[Marxism] China's environmental crisis accelerates

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 5 15:27:33 MDT 2013

NY Times May 4, 2013
Plans to Harness Chinese River’s Power Threaten a Region

BINGZHONGLUO, China — 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.

Opponents say it is no coincidence that the project was revived shortly 
before the retirement of Mr. Wen, a populist whose decision to halt 
construction was hailed as a landmark victory for the nation’s fledgling 
environmental movement. Although he did not kill the project, Mr. 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 for now been scaled back to 
5. “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, a geologist and an environmentalist.

Some experts say that 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,” noting 
that reservoirs created by dams swallow vast amounts of forest and field.

Also overlooked, they say, is the methane gas and carbon dioxide 
produced by decomposing vegetation, significant contributors to global 

“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. Mr. Chellaney said that 
Beijing had 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 has 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 miles 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.

Late last month, as dusk fell on Maji, a proposed dam site, the sound of 
explosions echoed through the valley as workers, toiling around the 
clock, blasted test holes deep into canyon walls. Li Jiawang, 33, a 
laborer, said engineers were still trying to determine whether the rock 
was strong enough to support a dam several hundred feet high.

Huadian did not respond to interview requests, nor did the Ministry of 
Water Resources. But word that the project is moving forward has already 
drawn many outsiders, threatening to upend the delicate patchwork of 
ethnic populations. Hong Feng, 45, a migrant from Hunan Province who 
recently opened a roadside shop near Maji, said that most of his 
customers were dam workers from other parts of China. “We’re here to 
make our fortune, and then we’ll leave,” he said.

Most of the estimated 60,000 people who are likely to be displaced from 
the flooded, fertile lowlands do not have that option. They are largely 
subsistence farmers, and with nearly every level patch of land spoken 
for, many will be relocated to dense housing complexes like the one in 
New Xiaoshaba, a 124-unit project begun before the dam project was 

“We used to grow so many watermelons we couldn’t eat them all, but now 
we have to buy everything,” said Li Tian, 25, a member of the Lisu 
ethnic group whose family was evicted from its land and who now works 
part time in a walnut processing plant.

While local leaders have been tight-lipped about relocation plans, they 
have worked hard in recent years to cast the project as a gift that will 
alleviate poverty in one of China’s poorest regions.

But Yu Shangping, 26, a farmer in Chala, a picturesque jumble of wooden 
houses hard by the Nu, objects to the notion that he and his neighbors 
are impoverished, saying the land and the river provide for nearly all 
their needs. “We’ve worked hard to build this place,” he said, “but when 
the government wants to construct a dam, there’s nothing you can do 
about it.”

Patrick Zuo contributed research.

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