Originally published in Beijing Today
Running between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain in the north-west of
Yunnan Province, Tiger Leaping Gorge is among the world’s deepest canyons. Confined
between the narrow cliff walls, the torrential Jinsha River roars and crashes spectacularly over
grotesquely shaped rocks through the 18-kilometre gorge.
Flowing parallel with the Nujiang and Lancang rivers south for 170 kilometres, the Jinsha River
almost reverses direction in a 135 degree turn at Shigu, forming what is known as “the first bend of the Yangtze River.” It then flows placidly for a further 30 kilometres fore plunging into Tiger Leaping Gorge, or Hutiaoxia, as it is called in Chinese.
According to local legend, the gorge is so named because, at its narrowest point, a tiger once
leaped over the swirling waters.
The gorge has attracted a steadily increasing number of tourists in recent years with the
improvement of access to this once remote region, but reports that the provincial government is
planning to dam the gorge has attracted attention of a different kind.
The hydroelectric dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge is a joint project between the government of
Yunnan province and Yunnan Lancangjiang Hydropower Development Corporation, a
subsidiary of China Huaneng Group. Preparation work for the construction of the dam has
already begun, an official from the Yunnan Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau
confirmed to Beijing Today Wednesday.
An ideal location?
The Jinsha River is the name for the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. “The middle reach of
the Jinsha has a favourable condition for development. When completed, the dam will have an
overall capacity of 20 million kilowatts,” the official said.
Xinhua News Agency reported as early as April 2002 that the Kunming Institute of Survey and
Design and Zhongnan Institute of Survey and Design, both branches of State Power Corp, had
drafted and submitted plans for the dam to the National Development and Reform Commission
(NDRC) and asked an expert group from the National Hydropower and Water Resources
Planning and Design General Institute to conduct an analysis and feasibility study. On July 27,
2004, the dam project was approved by the NDRC, despite the lack of a report by the National
Environmental Protection Bureau or a long-term seismic inspection report from the National
Earthquake Administration, both of which are required under state law for a project of this scale.
A workshop under the title “Serious Analysis of Overheated Hydroelectric Exploitation of
Southwest China’s Rivers” was held in Beijing last Sunday. Sponsored by environmental related
NGOs including Ch Green, the Institute of Environment and Development, A’Lashan Society
and the Institute of Internationl Environment Studies, participants called for the construction of
the Tiger Leaping Gorge Hydroelectric Dam to be halted in view of its negative influence on the
ecology, geology and social culture of the surrounding environment.
Xiao Liangzhong, an anthropologist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a zealous
environmentalist was one of the participants in the workshop. He told Beijing Today Tuesday,
“The dam is not feasible, for it will bring about serious and irreparable problems to the local
ecological and geological systems, as well as the social culture of the region. The planning
statement claims the dam will bring enormous economic benefits, but that is absolutely not the
According to Xiao’s analysis, firstly, the raised water level caused by the dam will damage the
local ecological system and destroy a wide range of species.
Secondly, “by sharing their universal values and keeping their own unique culture and ethnic
identities, local ethnic groups have been co-inhabiting this area and creating a unique culture
together. This is one of very few successful models for such peaceful coexistence in a multiethnic
region. If the dam is built, a series of immigration-related problems will emerge which
will eventually ruin this deep-rooted harmony,” he said.
In addition, Xiao points out that a great quantity of ancient stone coffins, tombs and cremation
sites are located here, as well as rock paintings and stone tablets. Cultural relics and historical
sites have not been excavated or researched yet. Some ancient village building patterns and
foundations are still in good condition, all of which demonstrates that it is a place with a rich
cultural accumulation. Flooding the area would cause an immeasurable cultural loss.
Moreover geological structural movement and topographical changes have frequently occurred
in this basin, demonstrating that the area is in a relatively unstable seismic belt. He Xuesong, a
scholar from the National Earthquake Administration’s Institute of Geology and Geophysics, told
Beijing Today in an interview Wednesday, “Building a terraced hydropower station in this type
of geographical environment could lead to consequences that are just unimaginable.”
Wang Yongchen, president of a environmental protection NGO China Green and an editor at
China People’s Radio, told Beijing Today Monday, “Under the agreement, Yunnan Lancangjiang
Hydropower Development Corporation would pay the Lijiang local government 400 million
yuan, which is twice its total annual income. The project is extremely harmful in environmental
terms, and has received no environmental evaluation report from the National Environmental
Protection Bureau and no long-term stable seismic inspection report from the National
Not just about economics
Wang Hui, professor from Tsinghua University’s School of Humanities and Social Science told
Beijing Today yesterday, “the GDP-oriented development mode has been deeply rooted in all
levels of government departments fora long time.” He pointed out that more needs to be taken
into consideration than just economic benefits when assessing the viability of a hydroelectric
dam project such as this. “We should also pay attention to what local villagers say, after all it has
been their home for generations, and will be still after the dam is finished. Therefore, we should
promote an environmental justice development strategy. Moreover, we should not rigidly copy
one mode just because it is successful elsewhere. Every place has its own unique characteristics.
Southern Weekend reported Wednesday that an official from the National Environmental
Protection Bureau said they had no information about the hydroelectric dam project.
Beijing Today confirmed this yesterday with Mou Guangfeng, of the bureau’s Supervision and
Administration Department. Mou said “we don’t know about this report yet, and we haven’t read
the report in Southern Weekend. As a general procedure, any construction project with an
investment of over 100 million yuan would be under the direct administration of the NDRC, not
the local department, like this one. Generally speaking, the local government should first carry
out a feasibility study, then submit the plan to the NDRC. After it gets approval in an
environmental evaluation report, then the NDRC will begin its inspection and decide whether to
grant approval or not.”
Wang Yongchen commented, “In my opinion, it is impossible for the NDRC not to have been
informed, because Tiger Leaping Gorge is within the Three Rivers Drainage Basin. This area
was listed as a World Cultural and Natural Heritage site in 2003, so any construction projects
there would be very sensitive to the bureau and the NDRC. On the other hand, such a project,
tangled with many economic benefits, would probably involve under-the-table negotiations by
the involved investment corporation and local government. Thus the bureau is kept in the dark.”
The official from the Yunnan Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau told Beijing Today,
“The Yunnan government removed Tiger Leaping Gorge from the application report to
UNESCO. Now they can say that the dam would be constructed outside the protection range of
the World Cultural and Natural Heritage Site.”
In July this year, UNESCO warned China that it must improve protection of that area, or risk it
being removed. “Fortunately, since 2002 the NDRC hasn’t given further approval to this project
and discussions from all quarters of society are leading to more and more resistance. And in
February this year, Premier Wen Jiabao even ordered that the illegal construction of 13 dams
along the Nujiang River be halted,” Wang said