Crouching tiger, hidden power
March 26, 2005
An outcry forced China to call a halt to construction on a massive power project that would have flooded some of the world's most beautiful gorges, but work is quietly proceeding. Hamish McDonald reports.
Men and women alike stripped to their underpants, Wa Ba's family and friends sat soaking in hot pools fed by a geothermal spring gushing from a mossy crevice under the gnarled roots of a banyan tree on the bank of the Nu River.
As his wife tended a kettle over a wood fire and young women drank cups of hot water straight from the spring, Wa offered round a bottle of his homemade rice wine, a clear brew strong enough to give a noticeable buzz from just a capful.
"Usually we take a bath here on the eve of the new year, so we're a bit late this year," said Wa, who lives in Dapicha, a village half an hour's walk away. "If you bathe here when the year is new, it protects you from illness."
A half-day's drive further up the Nu Valley, Pi Shannong, 23, and his wife, A-chi, 22, are going to market from Bazhaodeng village. Their first baby, En Xiulang, is strapped to his back, then Pi puts a steel pulley on a cable stretching 100 metres across the river, loops a rope harness around his waist and hooks it to the pulley.
In a few seconds, Pi and his baby have zipped across to the other bank, 20 metres above the water. A-chi follows with two sacks of firewood for sale. Little Xiulang is unfazed by the river crossing, but she wails in alarm when the family accepts a lift to town, her first trip in a four-wheel-drive.
The two families belong to a people called the Lisu, who populate the banks of the jade-green Nu, which leaves the Tibetan plateau and eventually flows into Burma and Thailand, where it is called the Salween.
But the hot pool enjoyed by Wa's group, the land of Pi's community, and perhaps even the tenure of his Lisu people in the Nu Valley, are threatened.
Just downstream from the hot spring, about five kilometres up from the town of Liuku, marker pegs stencilled "Liuku Power Station" are rammed into the earth beside a tunnel into the hillside. When built later this decade, the dam's reservoir will submerge the hot spring and many small farms and villages lining the river.
Upstream, in three places along 200 kilometres of the Nu, crews of workmen and geologists from the giant China Power Corporation are digging similar exploratory tunnels into the hillsides where the valley narrows, while others drill into the riverbed from orange-painted steel barges and lay out core samples in plastic trays.
The work is preliminary to construction of a "cascade" of 13 dams along the Nu in Yunnan, announced in 2003. Although the resulting outcry in downstream countries caused the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, to order the scheme suspended in February last year, the halt seems temporary. On the ground, the order is interpreted to mean that work can go ahead on geological surveys and construction of access roads that are scarring the hillsides. This month at the National People's Congress in Beijing, the Minister of Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, said four dams would go ahead, starting with the Liuku project.
Beijing's dam-building ambition is not confined to the Nu river and its impact is not just on the Lisu.
In the next valley to the east, the Lancang River flows down to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it is the Mekong. China is completing two major dams on this river, with three others under construction, while rocks are being blasted out of the river course to improve barge navigation. Already fishermen and farmers in Laos and Thailand are complaining of unusual changes in water levels and declining fish stocks.
A further valley east, the Jinsha rushes southwards then hits a rock barrier near a town called Shigu (Stone Drum) and loops north-west to become the Yangtze. It flows through one of the world's natural wonders, a 4000-metre-deep chasm called Tiger Leaping Gorge, where centuries ago a striped beast escaped hunters by leaping to a midstream rock and then to the other bank. Tiger Leaping Gorge has been listed as a World Heritage area - but its slopes below 1700 metres altitude are excluded.
In a scheme shrouded in secrecy, two large dams are planned for Tiger Leaping Gorge, one creating a 200-kilometre-long reservoir that would drown centuries-old villages and farmland of the Naxi people, as well as many historical sites such as the place near Shigu where the Red Army was ferried by Naxi boatmen across the Jinsha over four days in 1935 during the Long March. Eight more dams are envisaged downstream before the river flows from Yunnan into Sichuan.
Known as the "Three Parallel Rivers" region, this is a land of wonders, its tortured geology at the grinding edge of tectonic plates pushing up mountains over 5000 metres high, its rock strata intersecting at crazy angles, and its valleys sweeping and zigzagging through the mountain barriers, vast and swift torrents fed by the glaciers of Tibet and the Asian monsoons.
