Damming the Upper Mekong32 min read

How new dams in southwest China are displacing upland peoples – Brian EylerAn excerpt from Last Days of the Mighty Mekong

Just south of where the stream draining the Yubeng Valley flows into the Mekong, the river cuts sharply through a series of steep S-shaped canyons. A few years ago, the dirt path along the river’s eastern side was paved into a new highway. The road is most traveled by Tibetans on motorcycles or oversized dump trucks hauling minerals and sand from local mines and quarries. Small Tibetan villages of 30 or 40 homes made of stone, wood and sod cling to the hospitable parts of the canyon’s few terraces. Multi-colored prayer flags connect each red-roofed home to the local temple or Buddhist shrine. Sometimes the ends of these lines disappear high into the mountainside. Halfway up the canyon, the occasional white stupa keeps watch over these villages. Simple suspension bridges, sturdy enough only for pedestrian or motorcycle traffic, span the river. Not all villages on the opposite side of the canyon have bridge access, and their residents must travel a few kilometers downstream to the next village to reach the paved road.

This pattern of village settlement is broken 40 kilometers downstream from Yubeng in the village of Cizhong, where the four-story steeple of a Catholic cathedral pokes high above the homes. Eighty percent of Cizhong’s 115 Tibetan households are members of this cathedral, built from local stone in a standard crucifix form in the late 19th century by French missionaries who evangelized on China and Myanmar’s periphery. Cizhong’s conversion to Catholicism also made it home to a burgeoning cottage wine industry. Grapes and winemaking techniques were introduced by the French missionaries, but the local wine boom started in the late 1990s. Currently, most villagers sell their grapes to middlemen after each harvest, but some choose to make their own wine to sell by the bottle at Cizhong’s local wineries and guesthouses.

An unwelcome change that threatens not just the local wine and tourism economy but also the unique, interfaith harmony that enjoins the village’s Catholics and Buddhists is coming to Cizhong. In 2018, Yanmen, an upstream community larger than Cizhong with more than 200 households, will be entirely relocated to Cizhong. Unlike Cizhong, which is located on a long, narrow plain 100 meters above the Mekong, Yanmen sits low on the banks of the river. It will be completely flooded by the rising reservoir created by the new Wunonglong Dam located 12 kilometers downstream.

Constructing cascades of dams on the Upper Mekong… is a means to provide China with massive amounts of electricity to bolster its energy security.”

“We are most worried about village harmony,” says a local winemaker whose name here is changed to Tashi because of the sensitivity that looms large over relocation and land compensation issues in China. He tells me how the daily routines of Cizhong’s Catholics are still deeply entwined with Tibetan Buddhist culture: “It’s common for Buddhist monks to give blessings at Catholic weddings and Christmas and Easter. We’ve achieved this harmony through decades of exchange with our Buddhist neighbors.” Combining aspects of dominant religions into a syncretic religious practice, particularly those from lowland areas, is a common trait of upland Zomian communities. But Tashi notes there are only a few towns in Deqin County with Catholic congregations. Yanmen is not one of them. He is worried that despite common ethnic heritage, the influx of more Buddhists, those that have not lived with Catholics, will upset community spirit and social interaction. He brands Yanmen’s residents as overly superstitious and tells stories of how they are caught up in a spiteful sectarian feud between the Dalai Lama and Shugden, a local spirit who serves as the protector over the southeast portions of the Tibetan world.

The only place to build the homes to accommodate Yanmen’s villagers is on top of Cizhong’s rice paddies, which lie between the village and the river’s edge. Cizhong’s villagers had an emotional reaction when they learned their rice paddies were marked for destruction. The terraced paddies, collectively four or five times larger than the village itself, were carved out of the mountainside in the early 1960s in order to meet increasing grain quotas related to China’s Great Leap Forward. Many elders still remember the toil of building the paddies, and today the communal farmland serves as an important space for social interaction since planting rice assembles the collective labor of the entire village. One villager claimed a single rice crop could feed the entire village for two years. Although the days of self-sufficiency have long passed in China, these villagers believe the rice harvest provides a blanket of food security and income that other villages in Deqin County do not enjoy. Cizhong is one of only two villages in mountainous Deqin County to have enough flat land for planting rice.

