Return to Stories

Taming of the Nu

With its mushrooming cities, power-hungry heavy industry and steadily, if less rapidly, growing economy, China's demand for power appears unstoppable. Yet while the country burned its way through billions of tonnes of coal, a fuel it is well endowed with, throughout its rapid industrialisation, recent years have brought environmental degradation and air pollution to the forefront of peoples' worries about the future. A rising and increasingly vocal middle class is demanding that action be taken to combat the deadly air pollution plaguing many Chinese cities. The country is also under pressure to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions according to international agreements reached to combat climate change. China now likes to present itself as a country at the cutting edge of renewable energy development which includes the exploitation of solar, hydroelectric and wind energy.
In addition to the solar panel fields that are gleaning the abundant sun in China's Gobi desert the country has built more than 80,000 dams along its many waterways over the past six decades. These continue to churn out some 300 gigawatts of power, about three times the amount produced in the United States. Yet while the dams have brought power and, in some cases, prosperity to distant regions of the vast country they have also displaced millions of people, inundated thousands of towns and villages and continue to pose serious risks in regions with seismic activity. The Three Gorges Dam, the world's biggest power station by installed capacity, was also hailed as a bulwark against floodwaters that have ravaged farmlands further downstream for centuries. Yet in 2016 the government backtracked on the dam's much vaunted flood prevention capacity, announcing that "we should not put all our hopes on the Three Gorges Dam."

Despite China's slowing economy and a growing weariness of grand, and environmentally destructive, infrastructure projects there are plans to build five dams along China's last free-flowing river - the Nu Jiang, or 'Angry River'.

Rising in the Qinghai Mountains on the Tibetan Plateau near the headwaters of the Yangtze, which flows East, and the Mekong, which flows South, the Nu winds its way for 2,800 km to the Andaman Sea. Most of the dams planned for the Nu River are supposed to be built in difficult terrain in Yunnan Province which abuts Myanmar. The province also lies atop seismic fault lines which shifted to catastrophic effect in neighbouring Sichuan Province in 2008, leaving 80,000 people dead.

Yunnan has been swept up in President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive which has seen large numbers of officials supportive of the Nu dam project relieved of their jobs and prosecuted for corruption. Yunnan's provincial secretary Li Jiheng recently called a halt to hydroelectric projects on tributaries of the Nu Jiang, suggesting a governmental rethink about the planned dam projects.

With various forces pulling in different directions, new ideas for developing this remote and underdeveloped region which is home to about half of China's wildlife, including the snow leopard and black snub-nosed monkey, are gaining currency.

In 2003, UNESCO declared the 'Three Parallel Rivers' region, encompassing the courses of the Nu, Lancang (later Mekong) and Yangtze rivers, a World Heritage Site, affording it nominal environmental protection.

The area is home to some 7,000 plant species and 80 rare and endangered animals. Building electricity grid infrastructure through this terrain would be challenging at the best of times and could cause serious environmental damage in case of accidents and mistakes. Plans to create a new national park in the region are now being touted as a means to increase its budding tourism industry. Authorities are hoping the Nu River gorge will "surpass the Grand Canyon in the United States" according to the Provincial Secretary.

Adam Dean travelled to Yunnan to capture the unique beauty of the Nu River Gorge and document the lives of those living along its winding course.
powered by