In 2006, Beijing-based environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers embarked on “The Decade River Project,” which aimed to mobilize experts, journalists, and environmental activists to observe six major rivers in southwest China over a period of 10 years.
The route of the Decade River Project began in Sichuan Province, following the Min and Yaqi Rivers to the Jinsha River in the city of Panzhihua. Crossing into Yunnan Province, the team made its way to the upper stream of the Jinsha River, and then headed south along the Lancang River, before reaching the Nu River Valley through Lanping. The project also selected ten local families along these rivers to follow over ten years and document their lives and the changes that come with the changes in the rivers.
After the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, the project was expanded to include the Min River, which was deeply affected by the natural disaster. Many villages and towns along the river are still recovering from the disaster, which added to the difficulty of the journey.
Every year Wang Yongchen and other participants on the Decade River Project write about what they see along the way—from environmental destruction caused by hydropower plants to a beautiful view of the mountains. They write about the families they meet and the changes they see in the environment and in people’s lives every year. The following is an English translation of selections of their writings, aimed at giving English-speakers the chance to get a real look into what is going on along China’s rivers today.
Day 1, Dujiangyan: Changes along the Min River
When we arrived in Chengdu at the start of our fifteen-day trip, excitement was in the air. Liu Yiman, a journalist from Oriental Outlook, had already turned on her computer, and documentary maker Tian Ye had his camera ready. China National Geographic’s Wang Lijing attempted to give directions to a colleague while snapping a few pictures at the same time.
The discussion on the bus quickly turned to current events surrounding the rivers we were about to visit. Premier Wen Jiabao had just suspended construction of Nu River dams again, bringing relief to both environmentalists and many residents. He called for an in-depth study of the potential impact on communities and a more thorough study of Nu River ecology.
In 2008, the Decade River Project investigated Ludila power station and discovered that construction had started there without an adequate Environmental Impact Assessment, or EIA. In June of that year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection suspended the construction of the Ludila hydropower station as well as the Longkaikou hydropower plant, neither of which had passed its EIA.
We began in Dujiangyan, an ancient city, now plagued by effects from both the Sichuan Earthquake and a rapidly developing chemical industry.
What’s most amazing is that Dujiangyan that its water system involves no dam. It takes full advantage of the local terrain and water flow to regulate the system and irrigate the land, forming an interactive system to control floods, divert streams, and drain water and sands. Originally commissioned by the King of Qing in 256 B.C. to ensure the security of agriculture along the Min River and mitigate floods, the irrigation system has not failed in two thousand years and continues to benefit the community even now.
What is remarkable about the system is that it does not sacrifice nature, but rather takes advantage of it in order to benefit human beings, keeping the resources in tact. Throughout the trip, as we saw the environmental destruction wreaked by hydropower plants, we would remember the Dujiangyan water system and how even in ancient times we could balance the interests of the people with the interests of the environment.
The Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 destroyed most of the chemical industry that had developed in Dujiangyan. At the time, local experts had proposed to the government that the city give up the chemical industry altogether, in order to clear the skies of the smog that had hung over the city. They believed that by developing the tourism and service industries, Dujiangyan could reap an equal amount of profit using attractions such as the irrigation system, which in addition to being useful was also very beautiful, and the nearby mountains. Experts across disciplines backed the idea, because they knew that the air and water quality of the city have a direct impact on the lives of thousands and thousands of people.
In the post-quake reconstruction, however, the local government reached out to attract not touristic investment, but money to turn the city into a national chemical industrial park. Experts and citizens found that not only were the collapsed factories rebuilt, but that there were more and more of them.
It’s not hard to find the answer why: “That’s very simple,” said the Decade River Project’s expert geologist, Yang Yong. “Tourism brought income to ordinary people and businesses through restaurants, hotels, and shopping, but heavy industry increased the local government’s income and improved GDP statistics.”
The Chens are one family that has been greatly affected by these local governmental decisions. They were relocated during the construction of the nearby Zipingpu dam. After the dam was built, the family was given a new house. During the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, however, this house was damaged and the Chen family had to repair it without government compensation. Bad luck seemed to follow the family—they completed the repairs on their house only to have it torn down again by developers. Now, we were worried that we would be unable to find the family at all.
After much searching however, we discovered that the Chen’s had moved to the house they had lived in before they were relocated, where they now had opened a restaurant. Chen Ming, the father of the family, and his wife then opened a supermarket of a much larger size than the grocery store they had previously been running. We were happy to hear about the family’s changes, but Chen Ming told us that although business was now good, it came mostly from the construction companies working here. Once they left, he knew the place would become quiet again.
The family next to Chen Ming’s was not one of those we follow yearly for the project, but over the years we have been witnessing their changes as well. We have watched from the first year when they opened the “Good Neighbor Grocery Store” to the empty stacks in the second year, to last year when Li Zhongzhu told us in tears that her son was one of the three in the village who had died in the Sichuan Earthquake. Apparently, he had been fishing at the Zipingpu Reservoir at the time, and the huge waves caused by the earthquake carried him away. This year, there hasn’t been as much change in their situation as Chen Ming’s family. The biggest change is that their house was also taken down, so they live in a simple cabin now.
As we left Chen Ming’s house, we told him that we hope his restaurant and supermarket will be very popular by the time we come next year. Although this is an expression of politeness, it is also our real hope.
