Mar. 23, 2023

Decade River Project 2010 (3) Mudslides by the Nujiang River

Decade River Project 2010 (3) Mudslides by the Nujiang River

By Wang Yongchen

At seven a.m. on December 25, 2010, River Decade 2010 had its first interview with Li Zhanyou’s family in the Jiasheng Village of the Bingzhong Township near the Nujiang River. Because we spend 20 days every year visiting the six major rivers of China, our journeys start early in the morning and end at dusk.

Sitting by the fire in Li’s house

The couple’s tour in Beijing

Unlike last year, professors of social anthropology from Tsinghua University and the Third Sector Research Center of Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University took part in this year’s investigation. Their participation made our investigations of the selected households more meaningful.


Shimenguan, a narrow portion of the Nujiang River

Flowers by the river

Because River Decade 2010’s main focus this year is the calamitous drought in southwest China, I asked Li whether the Nujiang region had felt the impact of the global climate change.

“I’m not sure” Li said, “but in recent years, the leaves have been falling when they shouldn’t have fallen, and there has been more rainfall than ever before.” Li and his wife were also surprised that the Chinese chestnut trees hadn’t borne any fruit over the past two years and that the walnut trees aren’t growing as well as before. Li attributed that to climate change, because he said he could not think of any other causes. Walnuts and Chinese chestnuts used to be their source of income. Now, something has gone wrong. What will they do about their future?

As for changes, the change in Li’s family from 2009 to 2010 was that his daughter had become a performer in the newly founded performance troupe of the Bingzhongluo Township. One of the troupe’s tasks is to sing and dance when officials visit or when important events take place. Her income has become a key source of cash for the family. When we conducted a household investigation of Li’s family years ago, Li’s son-in-law had left the village to make money. Nowadays, his daughter performs outside the village, and his son-in-law has returned to take care of the family.

This is where the Li’s live. 

The biggest bend of the Nujiang, when the water was blue

A brook that flows into the Nujiang river

As Li told us last year, the government sent cattle and sheep to some of the villagers to help them out. Li received two head of cattle, but he was surprised when they grew leaner over time. This year, Li told us that the cattle sent by the government had died. Not until later did the villagers learn that the government sent them Brown Swiss cattle, which failed to acclimatize to the foreign environment. Now Li is raising a native bull and it is growing well.

When we asked about the life of Li’s daughter, Mrs. Li told us, “my daughter was required to board at school ever since she was very little. I was always worried that she would kick off her covers while sleeping at night and catch a cold.

In 2009, Li and his wife, along with some senior citizens from the village, visited Beijing with a travel agency.  We asked Li’s daughter, “Now that your life is better, when are you going to tour Beijing with your husband?” The young couple smiled. Obviously, this plan had already gone through their minds and they were simply waiting for it to materialize.

This June, Li’s daughter was elected as the director of the women's federation of the village. We asked her what the director’s most important task was at the time. According to her, because the villagers are minorities, every couple in the village can have two kids, but some want even more. Li’s daughter and her colleagues are supposed to dissuade them from having more kids. Judging from her description of the job, we knew that she had no complaints, even though her salary was only a mere 50 yuan per month compared to the 500 yuan per month salary of the other officials such as the village head and accountant.

When asked about the future plan of the family, Li said he wanted to equip the guest rooms with solar water heaters so that visitors during the holidays could both dine and sleep in his house, serving as another source of income. 

Li’s son-in-law still remembered, back when I did a survey among 100 villagers in 2006, that I asked him if he would agree to have a hydropower station built on the Nujiang river. Now, no one mentions the power station. This is a relief to them because the village has limited land resources and it wouldn’t be able to support more immigrants.

An important reason for building a dam on the Nujiang River is that the local area is too poor. However, judging from the present living condition of Li’s family, that is not the case. 


Walking by the Nujiang River

A gate between mountains

Having said goodbye to the Lis, we headed to Shimenguan, a fairly important scenic attraction in the upper reaches of the Nujiang River. This was the tenth time that I have visited the Nujiang River. During different seasons, the color of the river water changes. I have witnessed the Nujiang in the winter. Its blue waters are said to be as gentle as the girls of the Lisu tribe. Because the water wasn’t in its most beautiful shade of blue this time around, I inevitably felt a bit of disappointment. Although the Nujiang appeared to be calm, we could still see its rapid currents.

Children by the river

The different colors of the Wuli Village during different seasons

The Wuli Village, when the water is blue

An ancient tea route by the Nujiang River


During my previous nine visits to the Nujiang, I always stared at the ancient tea route across the river. Today we walked along the ancient road and wondered how people of the past advanced along these winding mountain paths while dragging horses loaded with goods.

This ancient tea route was chiseled out of such precipices.

