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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.

Last May, Premier Wen once again stopped the project until a full environmental assessment is completed. But observers say that when the 67-year-old premier steps down in 2012, full-scale construction will resume.

While environmentalists remain staunchly opposed to damming the Nu, the controversy is not black and white. China is hungry for energy and 80 percent of the country’s electrical supply is currently provided by dirty coal-fired plants. Hydropower, which accounts for just 15 percent of China’s electricity, is seen as a cleaner — albeit controversial — alternative.

The dams could also bring much needed jobs to the impoverished Nu region. The local government has estimated that 20 percent of residents in the region lack electricity, something the dams could remedy.

In Xiaoshaba, the relocated village made up primarily of Lisu people, residents said they are generally happy with their new homes — rows of spacious two-storey apartments a few miles from the old village.

“The old village and the new one are pretty much the same,” says Li Yu Xin, a 40-year-old mini-bus driver who receives a monthly relocation subsidy of $117 along with his apartment. “The only problem is we can’t keep animals — there’s no room for them. But I like the new one fine. I support the central government’s decision.”

Further upstream, near the town of Bingzhongluo, one villager, a Tibetan trekking guide, is less certain about the benefits of damming the Nu. The villager, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, is in the fifth year of what he hopes will be a 20-year video documentary project chronicling the impact of the dams.

“People are more and more aware of the changes that would come from the dam, and they know they’re not good,” he said. “I worry about how we’re going to keep these villages alive.”

Indeed, local culture will be jeopardized should the project go ahead, says Wang Yongchen, a journalist and co-founder of the Beijing-based NGO Green Earth Volunteers, a group that was actively involved in the initial fight to save the Nu. Many villagers will have to be relocated from their traditional homes to cities up- and downstream. In one area near Liuku, a traditional Lisu bathing site will be washed away.

“If you dam the river, their culture, their tradition, disappears,” Wang said.

Dam opponents are hoping that an ongoing public awareness campaign will rally increasingly environmentally-conscious Chinese to call upon their government to protect the Nu and other areas like it.

Travis Winn, a 26-year-old American who co-founded China Rivers Project, a non-profit that aims to protect China’s river heritage, hosts rafting trips to the Nu and other rivers with influential and wealthy Chinese who are in a position to take action.

“The science is there — the dams don’t make a lot of sense. But unless there’s a more personal aspect to this, the science isn’t very useful. That’s what we’re trying to do, make a personal connection,” Winn said. “The universal response is, ‘I’ve never had this experience before. I never thought China had such beautiful places.’ It’s the time of their lives.”