Redfern/Asiaworks, for The New York Times
An ethnic Tibetan woman
in the village of Dimaluo, up in the mountains, where a dam is being
built on a tributary that flows from a glacier. Twenty families will
need to move to higher ground.
Redfern/Asiaworks, for The New York Times
In a rice field, a man
helped a grandson roll up his sleeves. A proposed dam project would
force the relocation of as many as 50,000 people.
Redfern/Asiaworks, for The New York Times
A horse grazed near a
generating plant on the Nu River that is to be supplemented by a much
Dam Building Threatens China's 'Grand Canyon'
IMALUO, China — The highest villages in the
mountains above the Nu River seem to hang in the air. Farmers grow
cabbage and corn nearly a quarter-mile up, as if cultivating ski
slopes. Necessity has pushed them into the sky; land is precious along
They may have to move higher still, perhaps into the
The Nu, which flows through a region that is home to
old-growth forests, some 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or
endangered animal species, is the latest waterway coveted by a Chinese
government that is planning to build a new generation of dams to help
power its relentless, booming economy.
Unlike the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest
hydroelectric project and the subject of a bitter international debate,
the Nu River plan has barely stirred a ripple outside China. But in
China the project, which calls for 13 dams in all, has unexpectedly
touched a nascent chord of environmental awareness and provoked rare
public rifts within the government.
The reason is that the Nu is one of the last pristine
rivers in one of the world's most polluted countries, running through a
canyon region unlike any other, which a United Nations agency has
designated a World Heritage Site. Last year, China's State
Environmental Protection Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences
publicly criticized the Nu project.
"If this river system is destroyed, it would be a
terrible blow," said Li Bosheng, a prominent Chinese botanist. "This
area has been called the Grand Canyon of the Orient. It forms one of
the world's most special canyon environments."
For China, which already has more large dams than any
other country, environmental awareness has been slowly growing since
the long fight over the Three Gorges, where ground was broken a decade
ago for a project that will cost at least $25 billion and displace more
than a million people by the time it is finished in 2009.
No estimate has been made public for the cost of the Nu
project. In Yunnan Province in southwest China, the Nu project would
force the relocation of as many as 50,000 people, many descended from
Lisu, Nu, Drung, Tibetan and other ethnic hill people. Many are farmers
and herders who cannot speak Chinese and who choose to live on the land
as their ancestors did.
"If people are forced to move around because of the
projects, they are going to lose the way of life that makes them
special," said one villager, Alou, an ethnic Tibetan. "It's inevitable
that people will lose their traditions if they move away."
From its beginnings in the Tibetan high plateau, the Nu
runs through one of China's most remote areas as it carves canyons
through the rugged mountain ranges east of the Himalayas. It drops like
a roller coaster, a descent of nearly a mile, plunging through gorges
as the powerful current scrapes boulders white, as if with a steel
Nor is it alone. It is in the family of rivers flowing
out of the Tibetan plateau that become some of the most celebrated and
important waterways in Asia: the Dulong, which becomes the Irrawaddy in
Myanmar, formerly Burma; the Jinsha, which becomes the Yangtze; the
Lancang, which turns into the Mekong in Southeast Asia; and the Nu,
which becomes the Salween as it flows into Myanmar and along the border
China is moving to tighten its grip on many of these
rivers. It has already drawn downstream protests for dam projects on
the upper reaches of the Mekong. Plans are also under way to build
several major new dams on the Jinsha nicknamed the "Double Three
Gorges" because combined, they would generate twice as much power as
the earlier project.
Opponents of the Nu project say their best chance may be
to influence the project rather than to stop it. The political momentum
to develop such projects in China is simply too powerful, particularly
because China is facing a growing energy shortage.
The country is outstripping its power supply and
suffering isolated blackouts and power shortages. It is also under
heavy international pressure to shift from dirtier coal to cleaner
But to critics, the government's answer to its energy
problems — developing the vast natural resources in China's west to
power the economic boom in the east — smacks of naked exploitation.
Chinese environmentalists warn that China will have nowhere left
unspoiled for future generations.
"The west development program has turned into the west
destruction," said Wu Dengming, whose environmental group, the
Chongqing Green Volunteer Union, collected 15,000 petition signatures
opposing the Nu dams.
In early February, the switchback trails slicing up the
mountains above the Nu in Yunnan were filled with villagers lugging
pieces of roofing to mend their houses.