Land compensation is a contentious issue in Cizhong. More than half of Cizhong’s agriculturally productive land will be used to either build homes for Yanmen’s residents or be redistributed to the newcomers for agricultural use. When news broke of Yanmen’s relocation, Cizhong’s villagers received offers of 30,000 yuan per mu of land (one acre equals six mu) lost to Yanmen’s relocation. Using recent land sale figures from other parts of Deqin County, Cizhong’s villagers believe their land value is worth more than ten times the initial offer. When I visited Cizhong in 2015 the local government’s offer had already reached 100,000 yuan per mu, but Cizhong’s villagers were still holding out.

A faction of Cizhong’s former residents who moved away many years prior still owns land in the village. They were persuading those who still lived in Cizhong to take the government’s current offer. Tashi told me, “The villagers who left for the city long ago and no longer live here agreed to an offer of 100,000 yuan per mu. It’s easy for them because they have other jobs and other income, but to us, the taking of our land is taking away our main source of income.” Some villagers will lose all of their productive land. Tashi told me how stall tactics make sense since the local government will take 30 percent of the compensation and only dole out the agreed upon compensation in monthly installments over 15 years. At the current offer, with only 3000 RMB per mu in compensation per month, even the most business savvy individuals will not be able to survive. “We continue to wait,” says Tashi, but his lack of confidence is noticeable.

The day I walked through Cizhong was the last day for the 30 or so giant walnut trees that lined the village’s only road. These giant trees were felled as part of a road widening project to make way for new traffic patterns introduced after Yanmen’s residents moved in. When the trees were standing, they provided a shaded place to meet neighbors on an afternoon stroll. They also produced up to 10,000 yuan ($1500) of walnuts per year. Households throughout China’s Zomian upland southwest rely on walnuts as a low-cost source of protein and healthy fats, and wild walnuts are known to fetch high prices in China’s urban markets. Now, heaped remains of Cizhong’s walnut trees were being scavenged for firewood.

Someone I talked to said one particular villager received 10,000 yuan in compensation, but word around town was that most villagers pocketed only 1000 yuan per tree, a fraction of one year’s harvest. When I stopped along a roadside embankment lined above by a fence of grapevines, a local woman emerged to tell me how she lost an entire row of 100 vines to the road widening project. She was only compensated with 40 yuan per vine, approximately the value that one vine will produce in a year. The compensation provided by the dam development company sent a clear signal: you have one year to find a way to make up for the damage we’ve created.

Mekong river basin 

In 2014, Cizhong’s former mayor held a meeting with villagers who had filed grievances regarding the construction of the Wunonglong Dam and Yanmen’s imminent invasion. Tashi, who attended the meeting, said the mayor became enraged at the persistent villagers and said, “This land, this water, these mountains, they are not yours! Stop acting like these are yours! This is the state’s land, and these are the state’s resources.” But to Cizhong’s villagers, who have lived in the Mekong Valley for centuries, the Chinese state only laid claim to these resources in the past decade, so it is easy to understand how their identity is formed by the landscape around them. “How can a state own a river? The river, like the land and the mountains around us, is part of us,” said Tashi.

The struggles faced by Cizhong’s residents are commonplace to those affected by hydropower development in China’s southwest. At least the people of Cizhong can remain in their homes, unlike Yanmen’s residents, but people from both villages demonstrate anxiety toward the challenges of establishing a new sense of community. Yet if the land compensation process does not award the villagers with a package that accounts for both the value of the land and loss of future income, the community’s economic security will be put gravely at risk.

From Beijing’s perspective, losses in Cizhong’s and Yanmen’s economic security are of little concern to China’s centralized national development plan. Constructing cascades of dams on the Upper Mekong and the Yangtze River and its major tributaries, the Dadu, Min, and Yalong, is a means to provide China with massive amounts of electricity to bolster its economic security and energy security. Through 2040, China’s energy demand will increase by 90 percent, forcing the country’s power generation sector to add an installed capacity equal to that of the entire United States on top of its current generation capacity. Increasing rates of urbanization, a need to remain competitive in the manufacturing export sector, and a rising consumer class drive this increase.

‘How can a state own a river?’”

