Campaigners re-ignite Nu River dam debate
By Deng Quanlun
11 February 2013
China's energy plans for the 12th Five-Year Plan, the country's
development blueprint to 2015, include restarting hydroelectric dam
plans on the Nu River, a process that stalled almost a decade ago due to
fears for the pristine ecosystem of this part of south-west China.
Though the construction programme was shelved back in 2004, advocates
didn't give up: the local government has been making annual lobbying
trips to Beijing to muster support for Nu River dams from the central
authorities, according to informed sources.
Over the last two years, the company that would actually build the
plants - Yunnan Huadian Nu River Development Company, a subsidiary of
Chinese energy giant Huadian Power - has held numerous meetings about
pushing forward preliminary work.
Today, development of the Nu once again looks like a done deal. But
relocation of local people set to lose their homes, environmental
protection and potential geological risks remain major stumbling blocks.
The row between developers and conservationists is set to continue.
Wen Jiabao shelves dam plans
Rising in the Dangla Mountains on the Tibetan plateau, the Nu River
flows through Tibet into Yunnan and then onto Burma, where it is known
as the Salween, before finally reaching the Indian Ocean. Within China
it flows for more than 2,000 kilometres, passing through a steep gorge
known as the Grand Canyon of the East. Stretches of the river fall
within the Three Parallel Rivers area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The
Nu is the only major river in China still free of large dams.
The peace of the Nu River was first shattered 10 years ago. In August
2003, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China's top
economic planner, met to approve Yunnan's scheme for hydroelectric
development on the middle and lower reaches of the river. Plans included
construction of two reservoirs and 13 dams. Total electricity generation
would be at least 21.32 gigawatts.
The plans immediately met fierce opposition. Representatives of the then
State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental
Protection) attending the meeting refused to sign off on the plan. Of
China's rivers, only the Nu and Yarlung Zangbo had not suffered
significant ecological damage, they said, and as such should be retained
as examples and models rather than being developed.
In September the same year, three key reasons for opposing the damming
of the Nu River were presented at a meeting held by SEPA. They were:
hydroelectric development and the construction of dam cascades would go
against the principle of protecting the Three Parallel Rivers heritage
site; caution should be used with anything that could threaten the
outstanding natural beauty of the Nu River valley; and local species and
culture required protection.
Campaign groups including Green SOS and Friends of Nature pointed out
that the Three Parallel Rivers area accounts for less than 0.4% of
China's territory, but is home to 25% of its higher animal and plant
species, including 77 state protected species, making it a globally
significant repository of genetic resources.
In February 2004, citing social concern and disagreements over
environmental protection, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao ordered a "cautious
and scientific approach". With that, hydroelectric development of the Nu
River was shelved.
Geologists raise earthquake fears
Debate over the matter has continued - it even featured in a question in
the 2008 examination for entry to China's civil service.
In February 2011, four geologists wrote to the State Council leadership
opposing the damming of the Nu River for geological reasons, again
bringing the case to public attention. Signatories included Xu Daoyi of
the China Earthquake Administration, Sun Wenpeng of the China National
Nuclear Corporation's Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology and
Li Dongxu, professor at the China University of Geosciences.
Their language was blunt: "The Nu River is on an active fault with
frequent earthquakes, and in a landslide-prone area subject to frequent
downpoursï¿½Due to high seismic and geological risks, large dams should
not be built here."
This presented a new challenge. In the past, opposition had always been
about the environment - this was the first mention of geological
dangers. The subsequent earthquake in Japan meant the central government
took the geologists concerns seriously. Yu Xiaogang of Yunnan NGO Green
Watershed told Time Weekly that Wen Jiabao ordered in-depth research
into the geological and seismic risks of the Nu River.
But a March 2011 seminar on the seismic risks of Nu River dams held by
the China Society for Hydropower Engineering and the China Dam
Commission came to a different conclusion.
Xu Xiwei, deputy head of the China Earthquake Administration's Institute
of Geology said: "Dams will collapse if they are built over a fault and
an earthquake strikes. But in reality, if you make sure the dams don't
straddle a fault and are built in earthquake-resilience, hydroelectric
development is safe."
