QIUNATONG, China — On a drizzling afternoon in this village in northwest Yunnan province, a Chinese New Year party is underway at He Bao Shang’s earth-walled home.
Children chase frightened chickens through the 32-year-old farmer’s kitchen-slash-living room while a group of men consume shots of a potent corn-based liquor at a pace so feverish that, later, they forget to eat dinner. The constant plume of cigarette smoke combines with a single bare light-bulb to give the room a distinct speakeasy vibe.
In the evening the dancing and singing begins, and at 10 o’clock, He's family and friends stumble down the street to a dilapidated church, where this village of Catholics from the Nu ethnic group pray and chant knelt on benches — men on one side, women on the other — under fading pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
It’s difficult to imagine this scene taking place in China, an officially atheist country made up of 92 percent Han Chinese. But the Nu River isn’t the China of the imagination.
The Nu flows from the Tibetan highlands through western Yunnan, cutting between two mountain ranges before rushing through Burma into the Andaman Sea. Home to a third of the country’s ethnic groups, it was here that Christian missionaries from Burma first entered China, and today communities of ethnic Nu, Tibetans and Lisu remain passionately Catholic. The Nu goes through one of the country’s most remote and fascinating regions, with unrivalled scenery and a diverse ecosystem of 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals and fish.
It’s also one of only two major rivers in China yet to be dammed. But that may not last.
In 2003, a consortium of power companies proposed building 13 dams along the Nu (the name means “angry,” referring to the river’s spring surge), a project that would produce more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. The move brought together China’s fledgling environmental movement, which launched a vocal campaign to keep the Nu free-flowing.
National and international press picked up the story, and in 2004 Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a halt to the project and a full environmental assessment — a crucial victory for China’s environmentalists. That win was short-lived. The environmental assessment was never released to the public; because the Nu is an international river — known outside China as the Salween — development plans fell under state secrecy law.
The project was scaled down from 13 dams to four, and preliminary work went ahead despite Wen’s edict. In March 2008, the State Development and Reform Commission published its five-year plan for energy development, which listed dams on the Nu as key projects.
Today, the construction of a small dam on a tributary to the Nu, just south of the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, is nearly complete.
In 2007, residents of Xiaoshaba, a village of some 120 families upstream from the city of Liuku, were relocated into newly-built apartment blocks to make way for a power station. Meanwhile, in Burma to the south a planned dam project will produce electricity from the Salween that will be sold back to China.
Last May, Premier Wen once again stopped the project until a full environmental assessment is completed. But observers say that when the 67-year-old premier steps down in 2012, full-scale construction will resume.
While environmentalists remain staunchly opposed to damming the Nu, the controversy is not black and white. China is hungry for energy and 80 percent of the country’s electrical supply is currently provided by dirty coal-fired plants. Hydropower, which accounts for just 15 percent of China’s electricity, is seen as a cleaner — albeit controversial — alternative.
The dams could also bring much needed jobs to the impoverished Nu region. The local government has estimated that 20 percent of residents in the region lack electricity, something the dams could remedy.
In Xiaoshaba, the relocated village made up primarily of Lisu people, residents said they are generally happy with their new homes — rows of spacious two-storey apartments a few miles from the old village.
“The old village and the new one are pretty much the same,” says Li Yu Xin, a 40-year-old mini-bus driver who receives a monthly relocation subsidy of $117 along with his apartment. “The only problem is we can’t keep animals — there’s no room for them. But I like the new one fine. I support the central government’s decision.”
Further upstream, near the town of Bingzhongluo, one villager, a Tibetan trekking guide, is less certain about the benefits of damming the Nu. The villager, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, is in the fifth year of what he hopes will be a 20-year video documentary project chronicling the impact of the dams.
“People are more and more aware of the changes that would come from the dam, and they know they’re not good,” he said. “I worry about how we’re going to keep these villages alive.”
Indeed, local culture will be jeopardized should the project go ahead, says Wang Yongchen, a journalist and co-founder of the Beijing-based NGO Green Earth Volunteers, a group that was actively involved in the initial fight to save the Nu. Many villagers will have to be relocated from their traditional homes to cities up- and downstream. In one area near Liuku, a traditional Lisu bathing site will be washed away.
“If you dam the river, their culture, their tradition, disappears,” Wang said.
Dam opponents are hoping that an ongoing public awareness campaign will rally increasingly environmentally-conscious Chinese to call upon their government to protect the Nu and other areas like it.
Travis Winn, a 26-year-old American who co-founded China Rivers Project, a non-profit that aims to protect China’s river heritage, hosts rafting trips to the Nu and other rivers with influential and wealthy Chinese who are in a position to take action.
“The science is there — the dams don’t make a lot of sense. But unless there’s a more personal aspect to this, the science isn’t very useful. That’s what we’re trying to do, make a personal connection,” Winn said. “The universal response is, ‘I’ve never had this experience before. I never thought China had such beautiful places.’ It’s the time of their lives.”