SANDWICHED between the towering Jade Dragon and Haba Snow Mountains in the northwestern part of China's Yunnan province, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the world's deepest river gorges. Here about 1,500 kilometres upstream from the Three Gorges Dam, the Jinsha river (as the Yangtze is known in its upper reaches) thunders its way through the 18-km-long gorge with, as yet, untamed power.
The gorge's evocative name is related to a legend according to which a tiger once leapt across the narrowest point of the ravine where it is a mere 30 metres wide. Elsewhere the gorge is up to 80 m in width, while the mountain peaks on either side are more than 3,000 m tall.
The improvement of access to this once remote spot has brought with it an influx of tourists and foreign exchange. Once-impoverished farmers have turned their homes into guesthouses and goat herders moonlight as guides to earn some extra money.
According to Margo, an Australian national who runs a cafe at the entrance to the gorge and has lived in the area for more than nine years, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most successful examples of "eco-tourism" in China; an example the rest of the country, faced with worrying levels of environmental degradation, would do well to emulate.
However, far from emulating this rare environment-friendly success story, plans are afoot to dam and tame the Jinsha. A series of eight big dams on this part of the Yangtze are currently being considered, which when complete will flood some 13,300 hectares of prime farmland, including large parts of the gorge, and force the relocation of 100,000 people from the fertile river valley.
According to Yu Xiaogang, founder of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Green Watershed and winner of the Goldman environmental award for 2006, the formal announcement for the plan to construct a dam on the gorge was made in 2003. The project, which according to local officials will have the capacity to generate 20 million kilowatts of power, is a joint venture between the provincial government of Yunnan and a subsidiary of the China Huaneng Group - one of the largest state-owned enterprises in the power sector.
Pre-project planning and activity, including geological surveys and the measuring of the homes and land of those who will be relocated, has been going on for the past few years. An environmental impact assessment (EIA) and a social impact assessment (SIA), mandatory under law for undertaking any large hydroelectric project, are currently being carried out.
The essential problem, Yu points out, is that this is being done in total secrecy. The SIA is supposed to involve the participation of people who will be affected by the dam. In reality, however, none of the farmers who will be forced to move out has been given any information regarding compensation or the scheduling for the dam.
"We have repeatedly requested information from the hydroelectric company but only received silence in response," says one local guesthouse owner. Several of the farmers in the area this writer spoke to said they had not even heard of the proposal to build the dam and were cheerily confident that they would never have to leave their ancestral homes.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge dam has in fact been listed as one of the country's major infrastructure projects for the 11th five-year plan period (2006-2010). Although final approval is pending, according to Yu, this means there is a very strong likelihood that the project will go ahead.
In power-hungry China, this is not an uncommon story. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, China already has over 85,000 dams, some 46 per cent of the world's total. More than 20,000 of these are classified as "big". According to Chinese media reports, 16 million people across the country have already been displaced as a result of the construction of large dams. China's potential hydropower capacity is the biggest in the world. A recent government survey put the figure at around 700,000 MW of which 400,000 MW was deemed commercially viable. According to a KPMG study, 16 per cent of all electricity generated in China today is hydroelectricity.
The Chinese government is desperate to generate enough electricity to keep up the high economic growth rate, which has been at around 10 per cent a year for the past several years. The relentless energy needs of its galloping economy combined with the desire to avoid pumping more greenhouse gas emissions into an already polluted atmosphere have resulted in Beijing approving dams and reservoirs in nearly all the country's numerous rivers. "Massively developing hydropower" has been highlighted as a key strategy for the power sector in the next plan.
China's "hydropower fever" has not been without controversy. The proposal to build the Three Gorges Dam sparked one of the most intense political debates in the history of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's Parliament. When the proposal was put before the NPC in 1992, nearly one-third of its members voted against the project. In the end, Premier Li Peng pushed the proposal through, despite vehement opposition.