Village women washed their hair in the drainage ditch by
the river, while a small boy used a bamboo pole to practice his
calligraphy in the road. Many villagers still lived in huts built with
strips of woven bamboo.
Hu Huashen lived in Yonglaga, a village of about 200
people on the coveted level land by the riverbank. He walked lightly
down a concrete irrigation ditch, past wooden shacks built on stilts
above pens of pigs and chickens, before stopping at a small tongue of
land. He said that land, maybe three or four acres, allowed his village
"These fields may be flooded, and then we've got to move
up in the hills," said Mr. Hu, a teacher. "What can we plant up there?"
Most villagers, he said, have no idea where the dams are
to be built or whether their village will have to move. "It's useless
caring anyway, because nobody cares what we think," Mr. Hu said. "If
the government wants to go ahead with dams, there's nothing peasants
can do about it."
Resettlement is always a bitter issue in dam projects,
and villagers often complain that officials do not fully deliver
promised compensation and other benefits. Wu Fan, a provincial official
in Yunnan, said people from the Nu River would be resettled in nearby
"They shouldn't be living totally detached from the
modern world," said Mr. Wu, a deputy director general of the Yunnan
Development Planning Commission. "If it were not for the founding of
the People's Republic, these people would still be living a primitive
way of life, like monkeys or ape-men."
Unemployment is a huge problem in China, and the Nu
River prefecture is among the country's poorest. Half of the population
earns less than $80 a year. Mr. Wu, though, predicted that the
resettled villagers, many of them illiterate and untrained in anything
other than farming, would quickly find work. "They can either join the
tourism industry, the service
industry or a tertiary industry," he said. "That will raise their
In winter the Nu changes from blue to jade to milky
green, turning yellowish brown only after the river rises with the
spring melt. The river's humid upper reaches pass through Gaoligongshan
National Park, considered one of the world's least disturbed temperate
ecosystems, where the cliffs are thick with ferns and leafy stalks of
bamboo that rise like green plumed fingers.
The area designated a World Heritage Site, located in
this region, is named the Three Parallel Rivers, because the Jinsha,
Lancang and Nu run beside one another, in some stretches carving gorges
nearly two miles deep.
At least a fourth of China's indigenous plant species
and half of its native animal species can be found here, including the
"It is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world,"
said Edward Norton of the Nature Conservancy, which is acting as a
consultant to the Chinese government in developing Gaoligongshan as a
national nature preserve.
The dam proposal became public last August after reports
appeared in the Chinese news media, including China Environment News,
the official newspaper of the national environmental agency. It ran
several front-page articles, including one titled "The Pristine
Environment of the Nu River Should Be Preserved."
Experts who attended closed government-sponsored
meetings on the project said the fact that critics were allowed to
voice concerns represented a significant change for China. Still, they
expect the project to be approved in some form and are pushing for an
independent environmental review and other safeguards.
Mr. Wu, the Yunnan official, said the government was
committed to environmental protection. He said that relocating
villagers would end slash-and-burn farming and added that hydropower
was a "clean" power source that would generate the annual equivalent of
37 million tons of coal. "We should not go to extremes in terms of
either environmental protection or development," Mr. Wu said.
Up in the mountains, the village of Dimaluo may already
be glimpsing the future. A few months ago workers began building a dam
on a tributary that flows from a glacier. The dam, separate from the Nu
project, came with little warning, and officials have not explained
what will happen to the 20 families that must move to higher ground.
Alou, the villager who has been critical of the dams,
said officials had promised that the dams would create jobs and provide
more electricity, but he is skeptical.
"As far as I can see, no jobs will go to the locals,"
said Alou, who like many Tibetans uses only one name. "The reason is
local education hasn't kept up with the modern world."
The 2,400 villagers in Dimaluo are divided among Lisu,
Nu and Tibetans, many of whom live in wooden shacks where dirt pits are
built on the wood floors so that fires can be lighted for cooking and
"We're used to life here, so we don't find it very
difficult," said one woman, Ba Wenhua. "The river gives us water to
drink, and the mountain gives us food to eat."
Aluo says he doubts that many villagers would ever leave
the only life they have ever known. He has earned extra money as a
tracking guide, and environmentalists are pushing eco-tourism as a way
to lift living standards along the Nu.
But Aluo doubts that eco-tourism alone is a solution and
says the dam will be even worse. "I told villagers that it's going to
be like dropping an atomic bomb on the village," he said.