YUNNAN Province, China - Even as the main dam of the mammoth Three Gorges
reservoir, the world's largest hydroelectric project, was completed in late May
several months ahead of schedule, China is gearing up to launch another massive
Yangtze River dam-building project.
Sandwiched between the towering majesty of the Jade Dragon and Haba Snow
Mountains in the northwestern part of Yunnan province, Tiger Leaping Gorge is
one of the world's deepest river gorges. Here about 1,500 kilometers upstream
from the Three Gorges Dam, the Jinsha River (as the Yangtze is known in its
upper reaches) thunders its way through the 18km-long gorge with, as yet,
The gorge's evocative name is related to a legend according to which a tiger
once leaped across the narrowest point of the ravine
where it is a mere 30 meters wide. Elsewhere, the gorge is up to 80 meters in
width, while the mountain peaks on either side reach more than 3,000 meters
above the river.
The improvement of access to this once-remote spot has brought with it an
influx of tourists and tourist dollars. Once-impoverished farmers have set up
guest rooms in their homes, and goatherders earn extra cash by moonlighting as
According to Margo, an Australian national who runs a cafe at the entrance to
the gorge and has lived in the area for more than nine years, Tiger Leaping
Gorge has been one of the most successful examples of "eco-tourism" in China -
an example that the rest of the country faced with worrying levels of
environmental degradation would do well to emulate.
However, rather than emulating this rare environmentally friendly success
story, plans are afoot to dam and tame the Jinsha River.
A series of eight big dams on this part of the Yangtze are currently being
considered, which when completed would flood some 13,300 hectares of prime
farmland, including large parts of the gorge, and force the relocation of
100,000 people from the fertile river valley.
Yu Xiaogang, founder of Green Watershed and winner of the Goldman environmental
award for 2006, said the formal announcement for the plan to construct a dam on
the gorge was made in 2003. The project, which according to local officials
will have the capacity to generate 20 million kilowatts of electricity once
finished, is a joint venture between the provincial government of Yunnan and a
subsidiary of the China Huaneng Group - one of the largest state-owned
enterprises in the power sector.
Pre-project planning has been ongoing for the past few years, including
geological surveys and the measuring of the homes and land of those that will
need to be relocated. An environmental impact assessment (EIA) and social
impact assessment (SIA), required by Chinese law for any large hydroelectric
project, are being carried out.
The essential problem Yu points out is that all of this is being done in total
secrecy. The SIA is supposed to involve the participation of people who will be
affected by the dam. In reality none of the farmers who will be forced to move
have been given any information regarding compensation or the scheduling for
the dam. "We have repeatedly requested information from the hydroelectric
company but only received silence in response," said one local guesthouse
Several of the farmers in the area said they hadn't even heard of the proposal
to build the dam and were cheerily confident that they would never have to
leave their ancestral homes.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge dam has, in fact, been listed as one of the country's
major infrastructure projects for the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-10).
Although final approval by the central government is still pending, Yu says
this means there is a very strong likelihood that the project will go ahead.
In power-hungry China, this is not an uncommon story. According to the United
Nations Environmental Program, China already has more than 85,000 dams, some
46% of the world's total. More than 20,000 of these are classified as "big".
According to Chinese media reports, 16 million people across the country have
already been displaced as a result of constructing large dams.
China's potential hydropower capacity is the biggest in the world. A recent
government survey put the figure at about 700,000 megawatts, of which 400,000MW
was deemed commercially viable. According to a one study, 16% of all
electricity generation in China today comes from hydropower.
The Chinese government is desperate to generate enough electricity to sustain
high economic growth rates that have been at bout 10% per annum for the past
several years. The relentless energy needs of the galloping economy, combined
with the desire to avoid pumping even more greenhouse emissions into an already
polluted atmosphere, have resulted in Beijing approving dams and reservoirs on
nearly all the country's numerous rivers. "Massively developing hydropower" has
been highlighted as a key strategy for the power sector in the 11th Five-Year
China's "hydropower fever" has not been without controversy. The proposal to
build the Three Gorges Dam sparked one of the most intense political debates in
the history of the National People's Congress, China's parliament. When the
proposal was put before the NPC in 1992, nearly one-third of its members voted
against the project. In the end then-premier Li Peng pushed the proposal
through, despite vehement opposition.
Critics have repeatedly made the case that big dams damage the environment and
destroy fragile ecosystems. But their strongest critique involves the lack of
public participation in debating the implications of such enormous projects as
well as the absence of any independent analyses of what those implications in
"We are not ideologically opposed to dams," said Ma Jun, author of the
influential book China's Water Crisis, and recently named by Time
magazine as one of the 100 most influential persons in the world. "What we are
asking for is a due process to be followed whenever a big dam is proposed."
