dams.

“People are more and more aware of the changes that would come from the dam, and they know they’re not good,” he says. “I worry about how we’re going to keep these villages alive.”

Indeed, local culture will be jeopardised should the project go ahead, says Wang Yongchen, a journalist and co-founder of the Beijing-based NGO Green Earth Volunteers, a group that was actively involved in the initial fight to save the Nu. Many villagers will have to be relocated from their traditional homes to cities up- and downstream. In one area near Liuku, a traditional Lisu bathing site will be washed away.

“If you dam the river, their culture, their tradition, disappears,” Wang says.

Dam opponents are hoping that an ongoing public awareness campaign will rally increasingly environmentally-conscious Chinese to call upon their government to protect the Nu and other areas like it.

Travis Winn, a 26-year-old American who, with McDonald, co-founded China Rivers Project, a non-profit that aims to protect China’s river heritage, hosts rafting trips to the Nu and other rivers with influential and wealthy Chinese who are in a position to take action.

“The science is there – the dams don’t make a lot of sense. But unless there’s a more personal aspect to this, the science isn’t very useful. That’s what we’re trying to do, make a personal connection,” Winn says. “The universal response is, ‘I’ve never had this experience before. I never thought China had such beautiful places.’ It’s the time of their lives.”

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