Joint research by the Hydropower and Water Resources Planning & Design
General Institute and the China Earthquake Administration's Institute of
Earthquake Science found that, historically, earthquakes on the middle
and lower reaches of the Nu have been rare and minor. Compared with the
complex geology of much of south-west China, the Nu River basin is
actually relatively stable, it concluded.
Local government pushes for development
Despite the controversy, the local government has for years been keen
for hydroelectric development. The Nu River prefecture is the country's
only Lisu nationality autonomous prefecture. Local party secretary Duan
Yueqing says more than 70% of the area's 500,000 residents live in
poverty, making it one of the poorest parts of China.
But in resources it is one of the richest. Its hydroelectric potential
is world-class, accounting for 47% of the province's total and making it
one of the top six hydroelectric sites in China. The Nu is said to be
China's fifth largest river, with over 20 gigawatts of hydroelectric
potential in its middle and lower reaches alone.
It is also home to huge mineral wealth. Almost 300 deposits of 28
different ores, including zinc, lead, copper, gold and tungsten, have
been identified here. Within one 3.2-square kilometre area alone, there
are thought to be 1,432 tonnes of lead and zinc, worth around 100
billion yuan, making it China's biggest confirmed lead and zinc deposit
In early 2007, Nu River Prefecture set upon an economic strategy centred
on becoming a nationally important centre of metal extraction and
hydroelectricity. The local government chiefs saw hydroelectricity as
the quickest route to results.
In March 2008, the NDRC published its plans for development of renewable
energy during the 11th Five-Year Plan, including hydroelectric plants at
Liuku and Saige on the Nu River. There was opposition on environmental
grounds, and the environmental authorities are still to approve the
plans. But since 2003, preliminary work for dams on the Nu has continued.
In 2008, work quietly started on the Liuku dam, despite not having state
approval. Residents in upstream villages were moved to "socialist new
villages". Today, the gate to the Liuku site is locked and work has
halted, but the temporary dyke which will allow construction of the main
dam is complete.
In late January 2011, Shi Lishan, deputy head of the New and Renewable
Energy Office at the National Energy Administration (NEA), said that
preliminary work, particularly research and design, for Nu River dams
had continued. While there was no exact or complete programme in place,
the Nu River would be developed, he said. This was the first time the
NEA had taken a clear stance on the issue.
Last month, the State Council Office published plans for energy
development during the 12th Five-Year Plan. These included full
hydroelectric development drives on the middle and lower reaches of the
Jinsha and Lancang, the Yalong, the Dadu, the upper reaches of the
Yellow River and the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo, along with an
orderly start to development of the upper reaches of the Jinsha, Lancang
An employee of Huadian's Nu River subsidiary said as yet there is no
timetable for work to start on the four dams it is planning - that will
depend on state approval - but that "work is certain to start at Liuku
Hydroelectric development of the Nu River looks like a done deal, but
Yunnan's Energy Bureau remains circumspect. An official at the bureau
told Times Weekly that "the provincial government regards this as very
important, but is also very cautious," going on to admit that "plans are
just plans - carrying them out will still be very difficult, and there's
huge pressure over environmental concerns."
Doubting voices are still heard. Environmental campaigner Yu Xiaogang
said announcements about restarting the programme were made hastily: "It
was done so things would be decided before the Lianghui [China's annual
parliamentary session in March]. Public opinion wasn't sought, in
contravention of rules on openness of information."
Yu said that he and other Chinese green NGOs would carry out their own
investigation in mid-February, to "gain a deeper understanding to the
background to the decisions and what forces were at work behind the
scenes, in order to then make further appeals and raise doubts."
Noted water conservationist Weng Lida does not oppose the development of
the Nu River per se, but urged prudence: "How to develop it reasonably,
appropriately, scientifically, that's something that needs huge caution.
We still don't have a solid foundation of environmental and risk
This article was first published in Time Weekly
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