Critics of China's propensity to build big dams have repeatedly made the case that big dams damage the environment and destroy fragile eco-systems. But their strongest critique involves the lack of public participation in debating the implications of such enormous projects as well as the absence of any independent analyses of what those implications in fact are.
"We are not ideologically opposed to dams," says Ma Jun, author of the influential book China's Water Crisis. "What we are asking for is a due process to be followed whenever a big dam is proposed."
Ma, who was recently named by Time magazine as one of the 100 persons who helped shape the world, says that the majority of the millions of people displaced by large hydroelectric projects continue to live in poverty. According to China's several laws and regulations that are meant to address the issue of the resettlement of dam-affected people, compensation for those relocated must be so designed that their standard of living is not lowered.
However, Ma points out that the displaced people are usually resettled on less fertile lands, away from the rivers, and rarely receive the full compensation they are promised.
More than one million people have already been relocated following the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Although all of them were promised compensation, including new houses and livelihoods, many families have complained that their compensation was siphoned off by local officials and that they cannot make a living in their new locations.
The state audit office reported as early as 1999 that millions of dollars in compensation funds was being embezzled. Scores of officials were investigated and many prosecuted, but critics say that those actually caught only represent the tip of the iceberg.
Local and provincial governments keen on the revenue-generating ability of hydroelectric power plants emphasise that dam-building brings prosperity to regions as a whole and allows for the development of backward areas. "But local people do not believe they will become rich as a result of dams. They think that it is only the local governments that will become rich," says Wang Yongchen, a journalist and founder of the NGO Green Earth Volunteers.
According to Ma, the preference for big dams in China is explained by the fact that they are not subject to the democratic constraints and environmental concerns that make approval procedures for large hydroelectric projects an arduous affair in other countries. He adds that since local officials are assessed on the basis of their achievements in providing hard infrastructure, they tend to be particularly enthusiastic about potential large dam projects.
Big dams are seen as uniquely effective in jumpstarting a local economy. According to Wang Yongchen, there is a saying in Chinese that goes thus: Building a house gets you grass; making a road brings silver; building a bridge gets you gold; but constructing a dam leads to diamonds.
The Three Gorges Project was recently described by Li Yong'an, general manager of the government's Three Gorges Corporation, as "the grandest project the Chinese people have undertaken in thousands of years".
Sometimes referred to as the Great Wall of the Yangtze, the project is in fact China's most ambitious engineering effort since the Great Wall. Chinese officials say that once it is completed it will churn out 85 billion kW-hours of electricity a year.
The project, which involves 25,000 workers, has become a symbol of China's relentless determination to find its place among the world's great economic powers. The prestige of the project is as much a justification as is its electricity-generating capacity.
According to Ma, prestige is a critical element in decision-making in almost all large infrastructure projects in China. But critics say that the concern for prestige can often lead to an abandonment of economic sense. The Three Gorges Project, for example, comes with a $29-billion price tag, yet when completed will produce only 2 per cent of China's electricity by 2010.
The authorities dealt with critics of the project quite harshly. Journalist Dai Qing, who claimed in her book Yangtze! Yangtze! that the Three Gorges Dam was a huge waste of money, ended up in jail for 10 months. Green Watershed's Yu Xiaogang has been banned from visiting dam sites and has been warned that his NGO licence will not be renewed unless he desists from further criticism. Nonetheless, Yu and other activists are continuing their crusade.
"Without the right to know, to participate, to be involved in matters that affect our lives, we are helpless," concludes Ma. "We know that China needs electricity, but not every single gorge is an appropriate dam site."
Environmentalists are unanimous that Tiger Leaping Gorge is in fact an inappropriate site for building a dam. It will flood one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world. It is also in a seismic zone and there are worries of increased likelihood of earthquakes following the construction of the dam. The land by the river is fertile, which means the displaced will lose their livelihood.
Moreover, Ma points out that building big dams sets off a spiral where it becomes hard to stop building more and more dams to solve the problems of the already existing ones. Thus the dams currently planned on the Jinsha, including the one at Tiger Leaping Gorge, will actually be used to support the Three Gorges Dam further downstream. They are being designed in part to reduce the silt pressures on the Three Gorges Project and also to buttress its flood prevention abilities.