Day 2, Caijiagang: Two Years in Tents
Through the night’s darkness, we were able to discern the shapes of the construction cranes looming over the town of Yingxiu, near the epicenter of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Our destination was Caijiagang, a village located high in the mountains.
When we arrived, we could not believe that the entire village was still living in tents almost two years after the earthquake. Xiaoping, a woman whose family the Decade River Project has been following, told us about the living conditions after the earthquake: houses were destroyed, and farmlands were buried. The only fortunate thing was that the kiwi berry trees survived and still yielded harvests.
This year, however, because of smoke emissions from the aluminum plant that recently resumed production, the trees shed all their flowers. As a result, none of the fruit trees in the region bore any fruit. Worse for Xiaoping, her forty bee hives were all wiped out by the smoke from the aluminum plant. Earlier in the year, I had stopped by Xiaoping’s house. I asked her why she did not demand compensation from the aluminum plant. She said that many villagers worked in the factory and that if she sued the factory, people would lose the income they receive now. Her husband does not work in the factory, because his skin becomes swollen the minute that he enters the premises; otherwise, he would be working there along with the others in the village.
That night the group slept in Tang Xiaoping’s tents outside. Since the earthquake, she has had to move her tents five times. The tent where the Decade River Project’s female team members slept was equipped with electricity, but the gentlemen had to make do in the darkness. Some in the group were unable to fall asleep at night because of the cold. For those whose only experience has been city life, this lifestyle was only a concept until they came to the Caijiagang area.
As for the post-disaster reconstruction, we discovered that unlike Chen Ming’s relatively urban neighborhood we had visited the day before, post-disaster aid was quite limited in this remote village near the earthquake’s epicenter.
One problem in rebuilding after the disaster has been that urban districts tend to receive the bulk of aid from local organizations, while efforts in rural areas are self-supporting under the guidance of the government. Another problem is that the highest priority has been to rebuild the highly profitable factories, rather than civilian buildings that would greatly improve people’s quality of life. For instance, the aluminum plant, which opened on the day of the earthquake and was severely damaged in the disaster, was repaired at top speed—much faster than the housing for the several hundred villagers who are still living in tents.
According to the local government’s verbal contract, each household in the village should receive a subsidy for moving costs. However, long after moving, many villagers have still not received any response from the government, and have been forced to go to Chengdu and other places to report the issue. The problem remains unresolved, however, and the villagers’ attempt to receive compensation seems only to have created more problems.
One day, for instance, the chief of police at the local station suddenly came by with six policemen. In front of everyone, they beat a handicapped man who was resting near the village entrance and then, without explanation, gave citations to the other passersby. Those who had been cited were taken to the police station and later released. When the villagers asked again for the moving fees, they received this ridiculous reply: “You can get the moving fees if you voluntarily give up the housing loan of 20,000 yuan.”
Although the villagers lost most of their savings, they were able to raise enough money to build houses—something desperately needed, as the cold, harsh environment in the mountains makes living in tents nearly unbearable. In 2009, when the men of the Decade River Project got up in the morning, their bedding had become so wet that we could wring water from the blankets.
Every morning, the villagers go to work in the nearby aluminum factory. The smoke and dust in the factory is hazardous to one’s health after it is absorbed by the lungs. “We have no choice at all,” the villagers replied when I asked about why they work at the factory, “we still owe a lot of money to the construction team.”
The villagers still love their home, however, despite all that has happened. This location, known as the “back garden” of Chengdu, used to be a terrific place for residents of Chengdu to visit and enjoy over the weekend. Nowadays, however, it is totally different, as rivers and mountains are no longer beautiful, and the trees and grass no longer green.
Still trying to receive a steady stream of tourists, the villagers have tried their best to rebuild their houses as quickly as possible. “If you come next year, you can live in my home.” Xiaoping, the woman whose family we have been following, said happily as she saw us off, “but I’m afraid the houses will not be finished this year.” With that, she became lost in thought.
It makes us sad on the Decade River Project to think that, after the earthquake, people had a chance to start respecting the environment. However, it seems that man has instead continued to disrupt the workings of the environment. Worse still, people continue to do so with high-sounding justifications like ‘post-disaster reconstruction.’
What has been lost to a nation through disaster can be compensated by the progress it achieves afterward. Can this really be true? Today, as we walked along the river, we worried that this wasn’t the case at all.
Day 3, The Miyaluo Valley: Power is Priority
We arrived in the valley when the leaves reached their full color. The Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 had hit the Zagunao River area while a local hydropower station was undergoing initial construction, forcing the station to open its sluice gates and let the river flow freely. After the earthquake the Zagunao River in the Miyaluo Valley seemed unaffected by the previous construction, as if it were returned to the beginning again.
As we entered the Miyaluo Valley, a giant dam stood out in front of us. It was part of the Shiziping Hydropower Station, the main station of the Zagunao River. In the building of the dam, workers exploited a large part of the mountainside, exposing the rocks underneath.
To make matters worse, only three months after the hydropower station started to store water in September of 2008, collapses began occurring between the dam and the adjacent highway.
The hydropower station’s reservoir water level is far below the required height for it to produce hydropower. We wonder what the Zagunao River will look like when the reservoirs water begins to rise.
The construction workers tell us that Shiziping Power Station’s construction materials are almost all local. They say the soil here is like natural cement and consider it a gift from nature to help build the stations.
While looking at the excavations of the big mountain, we asked a construction worker on the road, “is there a plan for restoring the vegetation after building the reservoirs?”
“Yes—by planting the red trees again,” he says.
