Treasured gorge survives - for now

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2008, 12:00am

Villagers' protests seen as key in putting Tiger Leaping dam project on hold

Tiger Leaping Gorge has survived another round of dam-building frenzy, but locals wonder how long it can last with China's obsession for big hydropower projects.

Lijiang farmer Li Xiuwu was proud to get a part-time job in the park of the famed gorge in northwest Yunnan province.

Pulling a rickshaw along one of the world's most spectacular canyons on the roaring Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze, he said he was lucky to be one of 22 runners chosen from over 1,700 people from Lunan village.

'The gorge is world famous and we see tourists from all over,' said the 45-year-old farmer whose home in Longpan, Yulong county, was within walking distance of the gorge.

'It's a pretty good job ... and people in my village are all jealous.'

But his excitement has been overshadowed by speculation over the damming of Tiger Leaping Gorge, which had more than 500,000 visitors from around the world in 2006.

'I heard from the park staff that the gorge would disappear in three years when a big dam is to be built,' Mr Li said. 'That'll be the end of our good days,' he said, referring to a planned resettlement of his village.

But what he did not know was that Yunnan authorities quietly dropped the controversial proposal late last year.

The move, according to local sources, was decided by the provincial government, a key supporter of the dam project, amid fierce local opposition and international concerns.

Authorities have decided to move the dam 200km upstream to a Tibetan-populated area between Qizong in Weixi county and Tuoding in Deqin county in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which could reduce by up to 80 per cent the number of people to be displaced by the project.

Yang Yong, a geologist familiar with the mainland's hydropower development, confirmed the project had been dropped.

He said engineers from the Yangtze River water resources conservation commission, which was in charge of managing the river and its tributaries, had started to inspect the new location.

A report by the government- controlled Chuncheng Evening News in Kunming last month also shed some light on the rather secretive dam-building plan.

While preparations for the other dams proposed on the Jinsha River proceeded smoothly, authorities 'were still choosing between Qizong and Longpan to decide the final dam site under the direction of [the] provincial government'.

Yu Xiaogang, founder of Green Watershed, an NGO in Kunming, said it was a victory for villagers who had united to make themselves heard. 'They have been opposed to the dam proposal from the very beginning ... and they should take credit for the scrapping of it.'

Oddly, however, most villagers along the Jinsha said they had not heard from officials more than a month after the decision was made.

'Is it true?' asked Mr Li. 'It is definitely great for us if it is confirmed.'

Authorities have shown little desire to put an end to the guessing game over the fate of the gorge, which has been at the centre of controversy since 2003.

Analysts noted it would be difficult for the government to admit its latest compromise due to strong international pressure. It was also a bitter setback to authorities' hydropower ambitions, in which at least millions of yuan had been spent on field surveys and other preparations.

Their remarks were confirmed by sources close to the provincial government, which decided not to make an announcement or allow media coverage.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Jinsha River cuts through the Yulong and Haba mountains, is more than 16km long, and has long been seen as the perfect site for a big dam.

Driven by the quest for energy, China began its survey of the huge hydropower potential of the river in the 1950s, especially the section around the gorge. But technological and funding difficulties proved insurmountable.

The plan re-emerged in recent years when the provincial government and Huaneng Energy proposed a 276-metre-high dam at the gorge, part of an eight-dam project on the 560km stretch of the Jinsha's middle reaches.

Huaneng is a power giant on the mainland, headed by Li Xiaopeng, son of former premier Li Peng .

Approved by the top planning authority, the National Development and Reform Commission, in 2004, Tiger Leaping dam would have inundated a Tibetan-populated area of over 13,000 hectares of farmland.

Up to 100,000 people would have been displaced as the reservoir extended 200km upstream.

Despite its social and environmental costs and possible impact on a world heritage site, supporters said the dam, with a capacity to generate 4,200MW, would be a success in terms of electricity and economic returns in the long run.

They defended the high dam as necessary for the country's insatiable energy demand, which relied heavily on polluting coal, and flood control on the Yangtze.

Government-backed experts also said the dam was essential for a multibillion-yuan water diversion scheme to flush the polluted Dianchi Lake and quench the thirst of Kunming and the province's central region.

But opponents - villagers, mainland activists and tourists - have argued that a dam would not only devastate the spectacular scenery, but also strip thousands of farmers, mostly ethnic minorities, of their livelihoods and cultures.

It 'will incur irreparable damage to the pristine environment as well as to the unique history and culture of the ethnic minorities', said former water resources minister Wang Shucheng .

Lunan villagers, scattered across a hill about 3km south of the gorge, said they have been living in fear for years over being forced to move.

Apart from raising five cows, two pigs and 40 chickens, farmer Mr Li has 4.5mu on the river bank, growing rice and wheat, earning him more than 4,000 yuan a year. He said villagers feared having to move to higher land that was landslide-prone and infertile. Mr Li said his parents, both in their 80s, were too old to move.

Lives of hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of upstream villages have also been put on hold for years under the threat of construction.

'We don't want to move as we've lived here for generations and we all enjoyed self-sufficient and pollution-free lives,' said Hong Runsheng, a Lisu ethnic person at Yingpan village in the ancient town of Shigu.

Villagers also noted that the originally proposed dam site was on an earthquake belt, which had recorded quakes greater than seven on the Richter scale, such as the one in Lijiang in 1997.

Jinsha River area residents have learned to make concerted efforts to stand firm against the project.

Despite authorities' efforts to muzzle the media, locals still fought a long battle with an unusual degree of solidarity, mobilising themselves, raising the profile of their campaign and appealing for external support, all with a united voice.

In a landmark move, Jinsha River villagers made their concerns heard at an international seminar on hydropower in Beijing in November 2004. Professor Yu, the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006, noted it was the involvement of local villagers that had made a difference.

'People affected by dams usually ask for better compensation deals, but local villagers along the Jinsha insist that no dam should be built to save their homeland.

'It is amazing to see almost all local villagers are well aware of the dam's impact on their lives and want to move together to fight for their rights.'

Up to 7,000 villagers along the Jinsha's middle reaches sent a signed petition to Beijing during the March session of the National People's Congress last year, a letter that reportedly got top leadership attention.

But Beijing's deliberate fuzziness towards the damming of the Tiger Leaping Gorge also cast a shadow on the fate of the area, analysts said.

They noted the official line, which insisted that the dam project was put on hold amid the controversy, has left room for a future development.

It is amazing to see almost all local villagers are well aware of the dam's impact on their lives

Yu Xiaogang, founder of Green Watershed

Running wild

Tiger Leaping Gorge has become a byword for the rugged beauty of China's wild river areas, but if the dam project had gone ahead ...

13,000 hectares of farmland would have been inundated

100,000 people would have been displaced

200km upstream of the gorge would have become a reservoir