The Nu River valley in Yunnan province – known as China’s Grand Canyon – sits at the epicentre of China’s seismic zone. This dramatic landscape is also wracked by torrential rains that kill dozens of people each year. But in spite of the constant threat of landslides, life teems here. Unlike America’s Grand Canyon, the Nu valley is dotted with hundreds of towns and villages, many of which perch precariously on the mountainside.
However, the valley’s fragile resilience is hanging in the balance, threatened by the recently revived proposal to build a 13-dam cascade along the main body of the Nu River, one of three waterways that form the famed Three Parallel Rivers world heritage site and the heart of China’s cultural and biological diversity. If it goes ahead, the cascade would displace 50,000 people and ruin one of China’s most important biodiversity hotspots.
Two senior Chinese geologists, Sun Wenpeng and Xu Daoyi, have also raised serious concerns about the earthquake risks associated with building such an ambitious hydropower scheme on a major structural fault. (See chinadialogue’s interview with Sun and Xu, “At fault on the Nu River”, for more details.)
This April, I travelled along the Nu River, in the footsteps of Sun and Xu, who made the same journey earlier this year. My trip took me past countless landslides and helped me to realise just how dangerous and irrational building a dam cascade on the Nu mainstream would be.
Reaction in Beijing
Earlier this year, Sun and Xu sent a letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao setting out their concerns. “No fixed steel and concrete dam can withstand the shearing movement of the Nu River fault, nor can anyone prevent the huge mountainside collapses, landslides and mudslides that still happen on the banks of the river,” they wrote. According to Sun, dangerous landslides are also increasing as a result of increased climate extremes, tectonic and seismic activity.
Hydropower development on the Nu River has been a focus of intense domestic and international debate ever since the dam cascade was first proposed in 2004. The dam plan spurred on the Chinese environmental NGO movement, spawned unprecedented cooperation with international and neighbouring groups in Burma and Thailand (the Nu becomes the Salween as it enters Burma) and became one of the biggest river-protection success stories when China’s premier Wen Jiabao announced twice that the project would be suspended.
Recently, however, the threat has reemerged. China’s 12th Five Year Plan, published in March, pledges in the next five years to increase China’s hydropower capacity by 140 gigawatts – more hydropower than currently exists in any other country. This is most likely to happen by damming the Nu River, Jinsha River and Upper Yangtze. The purpose of this increase is supposedly to help China meet its climate-change targets, though there has been little discussion about how these dams might fuel further industrial production and pollution.
Since Sun and Xu sent their letter to Wen, the signal from the national and provincial government has been mixed. Back in March, the Chinese government expressed concern about the dam projects: “We have to conduct thorough [research] on ecological and environmental factors, as well as on impacts on countries in the lower reaches of the river,” said Bai Enpei, secretary of the Yunnan provincial committee of the Communist Party of China. “Only after we fully consider all these factors and are sure they can be properly dealt with can we decide if we should start the project.”
However, the same media source that reported these comments, Xinhua News Agency, announced in May that Huadian Corporation – one of China’s big five state-owned energy companies – will move forward with plans to build the Nu River dams. At least two other dams on the Nu River are in the pre-feasibility stage upstream in Tibet.
Voices from the ground
During my trip, I spoke to a number of local people who showed incredible courage in openly expressing their views on hydropower development, which often run counter to those of the government. I met a young man whose village would be submerged by one of the cascade’s dams. When I asked what he thought of the scheme, he said without hesitation, “We don't support the dam. The village doesn't support it either...We will not move.”
On my last day in the Nu valley, I stopped at the controversial resettlement village of New Xiaoshaba. To make way for the Liuku dam, which is yet to be approved or built, the entire village of Old Xiaoshaba has been involuntarily resettled here. I met with two residents of the former village who had refused to leave their land.
Studies of the Liuku case have shown that the compensation scheme for New Xiaoshaba violates a number of China’s Regulations on Land Acquisition Compensation and Resettlement for Large and Medium Size Water Resources and Hydroelectric Construction Projects, issued in 2006. For instance, residents were required to purchase their houses rather than being given the opportunity to build their own, as required under the 2006 regulations. The rules also say farmers must be given new farmland in an amount equal to that lost in the resettlement process, but this did not materialise.
The new resettlement houses are a gleaming white on the outside but, after only two years, their poor construction has started to show in the form of cracks, leaks and mould. According to one of the villagers, some of the farmers still return to their old fields to grow their crops.
Despite the fact that the Nu River is already home to more than one hundred hydropower stations on its tributaries, the distribution of the benefits is incredibly uneven and poverty prevails even in the shadow of these stations. For instance, one of the villages I visited, which is currently threatened by one of the dams in the cascade, has a collectively-owned small hydropower station that provides enough electricity for both the village and for export – at times as much as 20% of the electricity generated is excess and exported. In contrast, another village we passed sits just a few kilometres from two hydropower stations but receives none of the benefits and experiences frequent blackouts. If all the small and medium-sized dams were effectively harnessed to meet local government poverty-alleviation goals, there would be no need for the large dams on the Nu mainstream.
If the dam cascade moves forward, the obvious fallout will be greater risks to lives and livelihoods, the destruction of the scenic and biological value of the Three Parallel Rivers world heritage site, and reduced river flows for all the communities living downstream, both in Yunnan and across the border in Burma and Thailand.
A better way forward exists. Alternatives such as increased energy-efficiency measures, greater reliance on solar, wind and geothermal resources, and more effective use of its existing small and medium-sized hydropower stations could be explored to meet the valley’s energy and poverty-alleviation goals.
The Chinese government’s recent acknowledgment of the serious flaws of the Three Gorges Dam is an encouraging sign that it recognises the need for extensive studies on the geological risks and impacts of large proposed dam projects. Its next step could be to recognise the value of preserving , undammed, the Nu River Grand Canyon and its cultural, biological and ethnic diversity for present and future generations, instead of committing an entire seismically-prone region and its people to the risk of dam failure.