Hydropower on the Nu: one river, many perspectives

A cascade of proposed hydroelectric projects on one of Asia’s longest undammed rivers has caused great controversy in southwest China. Kristen McDonald reports from the Upper Nu River.

There are no towns in the valley carved by the Upper Nu River in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The roads and bridges are poor, and there are only a scattering of monasteries. It is almost possible to imagine that the modernisation sweeping across China has hit a wall. 

Last September, a group of international boaters – 13 Americans, two Chinese and one German – gathered to attempt a first descent on the river’s remote upper reaches. Before arriving in Lhasa, all we knew about the 230-kilometre section of river we would float by raft and kayak we had learned from Google Earth: nine rapids of indiscernible size; one black, shadowy canyon; and hundreds of miles of road-less countryside.

Far downstream from this unknown canyon is a proposed cascade of 13 hydropower dams: one of China’s greatest environmental controversies this decade. The dams would turn one of the country’s last free-flowing river sections into a series of reservoirs, and would drown what has been called “China’s Grand Canyon.” Since the dam proposal emerged, stories of the canyon’s great biological and cultural diversity have lured journalists and river experts from around the globe. The international attention succeeded in temporarily halting construction, but as the media glare fades and conservation groups begin to lose hope, the fate of one of China’s last free-flowing rivers is far from sealed.

One river, different perspectives

Aside from the farmers who live along the Nu River, those most knowledgeable of its river valleys are likely the engineers who come to live for months at a time building bridges, roads and dams. They believe they are doing a great thing for China.

On the plane ride to Lhasa, I met a government engineer from Zhejiang province who oversees a hydropower project on the “Black River,” a tributary to the Nu River that we would pass by in a few days time. The Zhejiang provincial government invests in dams with the help from China’s Great Western Development Campaign, launched by the central government in 2001 to boost economic growth in China’s lagging western provinces. With over 22,000 large dams, China is home to about half of the world’s total.

“Is it true that in China, the real rulers are the engineers?” I asked the official.

He smiled and gave a quick nod. Later he told me that now, because of the controversy over the downstream dams, there probably will not be any additional projects on the main stem of the Nu River in the TAR.

While researching my doctoral dissertation I learned that local people in the area of the proposed 13 dams on the Nu River also believe the dams may be good for China. They feel little attachment to the fate of the Nu. Rather, their lives revolve around the tributary streams, where they draw water for irrigation, drinking, cooking and bathing. To them, the main river is almost a non-entity.

Upstream in eastern Tibetan regions, people’s lives are similarly arranged around the tributaries. But Tibetan Buddhists see the river itself quite differently than their downstream neighbors in Yunnan. To them, the Nu River carries spiritual importance. It is seen as a conduit towards central Tibet and Lhasa, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

It is in these areas that river burial is widely practiced. In this ancient ritual, the remains of the deceased are cut into pieces, bound together with ropes, laden with stones, and thrown into the deepest part of the river. Rivers are thought to provide a portal to the underworld, and at times, spirits on great golden yaks are said to appear in certain eddies.

As we steered our colorful rafts past villages that still hold such beliefs, we sometimes wondered if we are being mistaken for deities.

A fledgling rafting industry

China’s handful of serious rafters have been courageous in their willingness to pursue an unpopular sport, but their limited number has meant they have little ability to shape the future of China’s rivers. Very few rivers, with the exception of the Chishui in Sichuan and a handful of sections of the Yangtze have been protected for their ecological or scenic values. China’s seasoned dam industry will likely continue to build large dams on places like the Nu River, the Yangtze River, and many rivers in Tibet that have spectacular scenery and whitewater. But so far, China lacks a constituency for free-flowing rivers.

Little by little, that may be changing. Last year, the first company in China licensed to conduct multi-day river trips was founded by American kayaker Travis Winn and Chinese businessman Na Ming Hui. The two decided to call the company “Last Descents,” a name that reflects their fear that China’s remaining raft-able rivers are soon to disappear.

“In China,” Na Ming Hui told me, as we floated through a calm section of the Nu River canyon, “people want to boat, but they don’t know how to get started. More and more people have money and want to do go have adventures, but rafting has not quite caught on.”

Na Ming Hui got involved in boating through the rock climbing community in Kunming, where he also runs a shop that imports and sells western food. He thought it would be fun to turn his hobby of rafting into a business, and more importantly, to push for a system of regulations that would alleviate the headache caused by the lack of a permitting process.

The US has hundreds of rafting outfitters. But besides Last Descents, there are just a few rafting companies in China who mostly run day trips. The best, most scenic stretches of whitewater in China, found further west in Sichuan, Yunnan, and the Tibetan plateau, require skills and equipment that only a couple of foreign companies can offer. So far, these trips have attracted foreign boaters but few Chinese.

Winn and Hui hope to change that, but they are aware that growing a river conservation movement through rafting will take time that rivers in China don’t have. Dams on the upper Yangtze, for example, will cover up the river’s “Great Bend” section, one of the best sections of whitewater in China. Last Descents will run what could be the last trip down this scenic canyon in April of this year, bringing Chinese media and scientists to document the river before it disappears.

Worth more than hydropower?

Worshipping nature is not new to Chinese culture. Daoism advances respect for nature through a philosophy centered on man’s submission to “heaven” (tian in Chinese, which means not just heaven but the entire cosmos, including Earth). But both Confucian and Marxist views of nature – as a force to be controlled, either in the service of order or in the service of production – have overshadowed Daoism in modern Chinese society.

This is one reason that those who would like to see the Nu River protected from development face such an uphill battle. Another is the country’s overarching dogma of economic growth, which leaves little room to consider why the Nu River might be valued for something other than hydropower.

In a newspaper article about our trip, one of our US team members said, “If I could have one thing happen from this trip it would be that the Salween [Nu] River, especially the area we did, would get the national recognition and protection that the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon gets.”

The Nu River is home to some of China’s most isolated and thriving ethnic minority cultures, rich biodiversity, and pristine and scenic wilderness. Its isolation and ruggedness have fostered communities that have unique perspectives on the meaning and importance of the river. There are few places left in the world where humans live in river canyons such as these, and as we learned floating from Sadeng to Lorong on the upper Nu River, there are few places left in China that have the capacity to so deeply awe wilderness worshippers such as ourselves.

Perhaps some believe the movement to protect China’s “last free-flowing river” has gone as far as it can, sensing that the dams are inevitable. Others are perhaps afraid we don’t know enough about the Nu River to deem it worthy of protecting. It seems to me that given the indications of central government sympathy, now is precisely the time when protecting the Nu River as a piece of China’s outstanding river heritage has become a real possibility.

What do you think? Do some of China’s rivers like the Nu River deserve protection from development? Who should decide?

Kristen McDonald, PhD, is a recent graduate of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the US Director of the China Rivers Project:

For photos and more stories from the first descent of the Nu (Salween) between Sadeng and Lhorong, see