Ma said that of the millions of people who have been displaced by the
construction of large hydroelectric projects, the majority continue to live in
poverty. According to China's several laws and regulations that are meant to
address the issue of the resettlement, compensation for those relocated must be
designed so that there is no loss to the standard of living of those who are
However, Ma points out that displaced people are usually resettled on less
fertile lands, away from the rivers, and rarely receive the full compensation
they are promised.
More than a million people have already been relocated for the construction of
the Three Gorges Dam. Although all of these were promised compensation,
including new houses and livelihoods, many displaced families have complained
from the beginning that their compensation was siphoned off by corrupt local
officials and that they cannot make a living in their new locations.
The state audit office reported as early as 1999 that millions of dollars in
compensation funds were being embezzled. Scores of officials were investigated
and many prosecuted, but critics say that those actually caught only represent
the tip of the iceberg.
Local and provincial governments keen on the revenue-generating ability of
hydroelectric power plants emphasize that dam building brings prosperity to
regions as a whole and allows for the development of backward areas.
"But local people do not believe they will become rich as a result of dams.
They think that it is only the local governments that will become rich," said
Wang Yongchen, a journalist and founder of Green Earth Volunteers.
Ma Jun said the popularity of building big dams in China is explained by the
fact that they are not subject to the democratic constraints and environmental
concerns that make approval procedures for large hydroelectric projects an
arduous affair in other countries.
He added that since local officials are assessed on the basis of their
achievements in improving infrastructure, they tend to be particularly
enthusiastic about potential large dam projects.
Big dams are seen as uniquely effective in jump-starting a local economy. Wang
said there is a saying in Chinese that goes thus: "Building a house gets you
grass; making a road brings silver; building a bridge gets you gold; but
constructing a dam leads to diamonds."
The Three Gorges project was recently described by Li Yongan, general manager
of the government's Three Gorges Corp, as "the grandest project the Chinese
people have undertaken in thousands of years". Sometimes referred to as the
Great Wall of the Yangtze, the Three Gorges project is in fact China's most
ambitious engineering undertaking since the real Great Wall built by the Qin
The Three Gorges project, which involves 25,000 workers, has become a symbol of
China's relentless determination to take its place among the world's great
economic powers. The prestige of the project is as much a justification for it
as is its electricity-generating capacity, which at 85 billion kilowatt-hours a
year is considerable.
Ma said prestige is a critical element in decision-making in almost all large
infrastructure projects in China. But critics say the concern for prestige can
often lead to an abandonment of economic sense. The Three Gorges project, for
example, comes with a $24 billion price tag, yet when completed will produce
only 2% of China's electricity by 2010.
Many of these critics have been dealt with harshly by the authorities.
Journalist Dai Qing, who claimed that the Three Gorges project was a huge waste
of money in her book Yangtze! Yangtze!, ended up in jail for 10 months.
Green Watershed's Yu Xiaogang has been banned from visiting dam sites and has
been warned that his non-governmental organization (NGO) license will not be
renewed unless he desists from further critiques.
Nonetheless, Yu and other activists are continuing their crusade.
"Without the right to know, to participate, to be involved in matters that
affect our lives, we are helpless," concluded Ma. "We know that China needs
electricity, but not every single gorge is an appropriate dam site."
Environmentalists are unanimous that Tiger Leaping Gorge is in fact a greatly
inappropriate site for building a dam. It will flood one the most spectacular
natural landscapes in the world. It is also in a seismic zone, and there are
worries of increased likelihood of earthquake damage after the construction.
The land by the river is also extremely fertile, so that those who are
relocated will almost certainly face a loss in their standard of living.
Moreover, Ma pointed out that building big dams sets off a momentum in which it
becomes extremely hard to stop building more and more dams to solve the
problems of the existent ones. Thus the dams currently planned on the Jinsha
River, including the one at Tiger Leaping Gorge, will actually be used to
support the massive Three Gorges Dam further downstream. They are being
designed, in part, to reduce the silt pressures on the Three Gorges project and
also to buttress its flood-prevention abilities.
The plan to dam Tiger Leaping Gorge has led to an almost unprecedented outcry
from civil society in China. NGOs, educated locals and even the state-owned
media have condemned the project.
"I think the dam on Tiger Leaping Gorge provides an acid test for how serious
the government is in protecting the environment," said Ma Jun.
