Rumours of Dam-Building Leave Villagers Fearing for their Future

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South China Morning Post

In the warm glow of the winter sun, the Nu River appears calm at Chihengdi village in northwestern Yunnan province.

But villager Hu Dawei knows that, beneath its tranquil surface, the river – literally “angry river” in Chinese – carries raging undercurrents that roar over rocks and rush through steep mountain valleys.

A Protestant church deacon in remote Fugong county on the border with Myanmar, Mr Hu is worried his quiet life is about to change forever as rumours fly about the imminent damming of the river.

“Speculation has been rife again recently that a series of hydropower dams will be built on the river soon, but we have no clue as to when construction will start,” he said.

According to the latest rumour, headway has been made with the dam- building plan – which has been halted since 2004. Approval, it is said, has been given for the construction of at least one of the proposed 13 dams to start in the next few months.

But a top local official firmly denied the rumoured approval – reportedly announced by another local government official at a Communist Party meeting last month.

Even so, final preparations for the Liuku hydropower station near Xiaoshaba, Lushui county, began shortly after the Lunar New Year amid local protests.

According to villagers, workers from China Huadian, the developer of the dam project, are strengthening riverbanks near the dam site and paving roads for the project. It is not clear whether Beijing has approved the scheme.

Enraged villagers, forced to leave their homes to make way for the power station a year ago – but still without full compensation for their farmland – have been protesting since February 14. They are trying to stop bulldozers and tractors from clearing their land for the construction of the dam headquarters.

The 1,700 villagers, mostly from the Lisu ethnic minority, had an average annual per capita income of 860 yuan in 2006, below the internationally recognised poverty line of 924 yuan. Local officials say harnessing the huge power potential of the Nu River is a natural solution to that problem.

The Yunnan government and China Huadian, a state-owned power giant, plan to build up to 13 dams on the middle and lower reaches of the river with a total capacity of 21,320MW – about 17 per cent more than that of the massive Three Gorges Dam.

They would generate more than 103 million MW of power a year and 36 billion yuan in annual income.

Although a large portion of the revenue would go to China Huadian, the majority partner in the project, the cash-strapped Nu River prefectural government would still get at least 1 billion yuan a year, 10 times its 2002 income.

But such seemingly bright prospects for the damming of the river, one of the country’s last untapped waterways and home to 22 ethnic minorities, would come at a cost.

The project would uproot about 50,000 people, and critics argue it would also destroy unusually diverse cultural traditions and the area’s pristine beauty.

Backed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), local authorities insist tapping the hydropower resources is necessary for the Nu River region and to help satisfy China’s quest for energy. Impoverished locals have little to lose in the resettlement programme, they claim.

But many villagers find it difficult to believe their living standards will be markedly improved with the damming of their river.

Mr Hu, in his early 40s, said he could imagine what the lives of his fellow villagers would be like if the controversial dam went ahead.

“We have had some taste of hydropower development in the past,” he said. “The taming of the hydropower potential of branches of the Nu River has already pushed up electricity prices,” he said referring to a 10 per cent increase three years ago.

As a result, he said, as many as one-third of his fellow villagers could not even afford to use electricity.

“For us, the more hydroelectric plants, the higher the cost of using electricity,” he said.

Chihengdi villagers are bitter about what they see as the authorities’ indifference to their interests. The old flagstone bridge on the river, the only link between the village and the outside world, has been in danger of collapsing for more than a year, for example.

“We have been asking the county and township governments for help, but no one has come to help repair it,” Mr Hu said, noting that the next bridge is 8km away. What’s more, officials have never disclosed to villagers the whereabouts of central government funds earmarked in 2005 for local rural areas.

The villagers are among 5,000 people in Lumadeng township expected to be relocated to make way for the construction of a 165-metre-high dam about 4km downstream.

A much bigger dam has been designed for Maji township, about 50km upstream from Chihengdi, the site of one of the two big reservoirs planned on the river, originally scheduled to be built by 2030.

With a capacity of 4,200MW, the 300-metre-high Maji dam would displace 20,000 people and devastate the environment surrounding a river bend at Bingzhongluo on the Tibetan border, mainland media reports.

The government’s upbeat hydropower projections have been challenged since 2003 by a group of activists, experts and journalists amid a newfound environmental consciousness across the mainland. Their argument – that backers of the hydropower proposal had overlooked its grave impact on local communities and the unique ecosystem of the Nu River – made headlines both at home and abroad.

They also shared UNESCO’s concerns that the dams would endanger a World Heritage site recognised in 2003, covering the headwaters of the Nu (Salween), Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers.

The dispute over the dam proposal quickly turned into another, much broader, debate over China’s obsession with big infrastructure projects, including dams.

Peppered with acrimony, criticism by many people cited the government’s failure to keep influential interest groups, such as power companies, in check.

To ease mounting concerns and fierce opposition, Premier Wen Jiabao took an unprecedented step in February 2004 and called a halt to the project pending further environmental assessment.

Despite the ban, local authorities and the power company soon produced a scaled-down version of the hydropower plan, which gave priority to the building of four dams in the middle reaches of the Nu.

The smaller proposal, which reportedly passed a compulsory green assessment and won the backing of the NDRC and the country’s top environmental watchdog, sparked another outcry.

Sixty-one mainland environmental groups and 99 individuals signed an open letter in August 2005 demanding the release of the environmental impact report under mainland law. But their appeal has been rejected because of national security considerations over the international river. Mainland authorities have kept a tight lid on discussions of the Nu River project ever since, including the muzzling of the media.

After UNESCO threatened again to remove the Yunnan site from its World Heritage list, the provincial government was forced last year to deny overseas media reports that preparations for the project were under way despite Beijing’s ban.

Hou Xinhua, governor of Nu River prefecture, told the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) before the Lunar New Year that the State Environmental Protection Administration, China, the mainland’s top environmental watchdog, was assessing the dam project in Beijing.

“It is all hearsay,” he said of rumours that construction of the Liuku dam might start as early as June.

The hydropower project would remain on hold pending the approval of the NDRC and the result of the assessment. “We have no idea how long the green assessment, which started two or three years ago, will take,” Mr Hou said. Despite its keenness to boost the local economy, he said his government nevertheless supported restoring a balance between development and conservation.

The Liuku power plant, to be built in conjunction with the smallest of the 13 proposed dams, would flood 10.8 hectares and displace Xiaoshaba’s 112 households and 440 people.

Xiaoshaba villagers say their living standards have worsened in the year since they were relocated. They say they have lost their fertile farmland, are not allowed to raise pigs or other livestock, have been inadequately compensated for loss of livelihood, and that their new houses are too expensive and too small for multi-generation families.

In Chihengdi, Mr Hu said: “We may have no option but to be displaced once hydropower plants are built. But few people want to move, even though many live in poverty. We fear the worst is yet to come.”