Sunday, March 1, 2009

Damming of the Last Free Flowing River in China by Eric Parker

"Small" Hydropower on a tributary of the Salween. Photo by Ben Stanistreet
Currently we sit on the outer banks of the roaring Salween River. The big water kayaking here is some of the best paddling of the trip, but a sad awakening was recently brought upon World Class. As of February 20, 2009, four enormous dams have been permitted to be built. To date, the Salween stands as the last major river in the Yunnan Province, and in the whole nation of China, that is free flowing (no dams). Upon completion, us crazy people in little brightly colored boats will be known as a thing of the past.

Four sections of the river are already being surveyed for construction: The Sage, Liuku, Magi and Yabiduo. The water regulating devices will stand some 300 meters high, with one planned to be the tallest in the world. The water will be raised to levels that will completely submerge the city of Gong Shan, and the city will be moved 70 kilometers upstream. In five years’ time, one can expect to see these cement structures in full operation. According to the Chinese government, two goals are kept in mind with these dams: Firstly, they will supply extensive amounts of electricity, and secondly, the hope is that the projects will help the local economy.

There are a multitude of questions and issues that arise from China's damming frenzy. First and foremost, “Does China really need the power?” Many say no. This includes Travis Winn, local outfitter and river activist. It is estimated that much of the power produced by these dams will be sold to other countries in Southeast Asia. I asked Winn what he thought about the Salween dams and he said, “The dams are not executed in a way that helps China.” Well, if people do not believe China needs the power, then what are the dams helping? China claims that the dams will help boost the local economy by providing jobs. One must think of the thousands of acres of farms and human inhabited land that will be lost. As a result, tens of thousands of people will need to be evacuated and relocated. This does not sound like a helping hand in boosting the economy.

Gong Shan - your next SCUBA vacation? Photo by Ben Stanistreet

Rivers embody one of the most essential resources to nature…water. With no free flowing water, eco systems will suffer. When a body of water is dammed, it increases pressure in ground springs, which will erode landmasses into muck and mud. Also, when a once fast moving river becomes a vast reservoir, it stands a chance to become stagnate and toxic. Populations of fish and wildlife may become endangered or even extinct. Dams put a large amount of stress on the environment.

The dams lack benefit and supply a list of problems, but whether the people want it or not, it appears the dams of the Salween will continue to be built. According to Winn, if it were not for international outcry, the dams would have been processing years ago. Disagreements over the dams will continue, but no one can single-handedly halt or prevent the destruction of China’s rivers. At this point, there is little one can do to stop the production of these dams. For now, we will need to do all that is possible to enjoy what we have and preserve what we can.

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