From its crystalline beginnings as a rivulet seeping from a glacier on the Tibetan Himalayas to its broad, muddy amble through the jungles of Myanmar, the Nu River is one of Asia’s wildest waterways, its 2,736km course unimpeded as it rolls toward the Andaman Sea.
However, the Nu’s days as one of the region’s last free-flowing rivers are dwindling. The Chinese government stunned environmentalists this year by reviving plans to build a series of hydropower dams on the upper reaches of the Nu, the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage site in Yunnan Province that ranks among the world’s most ecologically diverse and fragile places.
Critics say the project will force the relocation of tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in the Yunnan highlands and destroy the spawning grounds for a score of endangered fish species. Geologists warn that constructing the dams in a seismically active region could threaten those living downstream. Next month, UNESCO is scheduled to discuss whether to include the area on its list of endangered places.
Among the biggest losers could be the millions of farmers and fishermen across the border in Myanmar and Thailand who depend on the Salween, as the river is called in Southeast Asia, for their sustenance.
“We’re talking about a cascade of dams that will fundamentally alter the ecosystems and resources for downstream communities that depend on the river,” said Katy Yan, China program coordinator at advocacy group International Rivers.
Suspended in 2004 by then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and officially resuscitated shortly before his retirement in March this year, the project is increasing long-simmering regional tensions over Beijing’s plans to dam or divert a number of rivers that flow from China to other thirsty nations in its quest to bolster economic growth and reduce the country’s dependency on coal.
According to its latest energy plan, the Chinese government aims to begin construction on about three dozen hydroelectric projects across the country, which together will have more than twice the hydropower capacity of the US.
So far China has been largely unresponsive to the concerns of its neighbors, among them India, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Russia and Vietnam. Since 1997, China has declined to sign a UN water-sharing treaty that would govern the 13 major transnational rivers on its territory.
“To fight for every drop of water or die,” is how former Chinese minister for water resources Wang Shu-cheng (王淑貞) once described the nation’s water policy.
In Bingzhongluo, a peaceful backpacker magnet, those who treasure the fast-moving, jade-green beauty of the Nu say the four proposed dams in Yunnan and the one already under construction in Tibet would irrevocably alter what guidebooks refer to as the Grand Canyon of the East.
A soaring, 595.5km long gorge carpeted with thick forests, the area is home to roughly half of China’s animal species — many of them endangered — including the snow leopard, the black snub-nosed monkey and the red panda.
Clinging improbably to the alpine peaks are mist-shrouded villages whose residents are among the area’s dozen or so indigenous tribes, most with their own languages.
“The project will be good for the local government, but it will be a disaster for the local residents,” said Wan Li, 42, who in 2003 left behind his big-city life as an accountant in the provincial capital, Kunming, to open a youth hostel in Bingzhongluo. “They will lose their culture, their traditions and their livelihood and we will be left with a placid, lifeless reservoir.”