The cliff above the road looks like a girl staring at the Nujiang River.

The cliffs along the ancient road provide a roof for the path. 

A sculpture made by Nature


The River Decade 2010 team on the ancient tea road by the Nujiang River (Photo by Liu Feng)

By the picturesque Nujiang River, we arrived at our second destination, a Nu tribe household. Interestingly, the daughter-in-law of the family is a girl whom the son had met while working in Myanmar. Although their nationalities are different, they speak the same language. It also turns out that the two boys in the picture we took earlier are the grandsons of the family. When I first traveled to the Nujiang River in 2004, I happened to take a picture of the same boy. The boy did not talk to us. When I asked him this time if he wanted to go to school, he simply shook his head. His father said, “He will attend school and we will pay for his schooling as long as we can afford it.”


A family of Nu nationality

The wife (in blue) is from Myanmar


The family’s fire pit

One of our journalists playing with the kid


We departed from the most beautiful part of the Nujiang River, where a hydropower station is scheduled to be constructed, and returned along the route we came. Two boulders on the side of the road caught our eyes and our bus stopped beside them. The words “Ruins of the 8•18 Mud-Rock Flow” were written on the surface of one of the boulders. Behind it was a stretch of land cluttered with stones.

Ruins of the mud-rock flow that occurred on August 18th

Bank of the Nujiang River three months after the mud-rock flow


At about 1 o’clock, on August 18th, 2010, a sudden mud-rock flow broke out in the Puladi village of the Gongshan Dulong and Nu Autonomous County in the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture of the Yunnan Province. The site of the disaster was close to an iron mine. A downpour, which lasted for days, caused the mud-rock flow. At around 20:30 on the same day, 22 people were dead, 90 people were missing, 10 were heavily injured and 28 were lightly injured because of the disaster. Victims of the catastrophe added up to around 275 people, of which 29 rural households, a total of 101 people, were affected.

The alluvial deposits of the mud-rock flow rushed towards the Nujiang River and raised the water level of the Gongshan reaches of the river by 6 meters. Luckily, no barrier lakes were formed. The Wagong Road (the Gongshan section) was disrupted and all forms of communication with the Gongshan County were cut off (at around 16:00, mobile communication was restored). More than 1,100 people took part in search and rescue missions and over 1000 residents that lived near the disaster scene or along the Nujiang River were urgently transferred. Economic losses caused by the disaster amounted to around 140 million yuan (preliminary statistics show that the economic loss of farmer households reached 35 million yuan).


Investigation Result

In response to some netizens’ opinions that the mud-rock flow is related to the iron mine, Li Kunzhen, the magistrate of the Gongshan county, said that the iron mine had nothing to do with the disaster. The iron mine is 2 kilometers away from the disaster site and it did not pile up ores. Relevant departments, including the departments of water supplies and land, confirmed through investigations that the mud-rock flow was caused by a landslide that occured after continuous rainfall and that the iron mine was not responsible.


Are the torrents “created” by the mud-rock flow?

The debris left over by the mud-rock flow along the bank of the Nujiang River


County officials came to a final conclusion, shortly after the mud-rock flow, that the disaster was caused by heavy rainfall. However, when we arrived at the site of the disaster three months later, we were told by several people at the site that they were investigating the cause of the mud-rock flow. We asked why they were still investigating even though the cause had already been identified as continuous rainfall. They answered, “We are merely workers. We’re just doing what we were told to do.”

Workers who are supposed to be investigating the cause of the mud-rock flow

pondering beside the river


In my opinion, government officials always jump to conclusions too quickly. Why not wait until the rescue effort had ended before attempting to locate the real cause and to make proper judgements? Thorough investigations are crucial in preventing future problems. Rushing to conclusions will only lead to negligence and the concealment of the real causes of a disaster.

Today, when we were walking along the Nujiang River, Wang Jiang, a water ecologist, showed us some rocks called “shale”. A journalist from the Beijing News photographed these unique rocks, hoping that more people could see them.
The River Decade team mainly consists of journalists, whose responsibilities entail the sharing of information with the public.

As a non-governmental environmental protection organization, we are responsible for reporting the influences and impacts of the information that we gather on the public and the decision-makers of the country. We hope that this will promote the development and implementation of better decisions. This will not only help to achieve sustainable development but will also contribute to the protection of cultural traditions.


Introducing the formation and structure of the rocks

Taking pictures

Tomorrow, River Decade 2010 will interview a family that we have followed for ten years. They have become our friends. We haven’t seen them in a year and we really miss them. 

The Nujiang River flowing through a valley

The golden banks of the Nujiang river


Translator: Tong Jun, Yang Wenlong
Proofreader: Ryan Yu



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