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, peop