With regard to “replanting,” an expert ecologist on the Decade River Project told us that the red leaves of the trees come from certain conditions in nature over time, that they were something people could not simulate, and therefore the trees, once cut, were irreplaceable. If the trees are replanted, they will still not produce Miyaluo’s red leaves.
Other power stations and canals have greatly disrupted the ecological balance of the area. “Power generation ranks first in the uses of hydropower in the southwest,” said Yang Yong, a geologist on the Decade River Project. “I do not oppose hydropower generation, but the means of doing it should not be so disorderly and excessive. The rivers are living entities that have their own systems. Hydropower must follow the principle of ‘ecology first’ to ensure the natural watershed and drainage areas continue to work well.”
“Unlike China, countries abroad predominantly use quiet flow hydropower stations. The quiet flow station does not completely block the river, so it preserves the natural flow of rivers and migratory fish. It generates electricity yet does not kill the river.” Yang Yong added.
"Many years ago, when I came to the town of Miyaluo, it was small and exquisite, with little bridges, flowing water and houses. It also had snowy views, sunshine, and distant mountains. Everything was covered with the color of red maple leaves,” said one of the Decade River Project team members sadly.
Day 4: Desertification along the Dadu River
The Dadu River surges down the slopes of Bayankala Mountain at the junction of Sichuan and Qinghai province. It traverses miles of land and forms myriad majestic canyons. The change in elevation along the river’s course makes the water rush and surge through the canyons.
Numerous landslides have been caused by man-made reservoirs during the past few years. Equally troubling and worthy of our attention, however, is the desertification of the mountain region close to the river. We observed this new trend while exploring the banks of the Dadu River on the way to Danba.
Recently, when one hears of desertification, one thinks of the western regions in China. The two experts accompanying us along the Dadu River, however, made us aware that the stony desertification in the East has also become a serious environmental problem. It has caused a loss of vegetation, the salinization and alkalization of barren soil, and the disintegration of large boulders.
The ecologist Xu Fengxiang, a Decade River Project team member, says that desertification is the last stage of ecological destruction. Now, areas with a moist climate in southeast and southwest China are suddenly faced with the problem of desertification. As winds blow across the countryside, they carry with them sand from drier regions. As a result, deserts expand and stretch across the landscape into areas that would not normally have to contend with such issues. Regrettably, the fact that the deserts are expanding has not caught many people’s attention. In 2006 in Danba County, Sichuan, a tremendous landslide caused by desertification resulted in the deaths of innocent victims and large economic losses.
The Dadu River is now the site of an extremely large hydropower construction project. In total, 22 first-grade hydropower plants are planned with a total installed capacity of more than 25 million kilowatts. These projects will only increase the desertification problems of the mountains regions around the river.
“In the Dadu River Valley, bare and crumbling rock has appeared in many places, indicating a potential for desertification,” said one expert. “Considering this geological situation, this area needs protection, not more exploitation.”
All along the river, we saw that clouds of dust and roaring machines had replaced the flowers and chirping birds. At the construction site of one dam, the once surging waters now trickled feebly. A slogan which read “To Develop Monkey Rock and To Exploit the Dadu River” hung in the center of the construction site. Several miles closer to the dam, trucks carrying sand moved back and forth on the bare river bed, and there were piles of sand and rubble on both sides of the mountain.
The project was shut down last year for failing to pass the environmental examination and obtain approval of the National Development and Reform Committee, but is now apparently free to continue building.
“They began construction before reporting to the higher committees for approval,” said a reporter who had inside information about Luding’s hydroelectric exploitation. “Because what has been started and done cannot be undone, the higher committees can do nothing but approve it.”
During the Decade River Project in 2006, we saw that the Dadu River flowed freely upstream of the construction project. Construction at one bank of the Dadu River started in 2007. By 2008 the river was almost cut-off, and at the end of 2009 the dam base was completed.
Seeing the huge dam base and construction area, the Decade River Project’s expert geologist Yang Yong said, “I spent all of 1989 walking along the Dadu River. I never expected a situation like this.”
In addition to water diversion, the area is also experiencing desertification due to overexploitation of its resources during asbestos production. “Global resources are declining,” said Yang Yong. “We need to develop with caution and keep resource reserves.” He was very concerned about the excessive exploitation of the mountains for asbestos.
Wang Yingchun, a reporter from China Economy added, “Nevertheless, resource development can promote progress in the local economy. How can we convince the local government to refocus on protecting resources when everything is decided by GDP today?”
Wang Lijing from National Geographic agreed, “Not only does the local government believe it is lagging behind in terms of development, but the local people do as well. They want more development and construction. They want the same kind of prosperity that Beijing and Shanghai have. At this point, it is difficult for us to convince them that environment is more important than economy.”
Day 5, Hanyuan: A New Home, Falling Apart
Fulin is now half underwater and half in ruins. The changes began with the construction of the Pubugou Hydropower Station, which partially flooded the town. Some people work on the ruins recovering building materials such as square bricks and steel rods for the construction of a new city. Most people moved out of their old houses before the city became a stretch of water. Some wander along the water, looking for steel rods from their dismantled old houses to sell them for money. Some people even bring along their children to help.
The people of Fulin, especially the farmers, used to regard the river as their mother river. It had nourished them for more than two thousand years. They didn’t know anything about development, but still development came and one day they found that their mother river had submerged their home.
Most areas drowned by the first water storage were fertile farm grounds, which meant that tens of thousands of people lost their farmland. Even people in town with fixed salaries suffered from the soaring prices of food.
