A thirst for power: China in Tibet

Since colonising Tibet in 1959, China has ripped out virgin forests, dug up minerals and metals, and dumped nuclear waste with little regard for the fragile ecology of the Tibetan plateau.

To date, warnings from Tibetans and their advocates abroad about the damage caused by half a century of unchecked exploitation have so far been largely unheeded by the international community, but the latest stage of China’s development is set to end the silence the Chinese Communist Party has interpreted as global approval for its quest for wealth and power.

There’s not much left in Qinghai these days. Gone are the roaming herds of Tibetan antelope, white-lipped deer, Mongolian gazelle, wild oxen and donkeys. Deep craters scar the earth, which is no longer a lush carpet of grass and wildflowers. Few birds wing across the deep blue sky and any water that is left in the mostly dried-up river beds is black and deadly. There are hardly any people here, apart from a few poachers on motorcycles who slaughter the remnants of the once-great herds of Tibetan antelope, or chiru, for the fine fur that makes illegal shahtoosh shawls for the graceful necks of the fashionable demimonde.

Springs that used to refresh nomads and their herds of sheep, goats, yaks and horses have disappeared, grassland has been replaced by rocky desert, mountainsides have collapsed and the surface of the arid earth is pockmarked with abandoned excavation sites. Indeed, large swathes of Qinghai, which have been part of China’s far south- west since an armed invasion in 1959, look like the moon. This is the obscene legacy of China’s modern gold rush on one of the most sensitive and important environments on earth – the Tibetan plateau, where 10 of the great rivers of Asia begin their journey through 11 countries.

Those rivers – Mekong, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Karnali, Sutlej, Arun, Manas, Yangtse and Yellow – provide water for more than 85 per cent of Asia’s people and almost 50 per cent of the world’s population. The Dalai Lama said in a speech marking the turn of the millennium, ‘Thus, the health of Tibet’s environment is not an inconsequential regional issue; it has a huge global significance warranting international attention.’

Now, the development drive that has brought China double-digit economic growth, record foreign investment and unheard of mortality rates from air pollution is threatening the livelihood of those two billion Asians who depend on the mighty rivers sourced on the Tibetan Plateau that have nurtured and nourished great civilisations for millennia. Having already logged Tibetan mountainsides bare, encouraged a mining boom that turned the land upside down and poisoned rivers with cyanide and arsenic, the Chinese government has embarked on a frenzy of dam-building that is squeezing the lifeblood of many of its close neighbours.

Doris Shen, of the International Rivers Network in California, says up to 300 dams are planned for China’s south-western region alone, from rivers that flow into Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Dams, built to provide the fuel for the Chinese industrial revolution, have compounded deforestation, desertification and grassland degradation, soil erosion and landslides, mining and pollution that were already afflicting the river economies of Asia. Floods are increasing, fish and animal stocks are decreasing, water levels are fluctuating.

The experts blame China. ‘China holds all the trump cards,’ The Guardian recently quoted an anonymous water analyst as saying in an article examining the impact on the Mekong of dams on the upstream Lancang, in China’s Yunnan province, which borders Laos, Burma and Vietnam. ‘If all these dams go ahead, the river’s hydrology will be significantly altered and no one can begin to understand the social or ecological consequences. China can do what it wants with impunity. It is a dangerous situation.’ The damage to downstream river ecologies from unregulated tree felling in the upper reaches of the major Asian rivers was becoming clear to experts outside Tibetan exile circles by the early 1990s. Sam Portch, a Canadian scientist who until 2002 ran the China and India programmes for the Potash and Phosphate Institute of Canada and won a Chinese Friendship Award for his work with Chinese farmers on balanced fertilisation, expressed his concerns about the Mekong tributaries to me in 1994.

Working with some of the poorest farming communities in south-western China, he was able to travel to areas few western researchers had access to at that time. He noted that riverbeds were rising, floods becoming more frequent, and farming land eaten by the widening waters. There could be only one reason, he said: logging. As the forests of Tibet were felled, topsoil had nothing to adhere to, the rain had nothing to soak into and so the earth’s epidermis was swept into the rivers by the spring snow melt and summer rains, raising the riverbeds and reducing their capacity to hold the water.