Three decades of intense economic growth have depleted China’s energy resource endowment, and remaining deposits of coal, oil and natural gas are located far from areas of high demand. China’s first oil field, at Daqing in Heilongjiang Province, is now nearly depleted. Waning production at Daqing in the early 2000s sent oil extraction industries to Xinjiang on China’s western frontier. This also dispatched millions of Han Chinese immigrants to Xinjiang and has partially resulted in restive ethnic tensions between the local Uyghur population and the now dominant Han population. In the early 1990s China became a net oil importer, and today China’s overseas oil firms, which rank among the world’s wealthiest, operate in every corner of the globe. China has almost always been a net importer of natural gas and now relies on a network of pipelines to deliver gas and oil from its neighbors in Southeast and Central Asia. The high costs of gaining access to and then transporting oil and natural gas to China suggests coal, which China has in relative abundance, will continue to occupy more than half of the country’s energy mix.

China is the world’s largest user, producer, and importer of coal, which also makes it the world’s largest polluter and greenhouse gas emitter. Recognizing the global effect of its carbon footprint, as well as responding to pressures to reduce the health risks related to crippling bouts of air pollution in large swaths of the country, China has made a commitment to peak carbon emissions by 2030. This commitment, announced in 2014, has been met with global enthusiasm and is seen partially as the driving force behind more than 200 countries coming together to sign the Paris climate change agreement in 2015. For China to hit peak carbon emissions by 2030, much of the newly installed capacity must come from renewable energy – including hydropower – generated from inside or within close proximity to its own borders.

Enter the hydropower potential of China’s southwestern rivers as a close, clean and relatively inexpensive solution to this problem. China’s plans for hydropower expansion came into view long before reducing its carbon footprint was part of its national agenda. The “Send west electricity east” campaign was conceived in the 1990s as a way to send the power of China’s southwestern rivers eastward to fuel China’s coastal factory zones and urban areas. In return, interior provinces like Yunnan, which were economically worse off than coastal provinces, would gain revenue that would help them shed their “backward” status. Since Yunnan contained a wealth of natural scenic areas, part of the deal also promised to keep polluting industries out of the province so that tourism dollars would continue to pour in. By 2006, when it became apparent domestic fossil fuel reserves were drying up, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that by 2020, 20 percent of China’s energy would come from renewables, with hydropower leading the way.

Blueprints for increasing hydropower capacity on top of existing plans for hydropower cascades on the Mekong, Salween, Yangtze and their tributaries were put into effect. In the case of the Upper Mekong, original plans for nine dams producing 15 gigawatts of power more than doubled to 20 dams producing 30 gigawatts. By 2015, Yunnan’s installed hydropower capacity reached 50 gigawatts, enough power to light up five cities each with populations of around ten million. To provide a comparison, the United States, which now ranks second to China in hydropower generation, has a total installed capacity of 100 gigawatts. Yunnan and surrounding Sichuan and Tibet currently are each slated for 100 gigawatts of hydropower. Before the last dam is built, upward of eight million residents of these remote river valleys, most of them ethnic peoples, will be forced to relocate to lowland settlements far away from their upland homes. Darrin Magee, a Yunnan hydropower specialist, describes this as a transformation of watersheds into “powersheds,” a term he coined. Instead of being valued for their multiple uses of water such as irrigation, tourism or navigation, China’s elite see these “powersheds” for the narrow function of producing power. By this logic, regardless of how the people living in these watersheds value their surrounding natural resources, the value of electricity production will always outweigh their needs.

The geology of Yunnan makes it a dam builder’s dreamscape. The province’s terrain drops 2000 meters from its mountainous northern border with Tibet and Sichuan to tropical Xishuangbanna in its south. Where there are rivers, this loss in elevation creates long, deep valleys with few to no bends. Yunnan is home to a handful of the world’s deepest gorges, like Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Jinsha River, one of Yunnan’s most famous tourist draws. For the Mekong or any of Yunnan’s numerous rivers, almost any location where the valley narrows makes an ideal setting for a high walled dam. As long as roads can be built to access remote sections of the river and its valley’s residents can be cleared, these free-flowing rivers can be converted relatively easily into a cascade of still reservoirs purposed to maximize power generation capacity. Indeed, this will be the fate of the entirety of China’s Upper Mekong, and by the time all of the planned dams are built, the series of standing reservoirs will hold more water than two times the Chesapeake Bay.

The geology of Yunnan makes it a dam builder’s dreamscape.”