A fried pancake vendor told her story, weeping, “We used to live in the countryside, and we always had more food than we could eat. My husband also did some odd jobs, which brought in additional income. We lived in a three-story building, with a big yard. We planted hundreds of fruit trees and had a big family. Now, our paddy fields have been flooded and we’ve lost our house.”
“They told us we would receive an allowance,” she continued, “but they didn’t keep their promise. They also told us that we would be given thirty square meters of living space, but it proved to be only twenty square meters, including the doors and the walls.”
After the relocation, many people lost their land and had financial troubles. More importantly, though, they worried about the quality of their new homes and businesses. The roofs and bathrooms leaked. Cracks appeared on the wall. The infrastructure of the town was underdeveloped and the roads were broken in less than a month. The farmers didn’t know who could help them, so every day they waited for the government to find the construction company to repair their houses. But day after day, they were disappointed.
Encouraging relocation slogans are still posted everywhere around the old town, saying things like “Move to a new home for the New Year and life will be sweeter than honey.”
But for many, the move has not made life sweeter. The fried pancake vendor told us, “what I am most worried about is my son. He is a middle school student. Because we became poor in such a short period of time, he has been distracted from his studies. There is no electricity and no water in our house, and he goes out every night. Sometimes he even stays out all night. I am so afraid that he might fail the high school entrance examination.” This woman told us her story and wept. Her tears wet the fried pancakes.
Hearing her story, an ecologist on our team commented, “Development may be an absolute principle, but it is not the only principle. It is not right to think that the aim of a developing economy is to achieve political goals instead of to improve people’s lives.”
Day 6, Muli County: Panning for Gold, Destroying the River for Generations
Our destination was a gold-panning camp in the mountains where panning campaigns have been destroying the rivers dramatically. We were headed for the Muli Tibetan Autonomous County of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. Muli County is extremely ethnically diverse, containing Tibetans, Yi and 13 other minorities, as well as Han.
Statistics show that in Muli, the Erze mining area alone contains 10,810 kilograms of gold, which will reportedly last for over 200 years of mining. High quality, nonmetallic resources, such as crystal, gypsum, sandstone, and shale mines, are also abundant.
We are not quite convinced by the assurance that the gold here will last for 200 years however. Does it mean that the mines will be available for mining for 200 years? If so, what happens after 200 years? The mountains are already damaged.
Talking to the owner of the hotel where we stayed, we heard how it was not only the mountains that were affected. In the hotel owner’s opinion, the Shuiluo River is also no longer what it used to be. He told us, “Go and have a look; you will be very disappointed.”
We asked him, "Didn't local residents mine for gold in the past? Did they start destroying the river then?" But the owner explained to us that back then, residents panned for gold without using big machines. Now they use machines to divert the river and they dig up the placer gold from the dry riverbed.
The principle of digging for gold is to discover a plot of land rich in gold and then hold an auction to sell the mining rights to that area. It is a haphazard and luck-based business, however. One person can have the mining rights to a certain piece of land for some time and find nothing, but the next person who buys the mining rights to the same area may dig out a great amount of gold after only a few days of work. The gold they find can be worth hundreds of thousands of yuan. “It’s all luck,” said the hotel owner.
When we asked him if every villager along the river wanted to make a fortune by mining for gold, he told us no and gave us an example. Above their village, there is another village named Kalou. Strangers are not allowed by the residents living on the banks of the Milk River to dam or dig there. The Shuiluo River is the only access to the Shangri-La touring circle. These residents decided to restrict mining because they believed that mining could only enrich the present generation of residents. They wish to preserve their beautiful river so that they can provide for future generations.
Day 7: The Shuiluo River Strangled by Two Giants, Hydropower and Gold-Panning
Xiaofang was a girl from Hunan. She was sitting in a tent reading magazines by the side of the Shuiluo River when we first saw her. These tents were the homes of the Shuiluo River's gold panning team who had been living in these mountains for three months, giving up their lives in Hunan in search of a better one.
There were many gold-panners near the Shuiluo River. Xiaofang was only one member of a team. She chose to leave her home and come to the mountains like the thousands of other people. Her hopes were not difficult to imagine.
When we left our log cabin that morning, we realized what a bad condition the Shuiluo River was in. Many people have seen large rivers, but I doubt many people have ever seen such a large river's waterway change so dramatically.
Yesterday, the boss of the Shuiluo Grand Hotel told us, "In the past there were many fish in the river. We could fish a few pounds easily, but now, the river has changed. Not only are there no more fish, no life at all can be found in the water.”
On one end of the river a large hydropower station was being constructed, and at the other end people were panning for gold in the streams on a very large scale. What do these things do to the rivers? Yang Yong expressed his worry about the gold rush, and the boss of the gold-panners listened carefully and nodded, saying that they changed the waterway to pan for gold. They promised to allow the river to recover after they were done panning for gold by planting trees along the riverbank. But can these gold-panners keep such a promise?
The Decade River Project team members have seen many different kinds of hydropower construction sights, including their many slogans: "environmental protection", "developing green hydropower " and "building a hydropower monument." Such slogans can be seen everywhere. But beside these slogans we always see dry river beds and devastated mountains. These stations only appear environmentally friendly and significant in the eyes of the people who write them.
