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Report from China’s Nu River Valley: Building Dams to Get Rich is Glorious

World Rivers Review, October 2006 (author’s original version)

By Wu Ming Xiaojie*

Life moves slowly on the Nu River. Those who have a chance to visit this remote corner of Yunnan Province, China are often leave with an impression of timelessness. The foothills of the Himalayas tower over farming hamlets inhabited by Tibetans, Nu, Lisu, Dulong, and Dai, whose history in the area is as diverse as the plant and animal species that carve out their niches among cliff walls. The river flows turquoise in the winter, and brown and raging in the summer, and compared to the kind of breakneck development you see in the rest of China, the Nu River Gorge is serene.

That timeless quality is something the local government in the Nu River Valley is working hard to correct. Ever since the area was “peacefully liberated” by the communists some fifty years ago, generation after generation of cadre has sought to move the area forward in time, through introducing agricultural technologies, building schools, roads, and hospitals, and encouraging development of the abundant natural resources in the valley – its trees, minerals, and hydropower. As one prefecture official told me, “Fifty years has gotten us nowhere. You have seen how poor people here are; we must build these dams, it is the only exit we have.”

While the rest of the country talks of the dam project in terms of providing much needed hydropower – about the same amount of energy as the Three Gorges project – to local officials, the dams mean cash. That cash would go towards what some researchers call “Chinese-style poverty alleviation,” cookie-cutter development projects that are highly visible to supervisors visiting on quick inspection tours. By some estimates, the dams would bring a twenty-fold increase in government revenue, and local officials argue that is the kind of cash that can help bring the area out of poverty permanently.

The debate about whether or not to build a cascade of thirteen dams on the Nu River has been unprecedented in China – for the first time, the Chinese public has learned about the negative impacts of dams, through media coverage, online chat rooms, public forums and even school curriculum. Two years ago, the anti-dam community won a small victory, when the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, announced that the project would be suspended until Huaneng, the company that has been granted rights to develop the Nu, completed a more thorough environmental impact assessment for the dams. Last year, Huaneng resubmitted an EIS for four of the proposed dams to the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), but the State Council, who holds final decision making authority for dams on large or international rivers in China, has yet to grant approval for any of the dams.

In the meantime, life on the Nu River is beginning to change. Four different hydropower development institutes, under contract with Huaneng, have set up semi-permanent camps on the river as they test rock in a process of selecting the final location for the dams. Transportation authorities are developing plans to expand and straighten the two-lane road that follows the curves of the river on its path through the gorge, moving it out of the way of the reservoirs. In Xiao Shaba village, near the Liuku dam site, residents are being prepared for relocation to a “new rural village,” one of many around the country that are being set up as a signal country’s commitment to bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, the developed coastal areas and the developing interior. In Xiao Shaba, some residents welcome the move, as it will mean better accommodations than what they have now. Others don’t see that it will bring them any benefit.

Some people living in the Nu River valley are in favor of the dams, like the middle aged school teacher living upstream of the Abiluo dam site in Fugong County who told me, “At present, the river only brings harm to people when it floods, and does us no good. No one here opposes the dams.” Up and down the Nu River gorge, in each of the areas that will be flooded by the proposed dams, opinion among residents varies. In the areas populated primarily by Nu and Lisu, who are more integrated into local politics and speak positively about government programs and services, the dams are by and large seen as a government affair. And people trust that the government will take care of them, if they have to move.

The northernmost dam proposed in the cascade, Songta, is located about 10 kilometers upstream from the Yunnan-Tibet border and at 307 meters would be one of the tallest dams in the world. It would create a 100 kilometer long reservoir and would displace an estimated 3633 people, mostly of Tibetan heritage. People in this part of the gorge are markedly more suspicious of the dam plans, in part due to the history of conflict with the communists when they came to power in the 1950s.  Unlike their downstream neighbors, the Tibetans did not concede without a struggle. And today, local people talk freely of corrupt local officials who make promises they never keep.

A local businessman from Chawalong Township had this to say about his neighbors down the street at the local government offices: “They are given money to help laobaixing [common people] but they skim money off the top. They helped laobaixing build a road, but gave no compensation for laobaixing labor, they build this hundred thousand yuan government building but our houses are only a few thousand yuan…what kind of socialism is this? Its not socialism, it is just as bad as during the Republic.” In downstream Songta village, a Nu village with Tibetan customs, a village leader told me people there would rather die under the reservoir than give up their land and homes.

At the Ciba Monastery, which would also be flooded by the reservoir, the elderly Tibetan caretaker had not heard of the dam plans. “The water here comes from holy mountains,” she told me. “Kawagarbo has four springs. They come together to form Abei River, the silver river, a boy. The Nu River is the mother river, it is made of gold. Across the river is the Wei Bei Bi Ma river, it’s the daughter, it is made of milk.” When I asked what would happen if they put a dam in the river, she looked hard at me and said, “If they build a dam, maybe there will be some harm, maybe some people or animals will get sick, maybe they will die if they cut off the flowing together of the rivers.”

There are few signs that if the State Council approves the dams, they will be constructed with any real consideration of the impact it will have on the livelihoods of river-side communities. The Nu River valley is far from the areas of the country that are becoming so rich so quickly, and if people do have to move out to make way for the dams, most local officials assume that they’d be better off somewhere else. Both Chinese and foreign tourists to the area often comment, “this place isn’t really suited for human life after all.”

Whether or not the dams are built, the Nu River will change, and so will the people who live there. If local government officials are serious about helping improve peoples’ lives in the Nu River valley, they will ensure that unlike so many dam projects in the past, this one is undertaken with real participation on the part of the communities that will be affected. After all, China’s development path has also meant that its citizens are now guaranteed such rights.

* The author wishes to thank the people of the Nu River who hosted her from September 2005 to June 2006, and who gave her their time for the interviews which form the basis for this article.