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Yao Chong

Plans for Nu River Dam a Setback for Chinese Environmental Transparency

The Nu River Valley. The name literally translates as “angry river.” (International Rivers/Flickr)

The phrase “Ecological Civilization,” meant to describe a balance between economic development and environmental protection, was introduced in Chinese politics when the country held its 18th National Congress in November, 2012. Touted as an important part of China’s “Scientific Outlook of Development,” “Ecological Civilization” was said to be important for the well-being of the Chinese people and the future of China.

Around the same time, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection published a document promoting transparency in environmental issues. However, only two months after the convening of the National Congress, China’s State Council quietly approved a measure allowing construction to resume on the controversial Nu River Dams project, which had been deemed ecologically destructive just ten years ago, without seeking any approval or feedback from the public.

The Nu River, also known as the Salween River, flows from the Tibetan Plateau in Western China to the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia, winding through China, Thailand and Myanmar. It is currently the only undammed river in China and is the longest free-flowing river in all of Southeast Asia. In 2003, however, a state-owned Chinese-corporation made plans to build 13 hydroelectric and irrigation dams to generate more electricity for China and bolster the power supply in the contiguous Southeast Asian countries.

Many Chinese opposed the plan on the grounds that the dams and reservoirs would destroy the Three Parallel Rivers, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Yunnan Province, and harm local and regional biodiversity. Other concerns stemmed from the project’s potential displacement of those who would lose their homes, land, and right to live in the affected area. Due to large-scale opposition and protests, then-Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the project in 2004.

Premier Wen seemed to play a crucial role in protecting the Nu River from being dammed, but according to ecological protection group International Rivers, China has been ready to push forward with hydroelectric projects on the Nu River since 2011. As Wen Jiabao departed in 2012, the new leadership began to fast-track hydroelectric projects. Shi Lishan, the deputy director of new energy at China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), also stated on national radio, “We believe the Nu River can be developed, and we hope that the progress can be made during the 12th Five-Year Plan period, from 2011-2015.”

On January 23, 2013, China’s State Council released the “Twelfth-Five Year Energy Plan,” announcing that China is going to actively develop its hydropower system. There will be five dams constructed on the Nu River and construction will be completed on 50 other dams before 2015. Authorities are going to build many hydroelectric power plants on rivers in southwestern China over the next five years.

Facing both international and domestic pressure, China is planning to reduce its dependence on coal and make its economy cleaner and more energy-efficient. Hydroelectricity has therefore become key to ensuring China’s economic growth and large-scale development. However, the environmental and societal problems caused by hydroelectric development are a source of concern. Dams and reservoirs will block the movement of migratory fish, alter animals’ habitats, and damage the ecosystem. Many people will be forced to move elsewhere and abandon their homes in order to “support” the dam projects. Numerous historical sites will be flooded once the dams are complete.

Although only a few social media sources reported the “Twelfth-Five” Energy Plan, and not many civic groups and netizens were aware of it, people who saw the news still reacted angrily.  A director with the environmental NGO Friends of Nature angrily criticized the Nu River Dams project upon hearing of its resumption: “If implemented, these projects could destroy the baseline for ecological security, which completely goes against a promise highlighted by the new leadership to preserve a beautiful homeland for our future generations.” Sina Weibo user @落-伍 commented, “Before the hydro development, local residents are poor, but live in a green ecological environment; while after the development, the people will still be poor, and will always be threatened by earthquakes.”

Another commenter,@露玲珑, suggested that, “Perhaps the government should consider sources of energy like wind and solar power, which do not impact the environment, and avoid changing the environment. The price for developing hydropower is cutting off the natural flow of rivers, which permanently alters the habitats of marine animals.”

According to the NEA, China is planning to build an additional 140 gigawatts of hydropower capacity over the next five years, or over 50 dams. Further development may generate more power for China’s growing population, but will also have a lasting impact on the country’s ecosystem. Only time will tell whether public pushback will do anything to curb or alter the new leadership’s drive to dam China’s rivers.

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Yao Chong

Yao Chong is from Xiamen, Fujian, China. She received her B.A. in International Relations from American University, concentrating on Asian environmental politics. She currently lives and works in Washington, D.C.
  • Matt

    Two weeks ago, I rode my bicycle through Yunnan’s Nu River gorge, and with the recent news of the approval of the dams in my mind, I tried to gather as much information as I could when I was there about what the future holds for this beautiful corner of China. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to get much of a straight answer. One transportation department official in Gongshan, the seat of the northernmost county in the valley, told me that everything along the current road would be under water, and thus a new highway would be built high up on the valley walls. This new road was already under construction in Liuku, the capital of Nujiang prefecture, but nowhere else that I could see. I asked people along the road if their villages were going to be flooded by the coming waters, but they had no idea. I saw signs announcing that certain sections were “under planning or review” for dam locations, but no one could tell me exactly where the dams would be. I even saw some people building new houses, or renovating old houses along the road. If they are just going to be underwater in coming years, isn’t this a waste? Not at all, a friend surmised; they are probably doing this so that they can get more compensation money once the waters finally do come. In Fugong, the seat of the county in the middle of the gorge, I saw construction of a dam along the river’s edge, presumably to protect the city when the water levels rise.