Yang Yong told us, "Gold excavation will cause pine trees by the riverside to fall into the river. A lack of trees will cause soil and sand around the river to become loose. The silt that falls into the river will deposit near the mouth of the water gate when it is closed, decreasing the storage capacity of the reservoir. During floods, this silt may threaten the security of the river and the lives of the people living by it because the reservoir will not be able to store as much water with layers of silt in its riverbed.”
The local government knows the environmental destruction this type of project will cause, but there is little it can do to change the course of the construction. The hydropower station is a national project, and all the gold-panners have permits issued by the Ministry of Land and Resources to pan for gold in the river. Since they were only county leaders, they did not have the authority to manage these people. It was difficult for them to watch their rivers being ruined without being able to do anything to stop it. They desperately wished that their situation could get more attention. Although they wanted to develop the economy, they felt sad watching the exploitation of local rivers and the environment.
Day 8: From Xichang to Panzhihua and from Yellow Phosphorus to Titanium Pigment
Panzhihua City is typical of cities that have based their development on the exploitation of their natural resources. It is also an industrial city, a mountain city, and a city of immigrants. Like many heavily industrialized cities, wealth and prosperity have come at the expense of the environment, and environmental issues in Panzhihua have become both a hot topic and taboo at the same time.
The region was known for its unique and closed geographical features, including its glaciers, forests, rare animals, and diverse species of wild flowers and fungi. One can still see the marks of the ancient glacier on the land. Next to a hundred year-old rhododendron tree are timeworn glacial grooves. Stones carried by the flow of moving glaciers created these glacial grooves, which are also known as glacial scratches.
Within the past few years, however, this fascinating, pristine environment has changed. The Decade River Project has discovered more and more air pollution hovering over the river. The two big polluters in the area are the yellow phosphorus factories and more recently, the titanium pigment plants.
Yellow phosphorus is extremely dangerous to humans and can be fatal. When yellow phosphorus pollutants enter the human body, they often cause respiratory and lung diseases, the beginning effects of which—dizziness and extreme physical discomfort—I felt two years ago after only a few hours in a yellow phosphorus factory. There is also an emerging international trend of yellow phosphorus production moving from developed countries to developing countries. Domestically, this trend is echoed in the moving of yellow phosphorous production from China’s developed east to China’s developing west.
Now, pollution from titanium pigment plants has been added into the mix. These factories produce a pigment used to impart whiteness and brightness. Currently considered the world's best white pigment, titanium dioxide is widely used in paints, plastics, paper, cosmetics, food supplements, and even medicine.
On our visit, Yang Yong, a geologist who grew up in Panzhihua, pointed to a block of factories and showed us many titanium pigment plants. He also told us that the U.S. has similar plants, but unlike the factories in Panzhihua, the conditions of the rivers and lakes around the U.S. plants have remained the same. It seems that titanium pigment is not the problem so much as the method of its production.
That night, a woman showed us the sewage drain behind her house that is currently being used everyday around the clock. The sound of the sewage drain at night was particularly loud and the smell especially disgusting.
Heading back that night, the dense smoke from the four columns of flame in front of a new yellow phosphorus factory shielded the moon and a bad smell arose from the sewage drain of the titanium pigment factory.
Day 9, Panzhihua: Trouble in the City of Titanium and Vanadium
“Is that from your factory?” we asked the guards at Panzhihua Steel, pointing to a heap of waste not far from the factory gate. “Is it safe to discard titanium and whitening waste like that?” The guards, however, only answered that it was safe and useful for farmers.
We asked for their managers, wanting to know whether a sinkhole we had found the night before, which drained sewage directly into Jinsha River, belonged to the factory, but we were repeatedly rebuffed. Finally, after finding a manager and haggling with him over whether or not we were allowed to see his factory’s sinkhole, we told the man about the ‘Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information’ issued by the State Council on May 1, 2009. This code gives the public the right to know whether or not sewage meets government standards, and it certainly gives us the right to know about the large stream of sewage leaving Panzhihua Steel.
Hearing this, the manager stopped asking whether we were journalists and immediately showed us the pool used for sewage treatment. Despite its yellow color, the man told us the water absolutely met all standards. We then followed him to his factory’s sinkhole, where he took out a small piece of yellow paper and threw it in the water, explaining that if the paper turned red, there was something wrong with the water, otherwise, it met the set standards.
We later learned that pH level, what his paper color test measured, was only one of the standards for liquid waste discharge. These standards also include guidelines for color, suspended solids, chemical oxygen demand, and dozens of specific limits on heavy metal pollutants.
Yang Yong, a geologist on the Decade River Project, explained the problem: “there is no uniform process or environmental standard among these small factories. What’s more, there is no standard technology or environmental protection equipment.”
In addition to the lack of standards and technology, a large number of low-cost small businesses are involved in the industries, making the exploitation of vanadium and titanium minerals extensive and disorderly. In Panzhihua, every mountain seems to have been stripped bare, maimed and left with open wounds.
Local residents did not seem to mourn the loss of the mountains, however, “If you don’t exploit the minerals, other people will for you.” said one local resident.
Yang Yong felt that one way to curb the crippling exploitation of Panzhihua was to follow in the footsteps of the so-called Shangri-La. His idea initially aroused interest from local government officials in charge of tourism. However, his voice was soon buried by shouts of those in favor of resource development.
