China's Secret Dam
By Jasper Becker
17 October 2004
the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snow Peak, deep inside the Tiger Leaping
Gorge, Chinese developers are operating in secret to push through a
massive dam project that will wash away the section of the Yangtze river
valley thought to have been the real location for the fictional Shangri-La.
have revealed that work is already under way on a massive project that
would flood a Unesco world heritage site, displace more than 100,000
people and destroy the way of life of the unique Naxi people, one of
the world's only surviving matriarchal societies. It would also bring
an abrupt end to the nascent tourism industry in the remote southwestern
The battle to save
the gorge, one of the deepest in the world, has pitted a David-like
alliance of green groups and local tribespeople against the Goliath
of the Huaneng Group, China's biggest independent power producer, working
with the Yunnan provincial government. The company is run by Li Xiaopeng,
son of the hardline former prime minister Li Peng, who oversaw the massacre
at Tiananmen Square. Mr Li was at the forefront of the controversial
Three Gorges Dam project that was pushed through in the teeth of strident
opposition from environmentalists and residents.
are extremely high. Chinese environmentalists have decided to make this
their next major campaign," says Ma Jun, a consultant who was the
first to produce a study on the dam's implications. "I'm optimistic
they will succeed because this case is a touch-stone of all the big
talks on balancing environmental preservation with development."
Opponents say the
reservoir will devastate local cultures, robbing people of their farms
and livelihood, and leave tens of thousands of mostly Tibetans, Miao,
Yi, Bai, Lisu and Naxi minorities homeless. It would also condemn ancient
villages with distinctive architectural styles. Concerns are mounting
over the fate of the Naxi with their unusual matriarchal tradition,
which has drawn an increasing number of visitors to the area.
The formerly nomadic
people thought to have originated in Tibet, passes property to the youngest
daughters and forces teenage boys to canvas door-to-door for partners
in a system of "walk-in marriages". They are also the last
ethnic group to use a form of hieroglyphics, a tradition which is passed
down through tribal shaman, known as Dongbas.
Premier Wen Jiabao
agreed this year to suspend plans for 13 dams on the Salween river in
response to protests from Burma and Thailand and Chinese environmentalists.
Construction was supposed to have been delayed while an environmental
assessment was undertaken but this was brushed aside by the promise
of a power facility capable of generating 30 per cent more electricity
than the Three Gorges Dam.
forced factories on the east coast to close down this summer and economic
pressure has seen China's oil imports grow by more than 30 per cent
this year. China already has more than 50,000 large and medium-sized
dams and is running out of waterways to stem.
Nine NGOs, including
Green Earth Volunteers and Friends of Nature, have petitioned Mr Wen
hoping to persuade him to save an area recognised by Unesco. "We
call on the authorities to fulfil the vision of science-based development
... to balance the human interests against nature, in order to leave
our precious world heritage like Tiger Leaping Gorge, the first bend
of the Yangtze, to the world and to future generations", the petition
long ago discovered the joys of trekking through a gorge which gets
its name from the legend of the tiger, said to have leapt across it
at the narrowest point where only 100 feet divide the edges.
The province originally
hoped to reserve the area around the historic town of Lijiang for tourism,
but the state has designs for eight major dams along a 350-mile stretch
of the upper Yangtze. Villagers, worried that they would lose their
farmland, staged a rally in Lijiang in July to voice their objections.
They are being supported by the state forestry bureau, the seismological
bureau and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The dam is being
pushed by the Yunnan government as a way of dealing with the consequences
of earlier environmental disasters. Water from the reservoir is to be
diverted to dilute the heavily polluted lake which supplies the provincial
capital of Kunming.
The industrial centre
of the province is being strangled by water shortages despite sitting
next to one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Asia. Decades of mismanagement
have shrunk the lake and the remaining water is too dirty to drink.
have all been chopped down in the past 50 years so not only has Dian
Chi lake silted up but so have several reservoirs constructed to solve
Kunming's water shortage. The danger posed by silt to the Three Gorges
Dam has already forced Yunnan to dam the upper reaches of the Yangtze
specifically designed to trap soil that would otherwise wash into the
Three Gorges reservoir.