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The fight to keep Nu River flowing

The Nu is one of only two major rivers in China yet to be dammed. But that may not last.

QIUNATONG, China — On a drizzling afternoon in this village in northwest Yunnan province, a Chinese New Year party is underway at He Bao Shang’s earth-walled home.

Children chase frightened chickens through the 32-year-old farmer’s kitchen-slash-living room while a group of men consume shots of a potent corn-based liquor at a pace so feverish that, later, they forget to eat dinner. The constant plume of cigarette smoke combines with a single bare light-bulb to give the room a distinct speakeasy vibe.

In the evening the dancing and singing begins, and at 10 o’clock, He's family and friends stumble down the street to a dilapidated church, where this village of Catholics from the Nu ethnic group pray and chant knelt on benches — men on one side, women on the other — under fading pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

It’s difficult to imagine this scene taking place in China, an officially atheist country made up of 92 percent Han Chinese. But the Nu River isn’t the China of the imagination.




The Nu flows from the Tibetan highlands through western Yunnan, cutting between two mountain ranges before rushing through Burma into the Andaman Sea. Home to a third of the country’s ethnic groups, it was here that Christian missionaries from Burma first entered China, and today communities of ethnic Nu, Tibetans and Lisu remain passionately Catholic. The Nu goes through one of the country’s most remote and fascinating regions, with unrivalled scenery and a diverse ecosystem of 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals and fish.

It’s also one of only two major rivers in China yet to be dammed. But that may not last.

In 2003, a consortium of power companies proposed building 13 dams along the Nu (the name means “angry,” referring to the river’s spring surge), a project that would produce more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. The move brought together China’s fledgling environmental movement, which launched a vocal campaign to keep the Nu free-flowing.

National and international press picked up the story, and in 2004 Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a halt to the project and a full environmental assessment — a crucial victory for China’s environmentalists. That win was short-lived. The environmental assessment was never released to the public; because the Nu is an international river — known outside China as the Salween — development plans fell under state secrecy law.

The project was scaled down from 13 dams to four, and preliminary work went ahead despite Wen’s edict. In March 2008, the State Development and Reform Commission published its five-year plan for energy development, which listed dams on the Nu as key projects.

Today, the construction of a small dam on a tributary to the Nu, just south of the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, is nearly complete.

In 2007, residents of Xiaoshaba, a village of some 120 families upstream from the city of Liuku, were relocated into newly-built apartment blocks to make way for a power station. Meanwhile, in Burma to the south a planned dam project will produce electricity from the Salween that will be sold back to China.