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Proposed Nu River hydroelectric dam causes controversy
Zhan Gao
4/16/2004

One of the two rivers in China that remain un-dammed and is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage listing, the Nu River, seems to be living up to its name (Nu means anger in Chinese.) The source of the Nu is in the Tanggula piedmont of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in Qinghai Province. The roaring of the river as it makes its descent from the 3000m high mountains resulted in its name. The prolific waterfalls and springs along the river are home to abundant varieties of plants and animals; it has been dubbed the “Oriental Grand Canyon.” But the river’s peace and tranquility has recently been shattered.
On March 14, 2003, the Huadian Group and the government of Yunnan Province signed a Cooperative Intentions Agreement to accelerate electric power development in Yunnan Province. On June 14, the Yunnan Huadian Nu River Hydropower Development Co. was established. From Aug. 12 through Aug.14 in Beijing, the National Development and Innovation Committee reviewed the hydropower plans developed by the Yunnan Nu River Lili Minority Autonomy Canton Government. The committee has already approved blueprints for the development of two reservoirs and thirteen cascades on the middle and lower reaches of the Nu River, saying that the development would focus on generating electricity while also providing irrigation and domestic water, flood control, and tourism opportunities.

Zhenzhong Zhao, Director of the Nu River Strategic Committee Office, claims that statistical analysis shows that completion of the entire hydroelectric scheme will increase the annual income of the local administration by 2.7 billion Yuan. The revenue of local government in Canton alone would increase by 1 billion Yuan. He also claims that everyone will benefit from the program.

Shiming Guo, General Manager of Yunnan Huadian Nu River Hydropower Development Corporation, said, “The entity that gains the most from building the hydropower station is really the corporation. But Huadian is a national asset holding company led by the Committee of National Capital. We represent our country.” He Daming, an expert on river corridors and Director of the Asian International River Center of Yunian University, said, “The group that benefits most from building the hydropower station is surely the electricity company. Besides, the local government could also eliminate its deficit. However, we can never know in advance whether that money will be used to help the ordinary people.”

Experience has shown that when big groups and local administrations launch large-scale developments, they are tempted to use their economic clout to influence scholars and the media to generate a favorable analysis and public opinion. Last June, He Daming held two successive conferences in Kunming on dams and their biological effects. He said, “The purpose of these forums is to raise people’s awareness on this matter.” After that, there were several forums and symposiums in Yunnan and Beijing to study and appeal this issue. His efforts temporarily delayed the September 2003 groundbreaking ceremony. However, in the symposium held in Kunming in October 2003, there were two obvious opposing camps among the experts. The scholars from Yunnan say they gave their support to the project, while those from Beijing remained in opposition.

According to a report in China Youth News, despite the global trend away from dam building, dam building fever is just getting a hold in western China. The report said that just after the Nu River project was given approval, a relatively small amount of rain caused a great flood in the area of the Wei River in Shanxi Province. Several dozen people died, 200,000 people were displaced, and large areas of farmland and village were inundated. The direct economic loss was estimated at over 1 billion Yuan. As early as 40 years ago, Wanli Huang, an expert on irrigation systems, argued strongly against constructing a big dam at Sanmen Gorge on the Yellow River. He said the result of constructing such a dam would simply shift the flood to other areas. When Wanli Huang’s predictions came true, Guangdou Zhang, responsible for the Sanmen Gorge Project at Yellow River, openly admitted that the dam at Sanmen Gorge was the main reason the Wei River at the middle reaches of Yellow River flooded.

Not only is the Nu River proposal a disaster from the perspective of potential flooding, the environmental impact of the numerous dams is obvious even to those who normally don’t consider such things. It is reported that the Nu River flows through one of the largest sections of the Gaoli Gong Mountain Reserve in China. It is also one of the ten central areas of global biological diversity with multiple climate types epitomizing the environment in Eurasia. At the same time, it is the main channel and refuge for migratory species in Eurasia, possessing 6000 types of advanced plants and 25% of the various wild animals in China.

March 14, 2004 was the International Day of Action Against Dams and for Rivers, Water and Life. On that day, an exhibition in Beijing to promote the protection of the Nu River to the public was inexplicably cancelled. The activity had to be moved to a website (www.nujiang.ngo.cn). Mrs. Yongchen Wang, who is a long-time environmental activist, says that a large-scale activity is planned at the Xidan bookstore in Beijing.

According to a report from the Youth Reference Journal, China has 45% of the total number of dams in the world, more than any other country. The long-term controversy and debate on the problem of the Three Gorges Dam has gradually raised public awareness of protecting the environment. The dissenting voices to the construction of dams on the Nu River have spread through all kinds of channels.

At present discussions on the dams have been postponed by the central leadership. This may be cause for cautious optimism, but it is difficult to tell whether the development will be halted.

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