Three Gorges Probe

China’s rivers paying for prosperity

(May 2, 2002) Of all China’s problems, none will be more critical over the long run than how it resolves the tension between economic development and environmental protection. Nowhere are the consequences of this struggle clearer than in the Himalayan foothills of Yunnan Province.

Yunnan is home to three great Asian rivers: the Mekong, the Salween (also known as the Nu River), and the Jinsha. All start on the great Tibetan Plateau and flow in parallel through the northwest corner of the province into Southeast Asia. They are China’s last pristine rivers, but are now slated for sacrifice to satisfy the country’s insatiable thirst for power. Plans call for dozens of dams to be placed along their serpentine courses through the mountains of Yunnan.

I had the chance to see one of these rivers — and the proposed site of one of the country’s most controversial dams — on a recent trek through the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge, north of the town of Lijiang in northern Yunnan. On its descent from the roof of the world, the Jinsha River, tributary of the mighty Yangtze, cascades through this 16km gorge on its way to Shanghai and the East China Sea. If, or rather when, the river is dammed, it will help power the cities and factories of coastal China.

The sun was high above white-crowned Jade Dragon Snow Mountain when my guide pointed down the gorge at the brown waters churning thousands of feet below.

“That’s where they will build the dam,” Xiao Chun, a 17-year-old Naxi, one of Yunnan’s 22 ethnic minorities, said.

“It will be very bad for us. There will be a lot of pollution. I hope it doesn’t happen,” he added.

The dam will have its uses. Dianchi Lake near the provincial capital, Kunming, is so shrunken and polluted that the city faces a serious water shortage. Water from the Tiger Leaping Gorge will be diverted to flush out Dianchi Lake, without which Kunming will not prosper.

As China seeks to keep its economic engine running, dams and hydropower do represent a cleaner alternative to coal. China plans to double its hydropower capacity to over 120GW by 2010 and to build more hydropower-projects for at least another 20 years. Experts reckon that only a quarter of China’s potential hydropower has yet been tapped.

Yet the costs may outweigh the benefits. Northwestern Yunnan is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas, home to half of China’s animal species and a quarter of its plant species. Whatever portions of this ecosystem that the dams don’t submerge are certain to be disrupted in potentially disastrous ways.

A more immediate concern is the immense number of people who will need to be resettled when reservoirs inundate the region’s densely populated valleys. Since 1949, 16 million people have been displaced by reservoirs. Some 10 million of them still live in poverty. At Tiger Leaping Gorge, where a mere 100,000 residents will have to be relocated, residents fear that they will be ordered to move up the steep mountainsides to open marginal land at 2,000m to 3,000m.

Dam opponents, including vocal indigenous environmental groups, have waged a seemingly successful battle to protect Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Salween. Early this year, some three years after a new law on environmental impact assessments (EIAs) was passed, the State Environmental Protection Bureau (SEPA), ordered the halt of 30 large projects, including 26 hydropower plants that had failed to submit proper EIAs. Among the suspended projects was the first dam across the Salween.

These efforts appear to have catalyzed greater environmental sensitivity among the country’s leaders. The government recently called for more balanced development, even proposing a “green index” to measure growth. Indeed, Premier Wen Jiabao has declared that he wants to see more “scientific development” in China’s approach to its problems, and even called for a temporary halt of the Salween River dam. Environmentalists were even permitted to take part in a public hearing on the Tiger Leaping Gorge project, a first for China.

Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party’s tolerance of such civic activity blows hot and cold. The party, alarmed by the “color revolutions” that toppled post-Soviet leaders in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, is cracking down on domestic non-government organizations for fear that they, too, might become catalysts for popular uprisings.

Support for “green development” inside central government organizations like SEPA offers little assurance of an effective countervailing force.

“We must sharpen our teeth,” Pan Yue, SEPA’s deputy director, said when the agency halted the dam projects. But China has seen a steady decentralization of power in recent years, making it harder for SEPA to affect policies at the regional and local levels.

Indeed, local governments appear less afraid of Beijing’s bite than before. When boundaries were negotiated for Three Parallel Rivers Park — designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 — local authorities won a fight to exclude Tiger Leaping Gorge, knowing that a dam there would triple tax revenues.

China urgently needs to maintain an annual growth rate of over 9 percent as a bulwark against social disorder. As a result, however, China is slowly consuming itself, and no major part of China will remain pristine.

Taipei Times, May 2, 2002

Jasper Becker is the author of The Chinese, Hungry Ghosts, and a forthcoming book on the destruction of old Beijing.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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