The companies that build and operate dams are responsible for relocating and providing compensation to those affected by dam construction. Local county governments by law are mandated to oversee the entire process. The compensation process is mostly defined by simple accounting procedures. First, an accountant takes an inventory of the assets owned by an individual household and then provides compensation. Next, the accountant measures the size of productive land on which the household conducts farming (because farming, to the state accountant, is the only way rural people can generate income) and provides access to comparable land at the relocation site or equivalent value in cash. By and large, this accounting process works in lowland areas because lowland rural people make their living from cash crops and little else. Since cultural values are shared between lowland farming areas and China’s cities, adjusting to life in a new place is relatively easy. But in the case of providing compensation and transitional assistance for upland peoples, the accounting process rarely provides an equitable result.

When an accountant comes into a village like Cizhong or Yanmen to evaluate a compensation package for a household, he brings with him a world of assumptions based on years of living in the lowland. For instance, the accountant’s livelihood and the livelihoods of all his friends and fellow employees are wholly supported by a monthly cash income. Since he is likely to be the male breadwinner of his household, he searches out the male head of the upland household and asks two questions: “How much income do you generate in one month, and can you identify the assets which generate this income?” The male head of the household responds with an answer somewhere in the range of 2000 yuan per month. For assets, he points to the patch of land adjacent to the home as well as the cows and pigs which will be sold to the local market when they mature. The accountant takes note of the number of marketable animals living within the family compound and then runs off to measure the size of the villager’s arable land. The accountant makes a few calculations and then rattles off a number equal to the total value of the villager’s assets and income stream. He then abruptly leaves without discussion. After hearing a number that sounds unconscionably low, the villager thinks, “Is that all I’m worth?” But the accountant’s initial work is done and the villager now shoulders the burden to struggle for equitable compensation.

To achieve a more realistic outcome for upland villagers, the assessor would be better off augmenting his inquiry with a follow-up inquiry, like “Tell me what you consume every day that you don’t buy at the market,” because the answer here refers to things not immediately available around the resettlement community. The villager would scratch his head and begin to take inventory of the wood gathered from the surrounding hillsides used for cooking and heating fuel, the quantity of wild fish caught from the river below, the wild herbs collected from the hillsides that fills his household’s diet, the local liquor that he distills in his backyard, the wild-growing shrubs collected from around his home that are used to feed his pigs and cows. The list would grow, and the assessor would scratch his head in frustration because he does not know how to assign a value to these items. After all, the upland economy is alien to him, and most of these items cannot be found in a marketplace. Moreover, if the accountant talks to the villager’s wife, who is very likely to be the true manager of household resources, he will produce a higher, yet more realistic, picture of what is actually used to support the family’s livelihood. Women in ethnic groups such as the Tibetan, Lisu and Mosuo in southwest China often take up a high share of the workload and manage the household. But the accountant fails to understand, because by his own interpretation it goes without saying that males are the heads of the households in China.

The relocation site is never equipped with the abundance of easy resources like access to free water, animal feed and herbs growing alongside the home, and fish in the rivers. The government architects who designed the site do not think in terms of these freely available and shared resources, nor do they think in terms of the actual space used by the household to produce its livelihood. After all, the government architects live in confined apartments in cities and all their daily goods are bought in a supermarket or department store. When a household moves into its fabricated home at the resettlement site, its members soon discover that the ratio of inside to outside space is turned on its head. Their previous home had small rooms but a large courtyard used for drying crops and keeping the animals at a distance in their pens far across the yard. In resettlement communities, villagers are given large homes with small yards. They often complain of living on top of their livestock, with little room for the social interactions previously provided by their outside courtyards. Some communities are resettled in flat lowland areas far away from their mountain homes. Villagers here complain about the loss of fresh mountain air and inspiring views that defined their identity.

When an accountant evaluates a compensation package for a household, he brings with him a world of assumptions based on years of living in the lowland.”

When construction began in the mid-1980s on the Manwan Dam, China’s first on the Upper Mekong, government officials promised the remote agricultural communities in the surrounding area jobs and prosperity. The dam’s developer, a provincial government-owned industry, proclaimed the reservoir created by the Manwan Dam would support fish farms and bring hordes of tourists for yacht cruises beneath the scenic green terraced hills and low peaks of the Upper Mekong Valley. The local government invested in a port behind the dam wall and convinced some wealthier locals to purchase a few large yachts for the incoming tourism boom. The only tradeoff for these villagers was that half of the valley’s villages, the ones with the most agriculturally productive land along the riverside, would be relocated 300 meters up the hillsides. This meant that 3400 people, more than half of the Manwan Valley’s inhabitants, would lose their homes.