In 2005, Panzhihua was honored as a national tourist city. The local experts said it was a bit of joke for the city to receive this honor. They said Panzhihua has many immigrants from northeastern China and when the city was being evaluated for the tourist prize, the local government hired many old immigrants whose accent had not changed. They acted as tourists on every street specifically to impress unannounced visitors from the National Tourism Administration. One day, a newspaper reported an old woman from northeastern China who said that her experience as a tourist in Panzhihua had been so great that she wanted to settle down here. In fact, the old woman has already been “settled down” in Panzhihua for over forty years.
We left Panzhihua with regret, but also with our eyes, nose and throat burning from the city’s smoke.
Just outside of Panzhihua were stunning fields and signs of life without large-scale development. It goes without saying that China needs to develop, but we also need fresh air and a healthy environment to carry out our lives, as well as a place for traditional customs. I had felt afraid that such a simple life was fast disappearing in the so-called “developing areas,” but here in the country at least, it hasn’t yet faded away.
Day 10, Lugu Lake: Environmental Protection as a Consideration, not a Condition
Lugu Lake, located between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, is the ancestral home and mother lake of the Mosuo people, the only existing matriarchal society left in China. They do not have single-partner marriages, but employ the "walking marriage" system. Because of its matriarchal social structure, the Mosuo Nation is known as "The Kingdom of Women."
We stopped for a view of the lake. Its waves were as smooth as a mirror. Despite the cool breeze, we could not see even the slightest disturbance on the surface of the lake. Gulls traced back and forth across the sky, so soft that one could not even feel the movement of the birds’ wings. We stood, gazing out at this scene of immense quiet.
After it was published online, the Ahai Power Plant’s Environmental Impact Assessment caused concern among many environmental groups, experts, and journalists. In response, a dozen experts jointly put forward their own views and suggestions. Such broad participation and interest was the first of its kind in the history of China's large-scale hydropower projects. Dubbed the “Ahai incident” by the media, this event is considered a model of public participation in China’s national engineering projects.
The "Ahai incident" did not stop the construction of the Ahai dam, but it could be described as a big step in the implementation of the public’s right to participate in the process. Although the power-plant supporters used manipulative strategies to weaken the voices of those objecting to its construction, immigrants and environmentalists both continuously emphasized their support for the use of "legal procedures" and "due process of law" and demanded to work out the problem within the framework of the law.
In December 2008 Yang Yong, having just participated in the Decade River Project, was invited to represent Green Earth Volunteers as a participant in a specialists’ review of the Ahai hydropower plant held by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
At the meeting, Yang Yong and another NGO representative explained that the Jinsha River downstream of the proposed dam (in the region from Shigu to Yibin) houses over 160 species of fish, 16 species of which are directly affected by the Ahai dam.
Yang Yong told the specialists at the review, “If we build the Ahai hydropower station, these fish will die out.”
At the meeting, the Ministry of Environmental Protection proposed to make the Shuiluo river, an existing a tributary of the Jinsha River, into an alternative stream for fish breeding.
That day, we entered the Ahai power station, which had already passed environmental inspection and was under construction. Since the project was supervised by China’s armed hydroelectric construction, ordinary cars weren’t allowed in. Team members of the Decade River Project came up with a myriad of excuses for entering the area, one of them being that there was a patient in the car in need of immediate medical attention in the town next to the Li River.
Having to resort to these kinds of measures shows how little power or status environmentalists sometimes have. Despite the earlier meeting, the Shuiluo River has now been ravaged by hydropower projects and illegal panning for gold. The river can no longer support the rare fish that specialists were trying to save.
An ecologist on the Decade River Project, Xu Fengxiang, believes that in the decision-making process around major building projects, environmental protection is still not a condition, but merely a consideration. In fact, the environmental report is often written after the planning process is complete.
Yang Yong agreed: "in terms of effectively protecting the environment, this procedure is nonsensical. It’s like hoping to buy a ticket after getting on the train.”
He then added, "Unfortunately, the trend of hydropower development along the Jinsha River is irreversible, even despite a number of projects being temporarily halted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.”
Day 11: Anxiety along Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Jinsha River Valley
When one of the eight power stations was being constructed along the first major bend in the Yangtze River, a young man collapsed due to work-induced exhaustion. He never recovered and in memoriam, the people along the riverside pooled their resources and erected a stone monument for him near the river marked with five big characters: “Son of the Jinsha River.”
The Jinsha is the name given to this first bend of the Yangtze, which flows down from the Tibetan Plateau, or the "Roof of the World," into Yunnan, and then snakes through the high mountains and deep valleys.
Several years ago, a power station was planned for Tiger Leaping Gorge, a beautiful and popular tourist destination on the Jinsha River. The power station, if built, would flood the area around the first bend of the Yangtze River, and even worse, at least one hundred thousand people would be forced to leave their homes At the time of the power station’s construction, people were worried about having to move, but now they have begun building houses instead and their quality of life has improved.
Starting in 2004, due to its sensitive location and the potential loss of rich land, the Longpan Dam in Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge attracted wide attention. Eventually, due to the protests of experts, scholars, news media, environmentalists, and officials, the construction of Longpan Dam was halted.
An environment and geological expert Fan Xiao said, “the Tiger Leaping Gorge hydropower station was temporarily shelved, but downstream hydropower construction was not adjusted accordingly. It still treats the Tiger Leaping Gorge as a leading reservoir for regulating capacity, which would ultimately result in the construction of Tiger Leaping Gorge hydropower station.”
“The Jinsha River Valley is a corridor with cultural diversity to match its biodiversity, in which the Naxi, Lisu, Bai, Yi, Hui, Pumi, and Han people live together and help each other,” added Weng Lida, another Decade River Project team member.
