Ke Shouyi, 47, a farmer in the Lisu ethnic group, prods his cow to plow the remote rural area near the Nu River in China’s Yunnan Province. The Nu’s days as one of the region’s last free-flowing rivers are dwindling. The Chinese government stunned environmentalists in 2013 by reviving plans to build a series of hydropower dams on the upper reaches of the Nu Photo: Sim Chi Yin / The New York Times

By ANDREW JACOBS
4 May 2013

BINGZHONGLUO, China (The New York Times) – 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 1,700-mile course unimpeded as it rolls toward the Andaman Sea.

But 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 China’s southwest 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 highlands of Yunnan 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 International Rivers, an advocacy group.

Suspended in 2004 by Wen Jiabao, then the prime minister, and officially resuscitated shortly before his retirement in March, 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 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 United States.

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 United Nations 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 China’s former water resources minister, Wang Shucheng, once described the nation’s water policy.

Here 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, 370-mile-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 here. “They will lose their culture, their traditions and their livelihood, and we will be left with a placid, lifeless reservoir.”

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 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 $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?” asked Wang Yongchen, a well-known environmentalist in Beijing who has visited the area a dozen times in recent years. [more]

Plans to Harness Chinese River’s Power Threaten a Region

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