In the early 2000s, Dr. Yu Xiaogang, director of Green Watershed, an environmental NGO based in Kunming, visited the hills above the reservoir and discovered most of the relocated households were living in impoverished situations. The dam began producing electricity in 1993 and nearly a decade after, there were no fish farms in the new reservoir, and zero tourists were taking advantage of the new fleet of boats then rusting at the docks of the Manwan port. He noticed many of the resettled villagers were employed by the dam’s owner to clear the reservoir of the flotsam and garbage that accumulated behind the dam’s wall – the only new jobs created for villagers. In 2001, Dr. Yu concluded that relocated villagers were shortchanged in the compensation process and sent a report of his disturbing discovery to his contacts in the Beijing government. Shortly afterward, the outgoing premier Zhu Rongji ordered a full reassessment of the social and environmental impacts of the Manwan project, which at the time was a showpiece for investment in China’s backward regions. Green Watershed was hired to conduct the assessment. At that time it was unprecedented for a national government official at the highest ranks to respond to the appeals of a local NGO. After all, this was seen as an issue for Yunnan Province to manage, and the provincial government would not easily come to heel at the request of a small, unknown grassroots organization.

To conduct the assessment, Dr. Yu brought in state-of-the-art methods to identify and assign value to what was missed in the original process. Previously, villagers living along the river had access to the river’s water for drinking and irrigation purposes, or they could draw water from small streams draining into the river. Dr. Yu’s assessment discovered access to clean water was much lower after relocation. Also, the land regranted to villagers after the relocation process was much less fertile than that along the riverside, which was naturally replenished by the river’s monsoon floods. After relocation, agricultural yields were abysmal in comparison to before, because the villagers had no income to buy fertilizer to keep their fields healthy. He noticed a lack of social cohesion in the relocated communities and took note of the high instance of illness among elderly people as well as a spike in psychological problems and domestic violence. Previously, villagers would plant rice and tend their fields communally, since the paddy areas were adjacent to each other. Living in close proximity required villagers to maintain a shared irrigation system that provided water for all. Now, land reassigned to the relocated villagers was spread far apart in the hillsides and poorly terraformed for irrigation. The transitional income given to the villagers did not provide means to create enough flat land for farming. Importantly, Dr. Yu discovered that the dam developer did not move village shrines and burial grounds, nor did it provide villagers with the means to reestablish these spaces, which are critical to the spiritual experience of these ethnic peoples. Villagers noted that they were never consulted on the importance of their religious shrines. These locally important areas were flooded and destroyed when the dam began to fill in the early 1990s.

When the Manwan reassessment was finished, Dr. Yu’s team concluded that in order to restore the livelihoods of relocated peoples, an additional 13,000 RMB ($1800) per villager was required. The team determined that the developer needed to provide means for irrigation, terraforming the land, and technical assistance for planting new crops. Also, the reassessment found need for the construction of social spaces such as schools and town marketplaces. As was required by the special inquiry from the central government, the developer responded to the needs determined by the reassessment. Livelihoods of resettled peoples began the slow process of recovery. Today, a drive through the hills along the reservoir shows these villages are thriving at a modest level, so much so it is hard to tell the difference between the relocated villages and those that have been there for 100 years. However, other promises did not pan out according to plan. The entire reservoir, with a length of 30 kilometers, has fewer than five fish farms. Even after the construction of a highway, with a bridge over the Upper Mekong at the head of the reservoir, few tourists stop to visit the area. Downstream, behind the dam wall, the giant yachts continue to collect rust and garbage accumulation continues to menace the dam.

When I first met Dr. Yu in 2004 he was working on ways to replicate his successful intervention at Manwan on current and future resettlement projects. Foreign foundations saw in Dr. Yu a champion for marginalized peoples and supported his operation with robust funding. His headquarters, then located inside the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, was staffed with world-class experts and volunteers rushing to join his cause. That summer, Dr. Yu was so busy that I, as a lowly graduate student researcher, could only get a 20-minute meeting with him. Earlier that year the Chinese government announced plans for a 17-gigawatt cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River, which runs parallel to the Mekong on its western side. The western edge of the Nu River Basin forms Yunnan’s border with Myanmar, and after flowing out of Yunnan into the heart of Myanmar’s San and Karen states it is called the Salween. The Nu Basin is home to a number of ethnic groups, and because of its isolated nature, it has more endemic species of plants and animals than any river basin in Asia, making it an important biodiversity hotspot. Any damming of this basin would threaten its ecology, and building the 17-dam cascade in Yunnan would force the relocation of 45,000 people.