This process is most obvious in the Chinese city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, which sits on the confluence of three rivers, including the Yangtze, and is protected from water higher than street level by dikes that need constant reinforcement. Until recently, this was historic, slow and manageable but in the 1990s, as the forests disappeared, the floods became more regular and severe. After devastating floods on the Yangtze in 1998, which claimed many more lives than the 4,150 the government admitted at the time, logging was banned.

In a clandestine reporting trip to Hubei the following year, I interviewed many villagers in one area outside Wuhan near a dike that was famously breached by the swollen river. Without exception, the people I spoke with said they had counted their dead in the hundreds, but that officials had lied about the casualties and reported them in single digits and the calamity had been turned into a successful propaganda exercise that rehabilitated the People’s Liberation Army for a population that had hated the military since it killed unarmed demonstrators in Beijing and other cities in 1989.

I was shown the gleaming marble monuments to a handful of teenage soldiers who died fighting the rising waters. Nearby, where their homes used to be, villagers eked out their lives in unfinished brick huts that had been built to replace the homes swept away in the floods. Money had run out before building was complete, probably, like the funds allocated to flood prevention the year before, pocketed by party flunkies. If the Chinese authorities cynically used the floods to rebuild the army’s image, the floods had also provided a sharp wake-up call for the central government and local officials along the 6,380km length of the Yangtze.

Having long denied that upstream logging was a problem, and having spent decades extolling the virtues of the Three Gorges dam, the ferocity of the 1998 summer floods spoke for itself. The stripping of the Tibetan plateau was to blame, the government-controlled media conceded like wide-eyed neophytes who’d never dreamed that trees had any use beyond chopsticks and matches.

In one of those instantaneous policy strokes peculiar to autocratic regimes, logging was banned and the woodsmen were put to work replanting forests that had been almost totally destroyed to provide raw materials for the economic boom of the eastern provinces. ‘The Yangtse floods of 1998 really brought home to Beijing the consequences of deforestation on the upper reaches of the Yangtse. They really started to make that connection then,’ said Kate Saunders, an independent researcher on Tibetan affairs. ‘[Then-prime minister] Zhu Rongji was sent to Sichuan to investigate the environmental situation soon afterwards, in an indication of the Party’s concern.’

The communist rulers also started to proclaim even louder the virtues of dams as cure-alls for floods to justify their hydroelectricity schemes. And the next phase of China’s assault on the vital water resources of half the globe was launched. It is difficult to overstate the importance of dams to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) vision. Dams mean power – power to keep the sweatshop factories churning out goods for export to the wealthy west, and enduring power of governance for the CCP.

The highest echelons of the party are stacked with engineers, many of whom take a personal interest in massive hydraulic projects – like the former premier, Li Peng, whose life dream is being realised with the completion of the Three Gorges dam which will, it is claimed, generate power equivalent to that of a dozen nuclear reactors. Such huge, high-profile undertakings play into the patriotic pantheon of a government that has expertly tied itself to the nationalistic concept of what it means to be Chinese, a process that was accelerated after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and murders of 1989. Officials who hitch themselves to big infrastructure projects – especially those with superlatives listing them among the world’s biggest, longest, highest, most expensive – can bolster their political and financial ambitions and help line the pockets of all those who walk in their shadow.

In Yunnan, there’s plenty of money in dam building. Two large dams have been completed on the Lancang, upstream of the Mekong, a third is underway and another six are on the drawing board. Aimed, as officials claim, not only at generating electricity but also preventing floods, the dams have a profound impact on the rice growers and fishermen of downstream communities.

The tenth largest and twelfth longest river in the world, the 4,800km-long Mekong begins in Qinghai’s Three Rivers’ sources area near the provincial boundary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR, as it was renamed when Beijing incorporated Tibet into the People’s Republic and redrew the borders.

