Leaping Tiger, Drowning River – Patrick Symmes

Outside Magazine has published a lengthy account of a raft trip down the Yangtze River and an examination of what the ecological consequences will be for both China’s soaring energy demands, and the numerous dams planned on China’s rivers to satisfy that demand:

Yangtze-River-ChinaYunnan-MapRoughly the size of Germany, Yunnan is a hothouse of 20 endangered animals and 6,000 rare plants, containing everything from snow leopards and golden monkeys to 70 percent of the herbs in the Tibetan apothecary. This bounty is nominally protected by a series of reserves and proposed parks the size of West Virginia, a joint initiative of the Chinese government and the Nature Conservancy called the Yunnan Great Rivers Project. But conservation is a delicate business here: Wild rivers produce as much hydropower as biodiversity, and China is starving for cheap electricity. Jabbing one long finger into his ankle-high model, Jim marks where the Chinese government plans to build a massive hydroelectric dam. Then he does it again: another cut with his finger, another dam. And again. And again. And again.

“Not dams,” Jim clarifies, his fingers trailing in the dirt, “but entire suites of dams, along with your standard sweep of insults, like road building and deforestation.” Twelve or more dams are planned for this river; 13 more, including two that have already been built, will cascade down the headwaters of the Mekong, with still more on the Salween and Irrawaddy. That’s just the beginning: Some government officials estimate up to 100 more in coming decades.

…Our group of 21 Chinese and American clients and guides push and strain at five rafts, launching into the flicking current. Below us, the river is swallowed by the 300-mile Great Bend, a passage through rugged mountains, seldom-visited villages, and 12,000-foot walls that is China’s answer to the Grand Canyon. We’ll run 128 miles, drop a thousand vertical feet, and float Class IV rapids that may soon be submerged.

Organized by Mountain Travel Sobek, ours is by no means the first commercial float down this stretch of the Yangtze”whitewater explorer Richard Bangs led the initial commercial trip down the Great Bend in 1987″but it’s part of the first explicit attempt to create something enduring from this vanishing resource, the fruit of years of effort by Jim and his fellow guides to demonstrate a sustainable alternative to some of the dams. Of course, they’ll have to paddle hard to outrun this wave of concrete: Although the dams are currently under review in Beijing, Yunnan’s Communist Party secretary, Bai Enpei, insists that almost all will be built.

We slide down into the first rapids and are enfolded by rising walls. Time, and the river, are running….

China confronts a devil’s choice: clean, essentially free hydropower that drowns the wild valleys of Yunnan, or massive expansion of its use of oil, nuclear power, and sulfurous coal. Even worse, China could make no choices at all, and simply do both ugly and uglier, strangling its rivers, burning its coal, and lighting nuclear fires across the landscape.

“The road ahead is long and pretty unpleasant,” Nielsen says. China could turn itself around, he points out. It would merely require avoiding or relocating the worst of Yunnan’s dams; converting hundreds of planned low-tech coal plants into closed-cycle systems that sequester carbon, a controversial technology in itself; and simultaneously transforming this immense country, with its hundreds of millions of impoverished subsistence farmers, into the world’s first entirely green, sustainably capitalist Commie supereconomy. [Full text]