The plan to dam Tiger Leaping Gorge has led to an almost unprecedented outcry from civil society in China. NGOs, educated local people and even the state-owned media have condemned the project. "I think the dam on Tiger Leaping Gorge provides an acid test for how serious the government is in protecting the environment," says Ma Jun.
Several NGOs and scholars from prominent Chinese universities have petitioned the central government to halt the dam. More than 10,000 people from the gorge area have sent in another petition, to stop construction until more information is available. Activists have also brought the plans for the dam to the attention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and other international organisations.
Recently, similar public protests caused Beijing to place a temporary moratorium on another series of 13 dams planned on the picturesque Nujiang river, also in Yunnan province. In what environmentalists claim to be a victory, the Nujiang dams have not been listed in the five-year plan.
That both Ma Jun and Wang Yongchen were journalists is telling about the role of the media in bringing about a gradual change of attitudes. Over the last couple of years Chinese newspapers and electronic media have sharply increased their coverage of environmental issues. Ma points out that there are now more than 100 million Internet users in China, a fact that makes the "flow and dissemination of information" much easier.
Environmentalists also see recent changes in Chinese law as positive signs. Yu Xiaogang says that the government decided earlier this year to increase the amount of compensation.
"There is definitely an awareness in the government now that the environmental problem is serious and that environmentalists should be consulted before taking decisions on big infrastructure projects," says Ma Jun. He says he is hopeful that the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam may become the first major hydroelectric project in China to follow a "new, more participative process".
But despite this optimism, serious concerns remain. Wang Yongchen points out that although an EIA was carried out for the proposed dams on the Nujiang river, the results were declared a "state secret".
Moreover, as Yu Xiaogang points out, large hydroelectric companies have substantial monetary and governmental clout. The boss of the China Huaneng Group that is involved in both the Three Gorges and Tiger Leaping Gorge projects, for example, is the son of Li Peng, the Three Gorge's most ardent champion.
Collusion between those who are meant to carry out the EIA and the power companies has been common in the past. Independent assessments are still to become a reality in China.
For the time being China's love affair with big dams continues. No fewer than 46 new, large dams are currently being planned or are already under construction in the Yangtze river basin alone, according to the International Journal on Hydropower and Dams.
Beijing insists that "trade-offs" are necessary when it comes to development and that the system in place to protect the rights of the millions who have found themselves dispossessed during the course of this development is by and large effective.
China's energy needs are rocketing even as a growing number of Chinese cities are choked by pollution. According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution kills approximately four million people every year in China. Coal, which as in India, currently provides around 70 per cent of China's energy, needs to be phased out if the country is to meet its commitments to the Kyoto Climate Control Protocol. Renewable and non-polluting sources of energy like hydropower are thus seen as extremely important to develop. Moreover, the government says that all in all the majority of people benefit from dam construction. Without hydropower say officials, it would be much harder to develop industry in remote parts of the country like Yunnan.
Engineers of the Three Gorges Dam have repeatedly said that the harm caused to the million-odd people who have had to be relocated is outweighed by the advantages to millions of others who live in the area around the Yangtze.
In addition to generating power, the Three Gorges Dam is also intended to control the flooding that has ravaged the Yangtze basin for centuries. Floods killed more than 145,000 in 1931 and another 142,000 four years later, according to Chinese records. As late as 1998, more than 2,000 people were reportedly killed by river waters that spilled over the banks.
At the same time concerns for the country's rapidly deteriorating environment have led to a slew of new laws as well as an attempt to make local leaders more accountable for protecting the environment, rather than focussing solely on growth.
Unsurprisingly, the situation today is such that somewhat contradictory signals are often sent from Beijing in an attempt to balance a pro-growth and pro-green stance. The same water officials who champion big dams and hydropower are also now talking of the need to limit development along China's major rivers.
The fate of Tiger Leaping Gorge hangs in the balance.