The grand vision for mainland China’s Nu River can become a model for the region

Dam-building provides clean electricity, jobs and infrastructure, but tourism is a far less disruptive means of development

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2016, 11:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2016, 11:57pm

China’s slowing economy would not seem a good time to scrap hydroelectric dam projects. That would seem especially so in southwest Yunnan’s Nu River valley, among the nation’s poorest regions. Yet provincial authorities have decided to put the way of life of villagers and the environment first by calling a halt to small-scale schemes. It is a hopeful sign for those in the area and downstream in Myanmar and Thailand who rely on the waters for their livelihoods.

The valley is a Unesco World Heritage site included for its scenery and biodiversity, accounting for 6,000 different types of plants and half of China’s animal and fish species. Plans in 2004 for a 13-dam cascade to be built in the upper reaches of the Nu were shelved under pressure the following year, but revived in 2013 on a lesser scale with an eye on meeting national renewal energy targets. The province’s Communist Party chief, Li Jiheng, said earlier this month that projects for coal mines and small hydro plants beside the river and on tributaries would not go ahead. In five to 10 years, with vegetation restored, the valley would be a tourist attraction rivaling the US’ Grand Canyon.

That is a grand vision that has excited environmentalists. But the lack of mention of the five major dams previously given the go-ahead means the concerns of 60,000 villagers who would be forced to move and the millions of farmers and fishermen living downstream in Yunnan and in countries beyond, where the river is known as the Salween, have not been laid to rest. Officials have an obligation to flesh out their idea.

Dam-building provides clean electricity, jobs and infrastructure, but people are also forced to relocate and there can be costs for the environment and in an earthquake zone like Yunnan, safety concerns. Tourism is a far less disruptive means of development. Coupled with improving the efficiency of existing hydro power plants and greater use of wind, solar and geothermal sources for electricity, the region can become a model for the nation and region.