The Nu River - Will it outlast Wen Jiabao?

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Fri, 04/23/2010 - 04:23

Lisu Women, Nu RiverLisu Women, Nu RiverOur season on the Jinsha River is drawing to a close. With the tragic earthquake in Yushu, its unclear if we will run trips on the Tongtian River this summer. Possibly, Last Descents will be organizing a trip to benefit earthquake reconstruction.  But we still have no idea if infrastructure will be able to support our ecotourism efforts. Stay tuned for more information on our summer plans...

Meanwhile, the Nu River continues to make headlines, as in today's article in the Global Post (with a nice quote from our China Program Manager, Travis Winn, who met with the reporter while traveling in the Nu River Valley over the Chinese Spring Holiday).

The Nu River is one river that - at least in western Yunnan - remains free flowing. It is rich with sub-tropical biodiversity, ethnic minority cultures, stunning scenery, and fantastic big water rapids. The local government would like to see it dammed; they see hydropower development as key to lifting the region out of poverty. But Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has continued to put his foot down, first by asking that comprehensive environmental impact studies be completed, and then suspending the project again last year after learning that developers were moving forward on at least one dam - a regulating dam just upsttream of the Nu Prefecture capital of Liuku.

Recently, experts here in China have told me they think the Nu River will remain free flowing at least as long as Wen Jiabao is in power, until 2013. That could be a critical moment for China's environment overall; Wen is one of the only recent leaders of China that does not come from an engineering/hydropower background.

I did my dissertation research on the Nu River 2004-2007. I found that while local people had differing opinions about the merits of developing hydropower along the Nu, the local government was practically obsessed with getting the dams built. It made sense given government income would be raised 27-fold through hydropower development taxes. The cash cow of big hydropower has attracted local government support in hundreds of cases across western China in the past several years, and in general (as on the Jinsha River) the central government has been unable to slow the pace of damming. Indeed it seems Wen Jiabao's personal interest in the Nu River seems to have made all the difference there so far.

But what will the future hold? Three years from now, will the Ministry of Enviromental Protection, which has opposed the Nu River dams, be strong enough to keep them from being built? Will there be a hydropower glut in China, making the project less attractive to developers, after all? Or will Wen Jiabao leaving office be the green light for developers, and the red light for the Nu? We may never see the Jinsha River free flowing again, but perhaps it is not too late for the Nu.