The Mekong traverses six countries – China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam – before emptying into the South China Sea. It supports 250 million people, has a biological diversity comparable to the Amazon, and supplies one of the world’s most diverse fishing industries. On the banks of Cambodia’s famed Tongle Sap lake, a wizened fisherman extends his arms to show the size of fish that didn’t get away in his youth, but which are now a dim memory.

Today the fish are smaller, he says, though he has little clue that the massive Manwan Dam on the Lancang hundreds of miles upstream in Yunnan has cut the numbers of fish that make it downstream to spawn. Annual spring floods and autumn droughts are essential for bringing billions of fish to the dense swamps around the lake, but the Chinese dams are effectively smoothing the river’s flow, eradicating those seasonal highs and lows. ‘The two existing dams on the Mekong, Manwan and Dachaoshan, have impacted the upper lower Mekong. Water levels at Chiang Saen are subject to irregular fluctuations since Manwan was closed – presumably caused mainly by the operation of Manwan as a peak load power station, so more water is released whenever there is an increased power demand and reduced whenever there is less demand for power. It also seems that flow in the river was cut off completely for a few days in May 1993 to allow work on the dam or power station,’ Dr Ian Campbell, of the Mekong River Commission in Thailand, told me by email.

‘Manwan Dam has caused a drop in river-suspended sediment concentrations following its closure and that impact was detectable as far downstream as Pakse in southern Laos,’ he said. Attention is now focusing on the impact of the yet-to-be-completed Xiaowan dam, 15 times the size of Manwan. ‘It may affect flows, especially in the dry season, down in the lower Mekong countries including Cambodia. The fishery is crucial here since it provides 80 per cent of animal protein in the diets of people in the basin.’

As the Chinese economic juggernaut rumbles on, demand for electricity is soaring beyond the bullish estimates of the Chinese authorities, who are now worried by power cuts in inland factory belts that are essential for absorbing surplus labour, as farmers leave the land and tens of millions of school-leavers enter the job market each year. The government had predicted 2003 electricity usage would climb by five per cent; instead it grew by a massive 15 per cent, leading to forecasts that the north-eastern industrialised provinces will exhaust current generating capacity by 2010.

Figures like these create the urgency for new power sources and while there appears to be a growing awareness of the need to marry quality to quantity across the industrial landscape, one contact – who has long worked with the Chinese government in formulating production policy – said, on condition that he wasn’t named, that ‘they have too much jockeying between internal regions and ministries to even be united for their own national good, let alone embracing Southeast and South Asia.’

Of China’s 80,000 dams nationwide, the World Commission on Dams classified 22,000 as large, half the world’s total, and all but 22 built since the communists took over in 1949. Promises in recent years to fold sustainability into industrialisation don’t appear to have affected the reality, especially where dams are concerned. Whereas the west seems to have learned from disasters like Australia’s Snowy River scheme and America’s Hoover Dam, China has many more planned.

The government has begun, however, to recognise that environmental degradation is eating into real economic gains, with the People’s Daily noting that the average annual growth rate of 8.7 per cent over the past 25 years should be slashed by more than two per cent to an annual ‘green GDP’ growth rate of 6.5 per cent, when the cost of the damage is taken into account.

As in so many sectors, China’s power generation is among the most inefficient in the world, with official figures showing that the energy consumed in producing a product worth US$1 is 4.3 times higher in China than it is in the United States, 7.7 times higher than in Germany and France, and 11.5 times higher than in Japan. ‘China is a massive economy growing at an amazing rate. If the present high-consumption and high-pollution growth mode is not changed, China will lack sufficient resources and environmental capacity to sustain its future development,’ said Pan Yue, the deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration.

The recent deferment of a massive project on Yunnan’s Nu River, which runs into Burma’s Salween, brought a sliver of hope that the message is getting through. Chinese media reported that the cascading dam, designed to provide double the power of the Three Gorges project, was cancelled for further impact studies on 1 April by order of Premier Wen Jiabao, but an official of the Yunnan Huadian Nu River Hydropower Development Company said two weeks later: ‘Neither the instruction written by Wen, nor any file containing the destiny of the project has reached us so far.’