However, when listening to the villagers chat amongst themselves, it was apparent that the suspension of the Tiger Leaping Gorge power station did not reduce their worries about the future of the river.
“We are reluctant to lose our homes. Even if we have to relocate, we will fight for our rights,” one villager said.
“If we have to move, we hope that we will get long-term, rather than one-time, compensation,” said a county deputy in the village. He also said that the best solution would be one that was beneficial to both the villagers and the hydropower station.
Day 13, Jinyi: Thirst in a Migrant Village
Since the Jinanqiao power station started storing water, many acres farmland have been submerged and over 2,000 people have been forced to migrate.
We entered the village intending to conduct interviews and have lunch at the same time. The village is mainly composed of Lisu people, a Chinese minority group, along with a few Li people, another Chinese minority group. That morning we had barely eaten anything. The roads had also been very bumpy so we were all starving when we arrived at the village. However, to our surprise, none of the restaurants there were open.
A villager named old uncle Li explained the problem simply: "we don’t even have enough water for ourselves, let alone to run a restaurant.”
We found it strange. By asking the villagers around us, we came to realize that because the Jinanqiao power station was storing water, the villagers had been forced to move from the riverbank to where they were now in Jinyi village. Unfortunately, after they moved here, they found that there were many problems with the infrastructure and public facilities in the new village, such as subsiding house foundations and cracked roofs. The villagers had to re-build new houses with their tiny compensation funds.
The water supply of the village, however, has been an even more serious problem. Because their moving project was carried out in haste, the Jinyi village was situated far away from any water sources.
“The acres of farmland and woodland that we owned outside of this circle weren’t compensated at all,” said one farmer. “Barely anything was compensated within a ten-meter radius of our houses.”
Villagers here seldom have contact with the local government because they live in the remote mountains. The immigration office has done little to help, so the villagers have no idea who to turn to. “The government was the one who asked us to move here, but where are they now when we need help with the bad living conditions of our new village?” asked old uncle Li.
Entering Ludila Dam in disguise
That evening, we tried entering Ludila by driving a large sedan into the facility, but we were stopped at the entrance. We were only able to take several photos of the high mountains and the sparkling river at sunset.
Our next try was to rent a light truck that had a pass to enter the dam. Our six team members disguised themselves as local residents and their relatives. One of the members even hid her camera under her clothes and pretended to be pregnant. After disguising ourselves carefully, we got in the truck and proceeded towards the major construction area of the Ludila Dam.
We had gone only a little way however, when our truck was intercepted by security at the third toll-gate. They threw the clothes off one of our cameramen and found his camera. As a result, four journalists (including two cameramen) were intercepted outside the third toll-gate, and the pass of the man driving the pickup truck was taken by security.
After leaving the dam, we paid a visit to some nearby residents who told us that in order to prevent journalists and environmentalists from collecting evidence, the owner of the dam sent an urgent order last night to suspend all construction work and prohibit all automobiles from entering that day.
Since their emigration, the lives of many families we talked to in the village have changed in a matter of months. Because of a technicality in their relocation, families have received neither new cropland nor compensation for their old cropland. Without this land, all of a family’s necessities, vegetables in particular, have to be purchased at a soaring price in their new village. High prices have kept many people from eating vegetables, as their small savings have been depleted in the purchase of their new houses.
It turned out that the migrants' old houses had been compensated by the government at 300 yuan per square meter, but the new houses, built by the government with the same standards as the old houses, required 700 yuan per square meter to build. One family we talked to, the Lius, spent more than 50,000 yuan to make up for this difference, an expense that threw them into debt.
Although the Lius are confronting a new life with many difficulties, their new house is bigger, and their small restaurant brings hope to their lives. If the government can quickly find land for them, maybe the lives of hard-working farmers like the Lius will improve day by day. We could not provide any practical help to them, besides some encouragement and our blessing.
Day 14: The Nu River Awakens a Group of People
Starting in the summer of 2003, the Chinese media and NGOs began to call for better development of the Jinsha and Nu River banks. During this time, the Decade River Project saw from the street markets that farmers were leading an affluent life, making us remember Hanyuan in Sichuan Province. When we went there in 2004, we had seen the streets crowed with markets. This year, however, we saw only blocks of new buildings still under construction. Although the construction has not been completed, the immigrants whose original houses have been flooded by the reservoir’s storing water had been forced to move in. Their only source of income was from baking cakes on the streets, and even then they were often driven out by the urban management officers.
We visited a village along the Nu River where a young Lisu, an ethnic minority, said to me emotionally by the riverside: “in China there are still many people from the mountains who are not rich. However, these people are optimistic every day. Maybe they have no meat or oil all year round, but still they sing, dance, and drink every day. This is their culture. This is their life. Poor as they are, they are happy. They also have protected their homes and let the natural scene of the mountains and rivers be handed down from generation to generation. This is exactly the life of the Lisu people in the mountains.
Shi Lihong, a director taking documentary film footage of the 2009 Decade River Project, asked me in the car, “What do you think of the postponed construction of the hydropower station on the Nu River?”
I replied, “Here one can see not only a free-flowing river, but also the power of public participation.”
Since people heard the news that a series of dams would be built on the Nu River, a large group of insightful people, including government officials, experts, scholars, journalists and environmentalists, have confronted profit and development-oriented interests to protect China’s last river without any man-made obstructions.