In early 2004, Huadian, the state-owned dam Upper Mekong developer Hydrolancang, rolled into the Nu Valley to promote the so-called benefits of dams to local communities there. Soon after, Dr. Yu’s team sprang into action to hit the Nu Valley villagers with a dose of reality. His tactic was to transport groups of villagers from the Nu to the Manwan site along the Mekong. There he arranged for resettled villagers at Manwan to share the story of how their livelihoods were trammeled by the relocation process. The Nu villagers were so enraged when they learned that Huadian’s false promises were merely a propaganda campaign that instead of returning home, they continued on to the provincial capital at Kunming to launch a surprise protest outside the government headquarters. This demonstration once again prompted a response from the highest ranks of government. Days after the protest in Kunming, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced a suspension of the entire cascade until further assessments were made. Dr. Yu and his team had again struck victory. With dual successes under his belt and a tested formula for success in fighting for the rights of Yunnan’s upland people, his achievement brought him international accolades. In 2006 he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, and in 2009 he won the Ramon Magsaysay award, which is considered by many the equivalent of the Asian Nobel Prize.

But the suspension of the Nu River cascade in 2004 marked the beginning of a risky uphill battle for grassroots organizations like Green Watershed in securing rights and adequate compensation for relocated peoples. Hydropower developers like Huadian and Hydrolancang linked up with provincial and county governments in China’s southwest to increase intimidation tactics and apply pressure to local communities to quickly accept relocation packages. As Dr. Yu tried to unroll his procedures for equitable environmental and social impact assessments, without warning Green Watershed lost its office leases and the organization was barred from taking foreign funding. After receiving the Magsaysay award in 2009, Dr. Yu’s passport was pulled by the provincial government, prohibiting him from international travel.

As the power of the hydropower lobby increases, the space for organizations like Green Watershed to function at a grassroots level in China is shrinking.”

The government stimulus packages released after the 2008 global financial crisis gave China’s powerful state-owned hydropower developers more cash and resources to ensure that their dam-building dreams were protected from further disruptions. In 2012, when Dr. Yu and a consortium of environmentalists entered the Yalong River valley, a long tributary of the Yangtze River, to meet with representatives of the more than 100,000 people to be evicted from the valley, they discovered most villagers were in a state of fear and shock over the relocation process. The local security bureau used intimidation tactics and told people that any resistance to dam construction would be met with the full force of the law. No one informed villagers in the Yalong Valley of their legal rights. Because of the increased security presence, Dr. Yu and his team were unable to produce similar results in negotiating with the dam’s construction company or the local government. Most attempts at grassroots mobilization were thwarted at every angle. Since then, Dr. Yu has shifted to more arms-length techniques to impact hydropower development in southwest China.

“The hydropower lobby has nearly unlimited power at the local level, and it’s become too strong in Beijing,” Dr. Yu shared with me during a recent visit to Kunming. “This special interest group can easily influence the top ranks of government in Beijing and circumvent policymaking institutions such as the National Reform and Development Commission or the Ministry of Environmental Protection.” He told me how the lobby promotes a discourse of clean energy to support China’s economic development while generating fake news campaigns suggesting dam opposition is a plot by foreign interests seeking to thwart China’s advancement.

As the power of the hydropower lobby increases, the space for organizations like Green Watershed to function at a grassroots level in China is shrinking. When he took power in 2012, Xi Jinping openly acknowledged the need for increased civil society participation in solving the country’s problems, particularly those related to environmental degradation and rural livelihood concerns. However, in 2014, his administration issued a new registration law placing tight restrictions on the actions and funding channels for NGOs. But in a surprising turn, in 2016 the Yunnan provincial government announced a moratorium on damming the mainstream of the Nu River and unveiled a plan to develop the Nu Valley for mass tourism. Apparently the Beijing government became concerned about the high instance of earthquakes in the Nu Valley and forced the Yunnan government to change plans for damming the Nu. The Nu Basin runs adjacent to the Mekong, but an argument over seismic concerns is not stopping damming there. Many dam critics saw the Nu moratorium as a sign that the hydropower lobby is losing sway in Beijing. But if this is the case, fears of Beijing’s tightening future regulation of dams could lead powerful developers like Hydrolancang to get started on the remaining proposed dams.

