Damming Tiger Gorge

Chinese Environmentalists Try to Protect a Natural Wonder

In the land where 85,000 dams have bloomed, the builders of the mammoth Three Gorges reservoir in China are poised to begin another project. The giant hydropower company plans to dam China’s famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the sheer cliffs of snow-crested peaks flank the thundering Jinsha River to form one of the deepest and most majestic canyons on Earth.

China has 85,000 dams. Does it need one more at the unique Tiger Leaping Gorge?© Ma Jun

When rumors of the project spread last summer, a group of urban Chinese environmentalists set out for the mountains of northwestern Yunnan province, north of Burma. There they found that geologists had already drilled test bores along the Jinsha River—even though the project lacks final approval from the central government. Returning to Beijing, the fact-finders convened nine prominent environmental groups to begin campaigning against the project.

"Tiger Leaping Gorge is unique in the world," says Beijing environmental consultant Ma Jun, one of those who traveled to Yunnan and author of the influential book China’s Water Crisis. "You have the precipitous drop from the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain for nearly 13,000 feet to reach a torrential river in a valley as narrow as 100 to 200 feet. It’s just breathtaking." In the Chinese imagination, says Ma, the gorge is comparable to Yosemite for Americans. Many Chinese know the legend of the tiger that leapt the narrow ravine to cross the Jinsha. The Jinsha constitutes the upper section of the Yangtze River, which flows eastward for 3,900 miles through the heart of China, linking the Tibetan plateau to the port of Shanghai.

Opponents of the Tiger Leaping dam voice four key objections. First, Yunnan province rests on a seismic collision zone that causes frequent rock falls and landslides along the nine-mile-long gorge. Major earthquakes have killed roughly 20,000 people in the province since 1950; in 1996, a seven-magnitude quake killed 300 in Lijiang, 60 miles from the gorge. Second, flooding would obliterate a botanically rich area, the source of decorative plants treasured worldwide, most famously the rhododendron. Rising waters would uproot prosperous farmers from the fertile riverbanks, forcing an estimated 100,000 people to move to higher ground where they could no longer plant corn and wheat.

Displacing the villagers would threaten the fragile culture of the Naxi, a Tibetan minority group whose shamans have transmitted the last surviving system of pictographs and whose elderly musicians have been described as "living fossils" when playing the haunting melodies of the seventh-century Tang Dynasty. Finally, the dam would undercut tourism along this ancient tea- and horse-trading route.

It’s unclear whether the environmentalists can prevail. China has defied fierce international opposition in building the world’s largest hydroelectric project 900 miles downstream from Tiger Leaping Gorge. The massive Three Gorges dam, still under construction, will create a 400-mile-long reservoir on the Yangtze, inundating hundreds of villages and displacing 1.3 million people by the time it’s completed in 2009.

Despite this painful precedent, opponents of the Tiger Leaping dam say that two recent government actions offer hope. In July 2003, Beijing blocked a dam planned for the Dujiangyan in western China’s Sichuan province, and last April, Premier Wen Jiabao declared a moratorium on construction of 13 dams on the Nu River in the "Grand Canyon" of China. The Nu and the Jinsha both lie within a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan. A UNESCO report called the area "an epicenter of Chinese biodiversity" and a place "of outstanding universal value." In anticipation of dam-building, however, the rivers themselves were excluded from protection.

Ma reports that Chinese newspapers have sharply increased coverage of environmental issues, and he calls the Internet "the trump card." Bulletin board sites and blogs extend far beyond newspapers in reaching China’s 80 million web users. "You get a much larger readership, and it’s interactive," says Ma. "You create a virtual cyber-society." Ma acknowledges that the Chinese government (and some search engines) heavily censor the web—blocking about one in 10 sites, according to a 2002 study by Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. Nonetheless, he says, "The Internet is penetrating society, and it cannot be stopped." He says that online discussions have prompted dissenters to telephone officials about projects they oppose.

In theory, Chinese environmentalists possess another new tool: a law requiring environmental impact statements for major construction. But although the law took effect in 2003, Jun says that it has yet to be honored by Beijing. "So far, all the decisions have been made in a secretive way by a small group of people. This is not fair. You have to invite other stakeholders to take part in this."

The stakeholders who really hold the trump card are the moneylenders, says geologist and author Simon Winchester, who believes that the most effective way to block a project is to convince investors to steer clear. The well-traveled writer calls the gorge one of the most memorable places he’s visited. Although he calls the project "a confection of lunacy," he notes that international business interests are pushing for increased electricity generation in China. "The combination of incredibly cheap labor and reliable power simply makes western reluctance to stop this minimal. They don’t care that this part of the world is extraordinarily beautiful. Business is business."

Riverside residents constitute an emerging source of pressure against dams, says journalist Wang Yongchen. The founder of China’s Green Earth Volunteers, Wang spearheaded the fight—successful, so far—against damming the Nu. Using the $20,000 Condé Nast Traveler Environmental Award she won this fall for her work, Wang plans to establish "green libraries" in elementary schools along the Nu.

Ma, now a world fellow at Yale, was a student himself when he formulated his picture of his homeland’s landscape, a vision drawn from Tang nature poetry. When he later witnessed China’s widespread environmental devastation, he was shocked. Beginning in the late 1950s under Mao Zedong, he says with dismay, "We actually declared war on nature."

Ma believes that this exploitation will only ease when the United States develops alternative energy technologies. "With its tremendous resources and ceaseless innovative power, we expect America to take the leadership role in the world on this issue," he says.

Meanwhile, says Nu River advocate Wang, "We need more electricity, but not this way. This way of getting electricity, you’ve broken nature. You’ve broken the future."