China eyes river for development
U.S. Water News Online
DACHAOSHAN, China -- As dams go, the one rising across this
remote gorge in China's southwestern Yunnan province isn't large.
When it's finished in December, the 30-story-high wall of concrete
will hold a narrow, 55-mile-long reservoir that will take just five
days to fill.
But critics worry about the Dachaoshan dam's location -- on the
Mekong River, a source of food and livelihood for 60 million people
downstream in Southeast Asia.
Dachaoshan is part of a multibillion-dollar effort by Beijing to
develop its upstream half of the 3,025-mile-long waterway. China says
the construction is necessary to lift backward southwestern provinces
such as Yunnan, home to 43 million people, out of poverty.
But critics warn that China is ignoring potentially disastrous
effects on farms and fisheries in the other five countries that share
the Mekong -- Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.
``China acts like it doesn't need to care about countries
downstream. It has to recognize that the Mekong isn't just theirs,''
said Witoon Permpongsachareon, director of Terra, a Bangkok-based
The $600 million Dachaoshan is the second of at least eight
hydroelectric dams that Beijing wants to build on the region's most
important waterway over the next two decades.
The first, at Manwan, was finished in 1993. Work is to begin next
year on the Xiaowan dam, a $4 billion structure the height of a
100-story building that will be the world's tallest dam.
Plans also call for dynamiting a shipping channel through the
Mekong's extensive rapids, fulfilling Beijing's dream of turning the
river into a link to Southeast Asia's export markets and raw
China has already cleared its own rocks and built two river ports
at the cities of Jinghong and Simao in Yunnan. In June, limited
freight and passenger service opened to northern Laos and Burma.
In November, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji is to announce $5 million
in aid to Laos and Burma to blast another 180 miles of rapids in
those countries, Chinese officials said.
They call the offer proof they're serious about promoting joint
``All countries will prosper equally from the increased trade,''
said Mei Ruichang, a spokesman for Yunnan's Navigation Affairs
Bureau, which is overseeing the river-clearing work.
But critics say China is ignoring fears in Laos that destroying
the rapids might damage tourism, a big money-earner for the
impoverished country. They also complain that Beijing refuses to join
regional efforts such as the four-nation Mekong River Commission to
Likewise, skepticism has also met Chinese claims that dam building
will benefit countries downstream.
China says the dams will ease the annual cycle of flooding and
water shortages that accompany rainy and dry seasons.
But experts say that would spell disaster for critical fisheries,
such as Cambodia's Great Lake -- the main source of protein for the
country's 12 million people. The lake depends on those yearly floods
to replenish nutrients. Farmers in Laos also wait for the dry season
to plant on the exposed river bottom's fertile mud.
Critics fear the dams will block migration routes of rare species
such as the giant freshwater catfish, which can weigh up to 650
The dams could also slow the river's flow, raising water
temperatures and possibly wiping out native fish species, critics
Chinese officials call these concerns exaggerated, though they
admit that some environmental damage is inevitable. Still, they say,
the dams are necessary to power Yunnan's industrialization and
improve living conditions.
In Shandi, a village about a mile uphill from Dachaoshan, the
first electricity came two years ago.
Lu Mingxie uses a single naked bulb to light her dirt-floor home
as she shucks corn and peels dark green pumpkins. The 50-year-old
farmer welcomes the progress.
But she, too, has her complaints about the Chinese government's
high-handed way of bringing it about.
Lu says dam officials seized a three-quarter acre plot of good
rice paddy near the dam that her family had farmed for six
generations. They promised compensation, but she has yet to see any.
``Not everything about this dam is good for us common people,''
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