Environmentalists celebrate as Beijing appears to abandon plans to build giant hydroelectric dams on 1,750-mile Nujiang.
Environmentalists in China are celebrating after controversial plans to build a series of giant hydroelectric dams on the country’s last free-flowing river were shelved.
Activists have spent more than a decade campaigning to protect the Nujiang, or “angry river”, from a cascade of dams, fearing they would displace tens of thousands of people and irreparably damage one of China’s most spectacular and bio-diverse regions.
Since the start of this year, hopes had been building that Beijing would finally abandon plans to dam the 1,750-mile waterway, which snakes down from the Tibetan plateau through some of China’s most breathtaking scenery before entering Myanmar, Thailand and eventually flowing into the Andaman Sea.
On Friday, campaigners said that appears to have happened after China’s State Energy Administration published a policy roadmap for the next five years that contained no mention of building any hydroelectric dams on the Nu.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” said Wang Yongchen, a Chinese conservationist and one of the most vocal opponents of the plans, which first surfaced in 2003.
Wang, who has made 17 trips to the Nu region as part of her crusade to protect the river, said geologists, ecologists, sociologists and members of the public who had been part of the campaign could all take credit for halting the dams.
“I think this is a triumph for Chinese civil society,” the Beijing-based activist said.
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, the China programme director for International Rivers, said environmentalists were “very happy and very excited” at what was a rare piece of good news for China’s notoriously stressed waterways.
“The state of rivers in China is so dismal. Thirty years ago there were 50,000 rivers in China; today there are less than 23,000. Rivers have completely disappeared. They have become polluted, they have become overused for agriculture and manufacturing,” she said. “So it is so exciting when a major river – which is a major river for Asia – is protected, at least where it flows in China.”
Jensen-Cormier said the shelving of plans to dam the Nu – which is known as the Salween in Thailand and the Thanlwin in parts of Myanmar – represented “a great turning point for the efforts to preserve China’s rivers”.
“It is a really good indication that China is starting to look at other ways of developing energy, and renewable energies especially, that mean they don’t have to sacrifice their remaining healthy river.”
China is the world’s hydro champion, having built tens of thousands of dams since the 1950s – including the Three Gorges, the world’s biggest project of its kind. Hydropower is a key plank of the country’s bid to reduce its dependence on “dirty” fossil fuels such as coal and produce 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
And while dambuilding is set to continue in other parts of China, such as Tibet, activists highlight three key reasons as to why Beijing may have decided to ditch plans to dam the Nu.
One is the growing concern for the environment shown by China’s leaders, after decades in which economic growth was given precedence over environmental protection.
“We will make China a beautiful country with blue sky, green vegetation and clear rivers,” President Xi Jinping promised in September when world leaders gathered in China for the G20.
A second explanation is concern over the wisdom of building such mega-projects in China’s seismically active south-west, where geologists warn of potentially catastrophic accidents were an earthquake to strike near such dams.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the economics. Waning demand for power, a consequence of China’s slowing economy, and the difficulty of transmitting electricity from remote regions such as Yunnan to the rest of the country, means many believe large-scale dams no longer make financial sense.
“There is already an excess of energy that is produced in Yunnan and can’t actually be used and also it’s not really financially viable either to be developing the river at this time,” said Jensen-Cormier.
Having, for now, turned away from plans to dam the Nu, local politicians are poised to push ahead with plans to develop tourism in the impoverished border region.
Speaking in March, Li Jiheng, Yunnan’s Communist party chief, spoke of plans to transform a region some call “China’s Grand Canyon” into a world-class tourism destination that would surpass its namesake in Arizona.
Jensen-Cormier predicted that the influx of investors and tourists to the bio-diverse area, which scientists say is home to half of China’s animal species and 6,000 species of plant, would pose a new set of challenges for environmentalists.
Wang Yongchen, who runs Green Earth Volunteers, one of China’s oldest environmental groups, cautioned that while the decision to scrap plans for dams on the Nu was a significant triumph, it was not necessarily a permanent one.
“They haven’t said they will never build the dams, so we still need to carry on fighting. It is too easy to say this is the final victory.”
Source: The Guardian