Environmentalists fear dams on Nu could befoul one of China’s great waterways

Series of hydroelectric plants on 2,800km river Nu could generate more power than Three Gorges Dam


When news came that a ban on construction of hydroelectric dams on the Nu river, one of the last great unpolluted rivers in China, was being lifted, it sent shockwaves down the 2,800km length of the waterway.

In Liuku, a town in Yunnan province in southwest China, you can see where work has already started, before official permission has come from the central government.

Thousands of households have been relocated, and China’s weary band of environmental activists, who have fought for years to slow the process of damming on the Yangtze and China’s other great rivers, ask: why China can’t have just one single river that is not polluted?

Many identities
One of the world’s great waterways, the Nujiang begins life on a glacier on the Tibetan Plateau, twisting its way east, then swiftly working its pristine way west across China’s Yunnan province, where it becomes the Nu river. It then heads south into Burma, where it is called the Salween, flowing down to the Thai border, before emptying into the Andaman Bay.

This series of dams on the Nu river, in theory, will generate more power than the mighty Three Gorges Dam, which serves the world’s biggest hydropower station on the Yangtze River.

“It’s the only river that is not polluted. Can’t we keep the only non-polluted river?” says Wang Yongchen, a respected environmentalist in Beijing and founder of Green Earth volunteers.

Wang, who has visited the area a dozen times in recent years, is worried that the dam will lead to mud slides, create problems for the 22 ethnic minorities living in the area, and devastate the biodiversity of the area. “It is a place where different peoples, of different religions, and nature, live in harmony,” she says.

Environmental assessment
The plan to resume building the dam was in the 12th Five-Year Plan. “But it’s not because they are lifting the ban now – these companies never gave up. But the river belongs to everybody and they should publish the environmental assessment . . . before all this starts.”

Recent protests in Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming, against a petroleum refinery illustrate how pollution problems are a leading cause of unrest in China, as the country’s rapid economic rise is accompanied by often appalling environmental problems. The air in most cities is regularly barely breathable, but what seems to cause the most anger is the plight of the country’s rivers.

Last week, China’s environment ministry approved the construction of what will be the country’s tallest hydroelectric dam despite conceding that the new dam will have serious environmental consequences.

The dam, which is expected to be 314m high, will serve the Shuangjiangkou hydropower project on the Dadu River in Sichuan province. Damming is back in earnest.

Cha Weichuan, a tour guide, who comes from Liuku and is one of the Lisu ethnic minority, says: “If they build the dam, the Nu river will be turned into concrete. The natural scenery is beautiful here and there are lots of people from ethnic minorities, and they are happy here. I don’t want them to change it,” he says. “The Nu river is the only non-polluted river in the area.”

As he speaks, a Lisu woman passes by with a child strapped to her back in an elegantly embroidered traditional holder.

Houses demolished
“Nobody really knows what kind of damage will be done, but it will raise the level by seven or eight metres. This road we are driving on will be submerged,” he says. At the site where the dam will be constructed, about 400 houses have already been demolished.

The compensation is generous, he says, but a lot depends on the individual’s standing with the village committee.

The scenery is verdant, and to get there we pass the Lancang river, which becomes the Mekong in Burma. There are a lot of mudslides as it is the rainy season and during the drive we pass six car crashes – the rain makes the surface treacherous.

It’s easy to see how delicate the balance is between nature and the need to develop. At one point on the Lancang, the water is turned a milky white by effluent from a row of headstones.

In the Nu region, there are 550,000 people. Many of the young people go to such cities as Guangzhou and Shenzhen to work. The old people stay behind, often to look after their grandchildren.

Although the provincial government has yet to approve the dam-building plan, work has already started as the local authorities have allowed it.

The Nu river project is being built by a subsidiary of the state-owned Guodian group, China’s biggest power company. Guodian was among firms criticised by the national audit office in recent weeks for starting work on projects not yet approved by the central government.

The dam builders have installed a large headquarters in the town. Some of the farmers have moved back to where their houses were to grow crops.

As recently as 20 years ago, there were an estimated 50,000 rivers in China, each covering a flow area of at least 60 square miles. But now, according to China’s First National Census of Water, more than 28,000 of these rivers are missing.

Rising anger
The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged that rising public anger over environmental disasters was a threat to stability. Minister for environmental protection Zhou Shengxian has gone on record saying that these issues are natural and occur as society develops.

“For China we are now in a sensitive period in terms of environmental issues,” he said.

“At the same time, we are beginning to see a phenomenon called: ‘not in my backyard’.”

Hydroelectric power will be the most important element in China’s efforts to raise the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to 15 per cent by 2020, up from 9.4 per cent in 2011.

After the completion of the Three Gorges Dam project in 2005, China has slowed down the construction of dams, but it has since pledged to speed up the building of large irrigation projects in the 2011-2015.

The government said this year that hydropower capacity was expected to reach 290 gigawatts by 2015, up from 220 gigawatts at the end of 2010.

Local ecology
Environmentalist and journalist Ma Jun, who is director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said he believes the dam-building process will affect the local ecology, damaging river life and changing the natural scenery.

It will also make life more difficult for ethnic minorities there. It is also an earthquake zone, and development could have an impact on safety. The programme could lead to an over-supply of energy in the southeast too. “They will use the excess energy for smelting metals. From this process, the waste gas and water from smelting will definitely affect the local environment,” says Ma.

One man surnamed Ji, says he has 11 people in his family, so he was given two apartments by the local government when his house was knocked down.

He supports the dam, but is uncomfortable with change.

“The apartments are not big enough. I’m still using my land to grow corn,” he says.

“The government has decided that it’s going to happen, so it’s going to happen.

“There is nothing we can do about it.”