In order to boost electricity to account for 30 per cent of the country’s power needs by 2030, the State Power Corporation’s deputy head, Chen Dongping, is on the record as saying that $36 billion would be spent on building dams to generate power eight times the capacity of the Three Gorges dam. Dams, he said, are clean. Could it be that the reprieve for the Nu is just temporary, politically-expedient window dressing? ‘Maybe the money has already been spent by corrupt officials,’ said one London-based China watcher who asked not to be named.

‘Maybe the centre just wants to re-exert control over the Yunnan officials to let them know who’s boss and after the project has been tweaked a bit it will go ahead. Everything in China is politics, there’s no such thing as altruism, or even environmentalism, at any level of government.’ Even if this project doesn’t go ahead, another nine dams, out of a total of 13 on the drawing board for the Nu-Salween, are planned for the same Three Parallel Rivers area, which Shen calls ‘truly a magnificent ecological treasure’.

Kevin Li, a Hong Kong-based consultant with the IRN’s China programme who lobbied against the Huadian dam, cautioned the plan could be ‘revised or simply repackaged’ and noted that ‘despite the huge opposition against the Three Gorges dam, the project still went ahead.’

Lynne O’Donnell is a freelance journalist


The Case against Dams

Since the 1930s, man has tampered with rivers on an unprecedented scale: three-quarters of the major rivers in the Northern hemisphere alone have been tamed or harnessed. The number of large dams worldwide has climbed from just over 5,000 in 1950 to more than 45,000 today. When a dam is built, especially on a large river, it backs up months’ or years’ worth of a river’s flow, creating an enormous reservoir of water in the valley behind it that floods everything in its path.

This has led to:

• An increase in water-borne diseases – including malaria, bilharzia and schistosomiasis – from changes in the rivers’ ecosystems.

• The loss of annual floods and flows of nutrient-rich silt needed to fertilise farmland downstream, jeopardising the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers, in addition to those physically displaced by the dam.

• The significant and often irreversible destruction of entire river ecosystems, and of wildlife, including forests, in the river valleys behind dams as floodwaters rise.

• The reduction of fish populations, as the change from free-flowing river to reservoir prevents oxygen levels from being replenished, prevents nutrients from reaching fisheries downstream, and blocks the path of migratory fish such as salmon. This is particularly serious for hundreds of thousands of people who are dependent on fishing in large rivers to feed themselves.

• The creation of methane emissions from the rotting of flooded vegetation and organic matter that flows into the reservoir – which in some cases can contribute more to global warming than emissions from coal-fired power stations producing a similar amount of electricity.

• An increased risk of conflict when large dams are built on major international rivers and reduce downstream flow to other countries (as in the case for the proposed Illisu dam in Turkey on the Tigris River, which could escalate tension with Syria or Iraq).

• The displacement and impoverishment of up to 80 million mostly poor and indigenous people since large dams started being built, through the destruction of their homes, their agricultural land, their livelihoods, communities and culture, often without the provision of anything approaching adequate compensation.

• Dams have collapsed under the enormous pressure of water behind them. According to Chinese government reports, in 1975, after one of the wettest years ever, dam collapses killed 250,000 people, and caused famine and disease among 11 million more. In the United States in 1976, the collapse of the Teton dam destroyed three towns and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.

Sources: World Bank’s World Commission on Large Dams, International Rivers Network

Principle Rivers of the region

NAME                                    Source                              Length

Yellow River                Amdo Bayanhar (5266m)                 5464 km Yangtze                         Mt Thangla (6328m)                   6380 km Mekong                            Mt Thangla                             4500 km Salween                          Mt Thangla                              2800 km Brahmaputra                     Mt Tesi Range                          2900 km Karnali                             Mt Tesi Range                         1609 km Sutlej                              Mt Tesi (Kailash)                      1450 km Indus                              Mt Tesi (6638m)                       3100 km Arun                         Mt Shishapangma (8012m)                1207 km Manas                          Mt Zholchen (6106m)                    380 km

Source: Dorjee 1996; DIIR 1992; Science Press, Beijing 1990; DIIR Tibet 20008

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2004