Several NGOs and scholars from prominent Chinese universities have petitioned
the central government to halt the dam. More than 10,000 people from the gorge
area have sent in an additional petition to stop construction until more
information is available. Activists have also brought the plans for the dam to
the attention of the UN and other international organizations.
Recently, a similar public outcry caused Beijing to place a temporary
moratorium on another series of 13 dams planned on the picturesque Nujiang,
another river in Yunnan province. In what environmentalists claim to be a
victory, the Nujiang dams have not been listed in the 11th Five-Year Plan.
That both Ma Jun and Wang Yongchen are former journalists tells something about
the role of the media in bringing about a gradual change of attitudes. Over the
past couple of years Chinese newspapers and television have sharply increased
their coverage of environmental issues. Moreover, Ma points out that there are
now more than 100 million Internet users in China, which makes the flow and
dissemination of information much easier.
Recent changes in Chinese law are also being seen as hopeful signs by
environmentalists. Yu Xiaogang said the government decided this year to
increase the amount of compensation for dislocated people. Moreover, in 2003 an
EIA for large dam projects was made mandatory (earlier EIAs were recommended
but not compulsory).
At the NPC's annual meeting in March, China's leadership stressed that
protecting the environment was now an urgent priority and that the Chinese
economy should not only grow fast, but also grow green. In keeping with this
new direction, state planners were directed late last year to develop a "green
GDP" (gross domestic product) indicator that would take into account the costs
of environmental impact.
"There is definitely an awareness in the government now that the environmental
problem is serious and that environmentalists should be consulted before taking
decisions on big infrastructure projects," said Ma Jun. He said he is hopeful
that the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam will become the first major hydroelectric
project in China to follow a "new, more participative process".
But despite this optimism, serious concerns remain. Wang Yongchen points out
that although an EIA was carried out for the proposed dams on the Nujiang, the
results were declared a "state secret" and have not been made public.
Moreover, as Yu Xiaogang points out, large hydroelectric companies have
substantial monetary and governmental clout. The boss of the China Huaneng
Group that is involved in both the Three Gorges and Tiger Leaping Gorge
projects, for example, is the son of former premier Li Peng, the Three Gorges'
most ardent champion.
Collusion between those who are meant to carry out the EIA and the power
companies themselves has been common in the past. Independent assessments are
still to become a reality in China.
For the time being, China's love affair with big dams continues. No fewer than
46 new large dams are being planned or are already under construction in the
Yangtze River basin alone, according to the International Journal on Hydropower
Beijing insists that "tradeoffs" are necessary when it comes to development,
and that the system in place to protect the rights of the millions who have
found themselves dispossessed during the course of this development is by and
large effective. Any hydroelectric project must work out in detail a plan for
the resettlement of dam-affected populations before getting approval from the
central government. All compensation and relocation costs have to be included
in the budget for the main development project.
The fact that hydropower is "clean" is also pointed to. China's energy needs
are burgeoning even as a growing number of Chinese cities are choked by
pollution. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills
about 4 million people every year in China. Coal, which, as in India, currently
provides about 70% of China's energy, needs to be phased out if the country is
to meet its commitments to the Kyoto Climate Control Protocol. Renewable and
non-polluting sources of energy such as hydropower are thus seen as extremely
Moreover, the government maintains that in the larger picture, most people
actually benefit from dam construction. Without hydropower, say officials, it
would be much harder to develop industry in remote parts of the country such as
northwestern Yunnan, where the Tiger Leaping Gorge is situated.
Engineers on the Three Gorges Dam have repeatedly said that the harm caused to
the million-odd people who have had to be relocated is outweighed by the
advantages to the 220 million people who live in the Yangtze River basin.
In addition to generating power, the Three Gorges Dam is also intended to
control the flooding that has ravaged the Yangtze basin for centuries. Floods
killed more than 145,000 in 1931, according to Chinese records, and another
142,000 four years later. As late as 1998, more than 2,000 people were
reportedly killed by river waters that spilled over the banks.
At the same time, concerns for the country's rapidly deteriorating environment
have led to a host of new laws as well as an attempt to make local leaders more
accountable for protecting the environment, rather than focusing solely on
Unsurprisingly, the situation today is such that somewhat contradictory signals
are often sent from Beijing in an attempt to balance a pro-growth and pro-green
stance. The same water officials who champion big dams and hydropower are also
now talking of the need to limit development along China's major rivers.
The fate of Tiger Leaping Gorge hangs in the balance.
Pallavi Aiyar is the China correspondent for The Hindu.