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China Prepares to Dam (Another) Wild River

Plan Would Help Boost Nation’s Renewable Energy Use but Harm Ecosystems and People

Some developers love Yunnan Province, in Southwest China, because its three major rivers — Mekong, Yangtze and Salween — hold vast hydropower potential. The Mekong has four dams and counting, and the Yangtze has the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydropower project in the world. But the Salween a.k.a. Nu River still runs wild from the snowy Himalayas to the tropical coast of Burma.

Photo courtesy International RiversThe first bend of the winding Nu river in the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site in Southwest
China. The nation plans to dam the Nu by the end of 2015.

Now a state-owned Chinese corporation plans to dam the Nu by the end of 2015, a state-owned Chinese newspaper reported in May, and the California-based NGO International Rivers reports construction was underway this spring at six of 13 planned Nu River dam sites. China claims the cascade of dams would produce 42 gigawatts of electricity per year — almost enough to power Saudi Arabia.

A loose coalition of Chinese and foreign activists wants the Nu to stay wild. Fed by glaciers and monsoons, the river bisects an area that according to UNESCO “may be the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth,” and whose watershed is home to people from at least eight of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups. “Many people are not happy with this hydropower development plan,” says Dr. Yu Xiao Gang, director of the Yunnan-based Chinese nonprofit Green Watershed. “It will have a big impact, and the hydropower companies haven’t disclosed assessment information.”

The Nu has remained wild until now partly thanks to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who in February 2004 declared a moratorium on proposed Nu River dams and ordered further review of the dams’ potential social and environmental impacts. Although many considered development along China’s portion of the Mekong a “fait accompli,” two American geographers wrote in 2006, a broad spectrum of people felt the Nu had received enough public attention that dams proposed for its mainstream could still be “affected and modified, if not outright prevented.”

In the mid 2000s, China didn’t want to provoke a “PR disaster” by approving hydropower development inside a 1.7 million-hectare area that UNESCO had in 2003 declared a “world heritage area,” recalls Kristen McDonald, director of the Earth Island Institute-sponsored China Rivers Project who co-wrote the 2006 paper. “Now the politics have changed,” McDonald told me recently. “The Olympics are done, and there’s more pressure on China to muscle its way into dealing with climate change.”

Developing hydropower would help China move toward its official goal of increasing the percentage of non-fossil fuels it consumes from 8 to 15 percent by 2020. State-owned hydropower developers can rally behind China’s “Go West” or “Develop the West” campaign, which China launched in 2002 in hopes of reducing socio-economic disparities between its wealthy east coast and its poorer western interior through social programs and infrastructure projects.

The state-owned company proposing to the dam the Nu River, Huadian Corp, is one of 11 public-private corporations China created in 2000 to replace its now-defunct Ministry of Electric Power. According to McDonald, the corporations challenge the authority of China’s Ministry of Water Resources, which oversees watershed management. “Even if these corporations are state-owned, they have their own corporate interests and are competing with each other,” says Peter Bosshard, policy director at International Rivers. “They are not considering long-term impacts — they just want to do business.”

Proponents of damming the Nu say the hydropower projects would create jobs and fund poverty alleviation programs. But the social and environmental costs would be too high, says Dr. Yu Xiao Gang of Green Watershed. Because the Nu River is on an active fault line, he predicts, earthquakes could damage dams and cause downstream flooding. Scientists have found evidence that a Chinese dam influenced seismic activity before a major earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008.

Yu has heard arguments that damning rivers is a greener alternative to burning coal, a practice that has made China the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. But the Chinese environmentalist doesn’t believe the dams proposed for the Nu River would be more “environmentally friendly” than coal-fired power plants. In fact, he says, it’s possible that their cumulative effect on people and ecosystems would be worse.

Mike Ives is a freelance writer based in Hanoi, Vietnam. His website is

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