People routinely ask me if the Nu River dam is built, will I regard it as a failure. I always tell them, "the river awakened a group of people."
Day 15: Reflections along the Nu River
We were enjoying the twilight of the Nu River as we arrived at moonlit Bingzhongluo, a small village along the first bend in the Nu River. I spent each a night on each of my nine trips here at a farmhouse in this small village. I was familiar with the wooden house, the golden ears of corn hung under the roof of kitchen, the pie grilled in a stone-pot over the fireplace, and the drinking songs sung by the whole family. Every time, the daughter-in-law Ahua would smile and say, “Welcome back. I’ve cooked your favorite dried bamboo shoots.”
Today, when we arrived at Ahua’s house, she said, “You’ve come too late. We have run out of bamboo shoots. I will find some for you tomorrow.” Her warm words made me feel at home immediately.
Every one of us was worried that if dams were built here they might flood this beautiful place. While driving, we had seen golden mountains with rosy clouds of dawn appearing like kitchen smoke curling from the deep forests. Seeing such beautiful scenery, many team members were so excited that they couldn’t keep themselves from singing aloud or reciting poems.
As we settled around the fire of the family’s house, old uncle Li began the story of the how the area and the Nu River were formed: Almost three million years ago, two tectonic plates collided, raising the Himalayas. The Nu River originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through the heart of these intersecting mountains, running through the rugged eastern foothills of the Himalayas, cutting across deep canyons, and flowing through China's most remote regions. The river is rugged and can move dangerously fast, yet villagers of different minority religions have lived in harmony with mountains, water, heaven, and God for centuries.
Li told us that everyone was happy because there would be no construction in the village, thanks to the diverse array of experts who fought the construction of hydropower dams along the Nu River.
“We have lived here for generations. We really don’t want to move,” Li said.
It was midnight when we left the fireplace. We wondered what the fate of the Nu River would be, along with all the rivers and places that we had visited on our trip. In the quiet darkness, the distant snowy Biluo Mountain could be seen clearly, standing like a beacon, silently guarding the land it loomed over.
Day 16: Reflections by Team Members on the Decade River Project
We have seen many things on this year’s trip, and each of us in turn has felt touched by the work of the Decade River Project and Green Earth Volunteers. On the last day of the trip, each team member shared a little about what the Decade River Project brings to their lives.
Xu Fengxiang, Ecologist:
“These trips always remind me that the Decade River Project springs from a respect for science and a love for our people's life. We always say that the mountains are a jade hair clasp and the water is green scarf; articles customary and necessary to the usual way of living. But now, the mountains and rivers are delicate and incomplete; the white hat (mountains covered with snow) is shrinking, the green scarf and hat are becoming ragged and falling to bits.”
Yang Yong, Geologist:
“The Decade River Project focuses on rivers in southwest China. These rivers are the source of many other Chinese rivers. These water resources need to be protected and conserved, in order to continue the delivery of such a vital resource to the people living along the lower reaches of the river.”
Fan Xiao, Geologist:
“It's impossible to stop the development of hydroelectricity. Even the programs that have been halted because of negative environmental evaluations will not be stopped forever. In most cases, so many resources have been devoted thereto that the loss would be considerable.
“Still, we believe these large-scale projects in geologically-sensitive areas must consider the geological environment. At a minimum, the Decade River Project provides a platform for the public to get involved and supervise the rivers’ development to ensure their proper protection.”
Wang Lijing, Editor of China National Geographic:
“As a member of the Decade River Project, sometimes I feel depressed when I am confronted with scenery that has lost its beauty and yet other times I feel happy when I get to see free-flowing rivers and undisturbed nature. No matter where we go, I am deeply moved by the optimism and the perseverance of our team.”
Lu Zongshu, Journalist:
“At this time with our quickly developing economy, Green Earth Volunteers has spent almost ten years recording the rivers of the southwest. The enterprise and spirit of perseverance in the organization is inspiring. Every time I see the damaged rivers, I feel the powerlessness of the mass media and the importance of a project like the Decade River Project.”
Tu Chonghuang, Journalist:
“Rivers are our hopes.”
Zhang Weiqi, Student
“I feel grateful for the chance the Decade River Project gives me to change my life from ‘life in thinking’ to ‘life in action.’”
Ye Tian, Producer:
“We use pens, cameras and DVR to record the impressive rivers and the fate of the residents who accompany them. We use our eyes, languages and souls to observe and contemplate what is beneath the river waters that are at times powerful, and at other times very still. All I want to do is to devote my tiny efforts and to fulfill my responsibility to society. I feel grateful for the chance that Decade River Project has given me.”
Zhou Chen, Writer:
As said by Mr. Zhan Shan (a famous painter and team member on the project), “Even the most excellent painters can do nothing but sigh when faced with a country of broken mountains and rivers.”
“The joy one experiences while volunteering is actually multi-dimensional: the joy of realizing self-value, the joy of working together with people who share the common goals and the joy of being in and around nature.
“During our trips, the volunteers do not need to be anxious about title evaluations, handle pressure from work, or have difficulty falling asleep because they are worrying about something. Faced with silent and broken nature watching the rushing waves of the Nu River the flowing clouds, and the shining snow mountains together, we are happy. This is the happiness from volunteering that remains present for one’s whole life.
“The Decade River Project isn't just about nature and rivers; it's also about our group and the affection among us. Our group will write the history of this part of China, and, in the process, become united and produce power together.”
Compiled by: Lauren Bryant