Cryptocurrency miners have set up facilities in the Upper Mekong to take advantage of the dirt-cheap electricity.”

Today, Yunnan’s Upper Mekong cascade of six mega-dams is fully operational. The 1350-megawatt Dachaoshan Dam opened in 2003, a decade after Manwan. Then in 2008 came the cascade’s southernmost dam at Jinghong, just a few kilometers upstream from the capital of Xishuangbanna Prefecture. Shortly after this 1750-megawatt dam opened, its flood discharge channel was twice severely damaged by intense releases during the monsoon season. In 2011, the 4200-megawatt Xiaowan Dam went online. A behemoth with a 292-meter wall, Xiaowan was once the second highest dam in the world (at of the time of this book’s publishing, it ranks third). Its reservoir holds the equivalent volume of half the Chesapeake Bay. Two hundred kilometers upstream, the 900-megawatt Gongguoqiao Dam opened in 2011, and finally the Upper Mekong’s other behemoth, the Nuozhadu Dam, with a capacity of a whopping 5800-megawatts, began filling its reservoir in 2014 and was not ready for full operation until two years later. The Nuozhadu Reservoir also holds half the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay, and its reservoir is more than 100 kilometers long. More than 43,000 people were relocated during the decade of Nuozhadu’s construction. Above these dams, Hydrolancang has completed or is in the process of building 13 more dams of comparatively smaller capacities than the Upper Mekong cascade, but still capable of holding a massive amount of water. In 2012, plans for the Guonian Dam, located at the foot of Mt. Kawagarpo, were cancelled because of its proximity to the Mingyong Gglacier.

Construction on China’s Upper Mekong dams continues, but the generation capacity of its existing dams on the Mekong is highly underutilized. Yunnan Province currently wastes much of its hydropower due to congestion in China’s national grid and a political economy that still favors coal as a main source of power generation in coastal provinces. Powerful interests in Guangdong, where 22 percent of Yunnan’s power is sold, would rather buy power from coal plants in Guangdong than from Yunnan’s dams. Despite recent reductions, coal will still account for more than 60 percent of China’s power generation into the coming decades. It employs magnitudes more people than hydropower plants. If too much power from Yunnan is transmitted to Guangdong, this will put tens of thousands of unemployed laborers on the streets. Moreover, Guangdong stands to gain the most from new government policies promoting energy efficiency standards. So as Yunnan’s hydropower capacity increases, Guangdong’s energy needs are reaching a plateau.

This translates into wasted economic benefits for Yunnan Province and dams that make little commercial sense for their owners. To illustrate, between 2013 and 2015, wasted hydropower capacity in Yunnan Province rose tenfold. During 2014’s monsoon season, because China’s power grid could not absorb all hydropower generated from the battery of Yunnan’s dams, hydropower firms like Hydrolancang were losing more than 100 million yuan ($12 million) per day. In 2016, Yunnan’s dams reportedly wasted 300 terawatt hours of electricity. In the same year, Thailand consumed half that amount. The glut of power is attracting new customers to plug directly into power generated by these underperforming dams. Recently cryptocurrency miners have set up facilities in the Upper Mekong to take advantage of the dirt-cheap electricity. Of greater concern, however, is the breaking of the decades-old pact between Yunnan and the coastal provinces that kept Yunnan clean and green. Now, heavy industries are relocating from the coastal provinces to Yunnan where they can access cheap power, and lax regulations in Yunnan Province allow them to pollute freely.

China’s dam developers have now joined the ranks of China’s offshore oil companies as some of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest energy firms. These developers are rapidly expanding their activities abroad, driven by the global demand for “green” energy and access to cheap financing from China’s government-sponsored banks. Because of widely documented detrimental environmental and social impacts of large dams, multilateral financing institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have set a high bar for issuing loans to support dam projects around the world. This has created a space for Chinese financial institutions which have lower standards and often issue loans to curry political favor, particularly in the developing world. As is discussed in later chapters, Chinese dam developers are not the only game in town for damming the Lower Mekong, but they are certainly leaders among a pack of developers whose projects are slowly strangling the Mekong ecosystem and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. ∎

Excerpted from Brian Eyler, Last Days of the Mighty Mekong (Zed Books, February 2019).
Header: Nuozhadu, the largest dam on the Lancang (Mekong) River (photo by International Rivers on Flickr).