Three Gorges Dam: The struggle for China's rivers

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: May 24th, 2011 | Updated: May 24th, 2011 | Comments
Three Gorges Dam_Hebei The fact that the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River does at least as much harm as good is old news. In fact, most of the opposing voices—environmentalists, social activists, historians and tourism officials—basically lapsed into grumbling as the years went on and China's appetite for massive engineering continued to grow. When the decision to open up the Nujiang (Salween River) to Huadian Hydroelectric passed earlier this year, the campaign to save ecosystems and communities from these monster dams was at an all-time low. But now the soft-hearted rational minds in the Chinese leadership have struck back, by uncharacteristically releasing a statement that admits guilt...

Wen Jiabao, the last starfighter

That the Three Gorges Dam has "issues" is not the news. The news is Tiger Leaping Gorge) and add many more to the already 26,000 dams in the country—the most of any other country in the world. The struggle is one of the many, many difficult problems China faces in the years ahead. All countries all over the world need more energy, but the question is how to do so without harming the environment—both natural, economic and human. Coal and oil are proven polluters and other energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal are currently unable to take up the slack. That leaves hydroelectric and nuclear power. China is advancing in every single aspect of energy: they build more dams, wind turbines and photovoltaic cells (for solar power) than any other nation in the world—but it's still not enough. And that is the argument Wen Jiabao has to provide an answer to. Environmentalists and social activists are insignificant compared to the power of cash-money and only the support of high-level political figures can give the disparate movement for sustainable, environmentally friendly energy a chance. For the central authorities sympathetic to those voices calling for protection of vital ecosystems, the statement that the Three Gorges Dam has "urgent problems" is a great victory. But is it enough?

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China Travel is a travel mag and we don't often deal with environmental or political issues, but this issue affects travel in a big way. One of the proposed sites for a dam is right smack dab in the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The gorge is one of the major attractions for the Lijiang area and one of the most popular treks for backpackers in all of China. The gorge is beautiful, even after all these years with all those feet hitting the upper and lower paths... all the people who have stayed at the Halfway House or sat on the rock in the middle of the river or dusted themselves off after arriving in Daju at the far end have not dramatically altered the culture of the local Naxi people or the scenery of the gorge itself. It's still "worth it" today and the ease of the trek makes it a great place to take your parents or your buddies on their first trip through China. Last time I was there, in 2007, they were building high-voltage lines in preparation for the dam to come. But subsequent declarations by Premier Wen limited and in effect prohibited further dam building in areas like the Tiger Leaping Gorge, so the plans were shelved. Until February of this year, when Huadian finally pushed through their agenda to dam the Nujiang. The Nujiang is one the wildest rivers in the country and is home to a host of different minorities—people who have been living there since the dawn of time it seems—and damming the Nujiang would destroy that corner of the world for travel and exploration. And more importantly, as we have seen with the Three Gorges Project, dams crush the local communities, enrich big bosses and officials and send the electricity way down river to Shanghai, Guangdong or Beijing... where it's "needed most". The Nujiang, along with the Lancang River and the Jinsha River make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan: "The Three Parallel Rivers area is a global biodiversity hotspot for a reason – three of Asia's great rivers flow southward for more than 200 kilometers, with only 100 kilometers between the gorges, which are separated by towering mountains. The extreme depth of these gorges – the Nujiang Gorge is more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) deep – translates to a wide range of temperatures and climates suitable to a dizzying variety of plant and animal life." That dizzying variety could be soon going through a dizzying change as the entire area of the Three Parallel Rivers find itself underwater... Wen Jiabao jiā yóu (加油 )—don't give up Wen Jiabao!

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