As one of two major rivers in China still unimpeded by dams, the Nu has a fiercely devoted following among environmentalists who have grown despondent over the destruction of many of China’s waterways.
The Chinese Ministry of Water Resources released a survey in March saying that 23,000 rivers had disappeared entirely and many of the nation’s most storied rivers had become degraded by pollution. The mouth of the Yellow River is little more than an effluent-fouled trickle and the once-mighty Yangtze has been tamed by the Three Gorges Dam, a US$25 billion project that displaced 1.4 million people.
For many advocates, the Nu has become something of a last stand.
“Why can’t China have just one river that isn’t destroyed by humans?” said Wang Yongchen (汪永晨) a prominent environmentalist in Beijing who has visited the area a dozen times in recent years.
Opponents say it is no coincidence that the project was revived shortly before the retirement of Wen, a populist whose decision to halt construction was hailed as landmark victory for the nation’s fledgling environmental movement. Although he did not kill the project, Wen, a trained geologist, vowed it would not proceed without an exhaustive environmental impact assessment.
No such assessment has been released. Given the government’s goal of generating 15 percent of the nation’s electricity from non-fossil fuel by 2020, few expect environmental concerns to slow the project, even if the original plan of 13 dams on the Nu has been scaled back to five, for now.
“Building a dam is about managing conflicts between man and nature, but without a scientific understanding of this project, it can only lead to calamity,” said Yang Yong (楊永), a geologist and an environmentalist.
Some experts say China has little choice but to move forward with dams on the Nu, given the nation’s voracious power needs and an overreliance on coal that has contributed to record levels of smog in Beijing and other northern cities. Still, many environmentalists reject the government’s assertion that hydropower is “green energy,” saying that the reservoirs created by dams swallow vast amounts of forest and field. Also overlooked is the methane gas and carbon dioxide produced by decomposing vegetation, significant contributors to global warming, they say.
“By depicting dams as ‘green,’ China is seeking to justify its dam-building spree,” said Brahma Chellaney, a water resources expert at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, India.
Chellaney said that Beijing also failed to take into account the huge amounts of silt retained by dams that invariably deprive downstream farmers of the seasonal nutrients that have traditionally replenished overworked soil.
That the Nu has remained untouched even as China corralled most of its rivers is a testament to the isolation of northwest Yunnan, a two-day drive from Kunming along a white-knuckle road carved into the canyon walls. Every few kilometers are the scars of recent landslides, a jarring reminder of the area’s geologic instability.
Despite the 2004 moratorium, work on the Nu River dams never really stopped, although Huadian, the state-owned hydropower giant, has ramped up planning efforts since the Chinese government removed any obstacles.