The lower reaches of the rivers are brightened by huge kapok trees, bare of leaves but ablaze with thick, pink-orange flowers the size of cupped hands. Further up, white and pink peach blossoms are budding around rustic farmhouses of stone and timber, home to a dozen ethnic groups like the Lisu and Naxi that China proudly calls its "happy minorities".
The dams signal re-emergence of a conflict going back decades, movingly told in the late John Hersey's little-remembered novel A Single Pebble about a young American engineer travelling up the Yangtze early last century and scandalising the river people with his blasphemy of damming China's greatest river.
Three years ago, the Three Gorges Dam forecast by the character in Hersey's 1956 book became a reality. Neither history, scenery nor the well-worn intimacy of the Yangtze river towns moved materialists like the former premier, Li Peng, the hydro-engineer who pushed the project and whose children now control part of the semi-privatised power industry.
More than 1 million people have been moved and many thousands are still protesting about being cheated of their resettlement money. Tourist numbers are less than half the 100,000 a month who previously travelled through the gorges' grandeur, which is extolled in classical poetry and paintings.
At a drilling site for one of the Nu dams last week, a young geologist from Beijing railed at what he perceived as censorious hypocrisy by Western environmentalists. "These developed countries are only concerned about environmental protection after they polluted it," he said. "If I were [US President George] Bush, I wouldn't sign the Kyoto Protocol either."
China is indeed being slammed in many ways by the environmental debate. Next year it is bringing on stream 168 gigawatts of installed electric power, more than double the 75 gigawatt capacity which Britain built up over a century. Much of this comes from hydrocarbon fuels, which will help bring China to the greenhouse gas emission level of the US in about a decade. Yet any moves into nuclear power and hydro-electricity bring it vociferous criticism as well.
It's also becoming a domestic issue. China is opening up to internal debate in ways that would have been impossible when the Three Gorges project was rammed through in the early 1990s. News about dam projects is being swapped among environmental activists on the internet. Prosperity and domestic tourism is bringing some of the more educated and prosperous Chinese to wilderness areas. With the appointment of a tough reformist, Pan Yue, as the deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration, the Central Government now includes some countervailing force to the National Development and Reform Commission, the top planning agency pushing large engineering projects.
Last November, Pan announced that public hearings would be held this year into the Liuku dam on the Nu River. Last month he stopped 30 industrial and power projects, including three started by the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Corporation, for not getting environmental clearances, and fined them.
So far, however, the public hearings have not been listed, and the fines are minuscule compared to the low-interest state bank funds flowing into the power companies, or the fat profits they can earn from their subsidised projects when completed.
In Yunnan province, ethnic communities are only vaguely aware of projects being announced in the capital, Kunming, and critically short of the expert advice that could give them proper voice in any hearings.
Deep in the Tiger Leaping Gorge is a hamlet called Hetaoyaun or Walnut Grove. You reach it by an eight-hour hike from Qiaotou, or by a strenuous climb down and up at the bottom of the gorge, where a steel sampan powered by tractor engines crosses the grey-green current. In the hamlet, former Sydney teacher and market researcher Margo Carter runs Sean's Spring Guesthouse with her local Tibetan husband, Xia Shenquan (known as Sean).
As the sun appeared at 11.20 one recent morning over the 5500-metre Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Carter spoke of her anguish at the hidden forces of the power industry, concealing their plans as their geologists sink shafts and marker pegs in the gorge.
"I've been here nearly eight years - what do all these people who have lived here for generations feel?" she said. "The world has only one gorge like this and the world should protect it."
Opposing the might of Beijing's power lobby are such mavericks as innkeeper Sean. "At least now the local people have the example of the Three Gorges, and they've heard that displaced people have a hard life," he said.
Another is the renowned Naxi musician Xuan Ke, the man who greeted the victorious Communist army into Kunming in 1949 with an orchestra playing Schubert's Marche Militaire and spent between 1957 and 1978 in jail for his bourgeois Western tendencies. Since his release, Xuan has led the famous Naxi orchestra in the nearby tourist centre Lijiang, giving nightly concerts of centuries-old Chinese temple music lost almost everywhere else in China, thanks to Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
One recent evening, Xuan said he, too, feared the impact of the proposed dam in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, between the massive Haba and Jade Dragon mountains. "Dams in the Himalayas bring disasters like earthquakes," he said. "The gorge is the broken barrier between two pieces of land - there will be so much water, it will be too heavy to carry. We are very worried. The geologists don't know what happens inside the stomach of the Jade Dragon."
Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.