One of two remaining rivers in China that is currently undammed, the Nu of southwestern Yunnan Province plays host to some of the most ecologically diverse terrain in the world. Given the Chinese government’s vow to produce 15 percent of the country’s energy on non-fossil fuels by the year 2020, the waterway now faces a barrage of plans to build dams for power and reduce its flow.
Considered by many environmentalists to be the “last wild waterway” in China, the announcement to place dams on the Nu come on the heels of a nearly decade long moratorium imposed by former prime minister Wen Jiabao.
The region is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, a testament to the fragile and unique biodiversity that the river contains. Beyond posing a threat to the people and the wildlife that live in these areas, the government’s decision to carry out plans for hydroelectric construction signals a clear priority to the international community that conservation and restoration is still very low on the list of Chinese priorities.
China is no stranger to ambitious public infrastructure projects and has taken much heat for its willingness to push the limits of its construction. The Three Gorges Dam, one of China’s most infamous projects, cost more than $25 billion and reduced the Yangtze to less than a trickle. The plans for dam on the Wu, a tributary of the Yangtze, would be a nail in the coffin of the country’s environmental fate that many consider already sealed.
In the process of construction, the dams planned for the Wu are expected to displace roughly 60,000 people.
Most of these people will be subsistence farmers who will be forced from the lowlands of the region, giving up whatever level of autonomy in food production that they had. Due to the fact that the dams won’t produce as much greenhouse gas as fossil burning fuels, they are often incorrectly labeled as “environmentally friendly.” In reality, they are anything but.
There may come a point where the tradeoffs between more energy and ecological diversity are worth the cost of construction. That time is not now, however, and much more research must be done to prove the true impact of the dams. While some hard-nosed officials might not consider the extinction of the red panda a convincing sell, a proposed decrease in long-term economic activity might just change their tune. That is the decision that China is facing, short-term energy gains versus long-term economic and ecological devastation. For the sake of their own longevity, let’s hope they choose wisely.