Dams & Deforestation: Yunnan’s Water Woes

At The New York Times, Andrew Jacobs reports environmentalists’ frustration with the decision to resume damming on southwest China’s Nu River. The new dams are expected to displace as many as 60,000 people locally, and to gravely affect many more living beyond China’s borders downstream.

Here in Bingzhongluo, a peaceful backpacker magnet, those who treasure the fast-moving, jade-green beauty of the Nu say the four proposed dams in Yunnan and the one already under construction in Tibet would irrevocably alter what guidebooks refer to as the Grand Canyon of the East. A soaring, 370-mile-long gorge carpeted with thick forests, the area is home to roughly half of China’s animal species, many of them endangered, including the snow leopard, the black snub-nosed monkey and the red panda.

Clinging improbably to the alpine peaks are mist-shrouded villages whose residents are among the area’s dozen or so indigenous tribes, most with their own languages. “The project will be good for the local government, but it will be a disaster for the local residents,” said Wan Li, 42, who in 2003 left behind his big-city life as an accountant in the provincial capital, Kunming, to open a youth hostel here. “They will lose their culture, their traditions and their livelihood, and we will be left with a placid, lifeless reservoir.”

As one of two major rivers in China still unimpeded by dams, the Nu has a fiercely devoted following among environmentalists who have grown despondent over the destruction of many of China’s waterways. The Ministry of Water Resources released a survey in March saying that 23,000 rivers had disappeared entirely and many of the nation’s most storied rivers had become degraded by pollution. The mouth of the Yellow River is little more than an effluent-fouled trickle, and the once-mighty Yangtze has been tamed by the Three Gorges Dam, a $25 billion project that displaced 1.4 million people.

For many advocates, the Nu has become something of a last stand. “Why can’t China have just one river that isn’t destroyed by humans?” asked Wang Yongchen, a well-known environmentalist in Beijing who has visited the area a dozen times in recent years.

At The Atlantic, Angel Hsu and William Miao recently scrutinized official explanations for the thousands of river disappearances: that some of the rivers only ever existed on inaccurate old maps, and that others have dried up because of climate change.

“As China’s population and economy have rapidly grown, the country has experienced serious degradation of its water resources, including massive overuse and contamination,” Gleick said. “The ‘disappearance’ of major rivers and streams is far more likely to be directly connected to uncontrolled and unsustainable extraction of water for industry and agriculture, though climate change may play a greater role in the future.”

[…] What about the statistical discrepancies that the government says could have factored in to the rivers’ disappearance? While some updates to river classification are plausible, cartography and mapping techniques have been very sophisticated in China for many years. One user on Sina Weibo tweeted an old map of waterways for Qingdao, showing abundant waterways in considerable detail. The maps are accurate and Qingdao’s rivers have not been wiped away by “improved surveying methods” — they have simply been converted into Qingdao’s sprawling roadways, said one of the city’s urban historians.

So why is the Chinese government blaming only climate change and statistical inaccuracies? Climate change is an easy and popular scapegoat and allows the government to save face by pinning the disappearance on natural causes rather than anthropogenic (and arguably preventable) ones.

Quoting former water resources minister Wang Shucheng, Jacobs notes that the Nu river dams reflect a “fight for every drop or die” attitude towards water management. As a region once regarded as a reliable water source becomes increasingly prone to drought, Yunnan’s deputy Party secretary Qiu He argued at the National People’s Congress in March that the province needed more hydroengineering to help regulate its water supply. But Yang Fangyi and Zhou Jiading argue at chinadialogue that this function is best fulfilled naturally, by forests:

If you look at the amount of precipitation in Yunnan, you might struggle to understand how the province could be hit by drought. The monsoons bring plenty of rain during a distinct wet season. However, thanks to the province’s geography, that rain falls unevenly. Some south-western areas can see as much as 3,000 millimetres of rain a year, while arid valleys might have less than 500 millimetres.

So climate and geography result in an uneven distribution of water, and therefore shortages during the dry season. Normally, Yunnan’s forests and wetlands regulate this imbalance, acting as sponges that soak up water during the monsoons and gradually release it. Millions of people in Yunnan benefit, including those living downstream of Yunnan’s six major rivers – in the Yangtze and Pearl River basins, for example.

But the continued drought is a warning of the damage being done to those ecosystems.

Yunnan is heavily-forested. But the original forests, able to store and regulate water, have virtually been destroyed. Serious environmental damage has been done.

Though 53% of the province is still covered with forest, Greenpeace estimates that only 9% of this is original growth. Yunnan has seen an enormous expansion of monocultural commercial forests of eucalyptus, fir and especially rubber, which lack the water-regulating capabilities of the old forests. In addition, rubber trees require more water for themselves, and their cultivation involves the use of chemicals that contaminate what remains. As Chris Horton writes at The Atlantic, Yunnan’s rubber boom has brought new prosperity to local farmers, but may be sowing the seeds of its own collapse:

By 2010, more than 22 percent of Xishuangbanna [whose forests are cited by Yang and Zhou as exceptionally well protected] was rubber farms, a calculation that doesn’t account for the crop’s intrusion into the Xishuangbanna and Nanbanhe Nature Reserves, which Grumbine described as “significant.” In sum, Grumbine, Xu and Beckschaefer’s findings show that Xishuangbanna’s rubber industry at present is anything but sustainable.

Rubber plantations sequester less carbon than natural forests and their spread has led to a substantial net release of carbon dioxide. Because after the first few years the plantations require chemical fertilizers that often contaminate nearby bodies of water, oxygen-sapping algae can bloom and kill off fish and other aquatic species. In addition, since rubber trees use more water than native vegetation or other crops, especially during the hot months of November through April, the area’s dry season is growing longer and both the number of foggy days and the amount of fog on those days is declining, affecting other agricultural production and regional food security.

The team’s paper concludes that if the local climate continues its hotter and drier trend, it could become unsuitable for growing rubber altogether, a development that would devastate the local economy.

Horton concludes with proposals to avert such a collapse by strategically restoring and preserving the natural forest. But attempting instead to regulate water with dams may remain attractive in the short-term, offering both its own economic boost and the hope that profitably unrestrained rubber farming can continue.


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