Damming China’s Rivers

Of all China’s problems, none will be more critical over the long run than how it resolves the tension between economic development and environmental protection. Nowhere are consequences of this struggle clearer than in the Himalayan foothills of the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Yunnan is home to three great Asian rivers: the Mekong, the Salween (or Nu), and the Jinsha. All start on the great Tibetan Plateau and flow in parallel through the northwest corner of the province into Southeast Asia. They are China’s last pristine rivers, but are now slated for sacrifice to satisfy the country’s insatiable thirst for power. Plans call for dozens of dams to be placed along their serpentine courses through the mountains of Yunnan.

I had the chance to see one of these rivers – and the proposed site of one of the country’s most controversial dams – on a recent trek through the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge, north of the town of Lijiang in northern Yunnan. On its descent from the roof of the world, the Jinsha River, tributary of the mighty Yangtze, cascades through this ten-mile gorge on its way to Shanghai and the East China Sea. If, or rather when, the river is dammed, it will help power the cities and factories of coastal China.

The sun was high above white-crowned Jade Dragon Snow Mountain when my guide pointed down the gorge at the brown waters churning thousands of feet below. “That’s where they will build the dam,” Xiao Chun, a 17-year-old Naxi, one of Yunnan’s 22 ethnic minorities, said. “It will be very bad for us. There will be a lot of pollution. I hope it doesn’t happen.”