Megadams Drown Out Small Victories in the Upper Mekong

Katy Yan

Mt Kawagebo in the early morning
Mt Kawagebo in the early morning

Stories from the Lancang, Part 1

At 7 am on a chilly Saturday morning, a small group of photographers, vacationers and pilgrims huddled next to the road as the sun began to shed its first rays on the peak of Mount Kawagebo. We watched in silence as the warm pink and orange hues slowly spread to the adjacent peaks and saddles that form the Meili Snow Mountains. An hour later, we were enveloped by the same warm hues.

Mount Kawagebo, or Kawa Garbo as it is known by local residents and pilgrims, is the highest point in Yunnan, rising 6,740 meters above sea level amidst the 20 other peaks that form what is widely known as the Meili Snow Mountain range near the border of Yunnan and Tibet. The Meili Snow Mountain also forms the divide between the Nu (Salween) River and the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River, both of which flow through the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site on the eastern side of Mount Kawagebo. The mountain is one of the most sacred in Tibetan Buddhism. Over 20,000 pilgrims pay homage to it each year, circumnavigating but never attempting to ascend the peak (those who’ve tried more often than not have with met a tragic end). To the local people, who also act as stewards of the sacred mountain, any destruction of the mountain is unthinkable (see “Tibetan Village Stops Mining Project”). The local government even passed a law in 2001 banning all climbing attempts for cultural and religious reasons. 

Site of the cancelled Guonian Dam
Site of the cancelled Guonian Dam

Tibetan Buddhists also consider Mount Kawagebo’s Mingyong Glacier as sacred. Over the years, local monks have noticed the rapid retreat of the glacier as a result of climate change. To the surprise of our small investigation team, who’d come to assess the current status of dam-building on the Lancang River, the retreating glacier was apparently enough of a reason to cancel one of the dams planned downstream of Kawagebo – the 165-meters high Guonian Dam – earlier this year. The official reason was that Huaneng Lancang Co, Ltd (or Hydrolancang), the developer, was concerned that the reflection from the dam’s reservoir might accelerate glacial melt. (It’s more likely that Hydrolancang) would have faced an uphill battle with local opposition to the project.) 

Guonian is not the only success story on the Lancang in recent years. In addition, Hydrolancang recently lowered the dam height by 100 meters for the planned Gushui Dam upstream in order to avoid flooding the town of Yanjing, at the border of Tibet and Yunnan. Back in 2010, China’s Vice Foreign Minister announced to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that China had cancelled the Mengsong Dam in order to “prevent abnormal downstream water level fluctuations caused by power plant operation.” While the announcement accompanied China’s release of hydrological data from two other dams – Jinghong and Manwan – following a devastating drought among downstream countries, it did not, as many had hoped, lead to China joining the Mekong River Commission. And despite these small victories, the rest of the megadams in the Lancang cascade is going full steam ahead as China enters a new era of dam-building frenzy.

A River That Feeds Millions

The Mekong River, known as the Lancang in China, originates from the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Lao PDR (where it forms the border with Burma), Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, with the upper basin contributing 14‐16% of the annual average flow but almost 50% during the dry season. For over 60 million people downstream, the Mekong is considered the “Mother River” because of its valuable food, water, transport, and other ecosystem services. The river’s steep drop of some 4700 meters at the Lao and Burma border also means that there is significant potential energy for hydropower. Beginning with the Manwan Dam in 1995, China’s plans to build hydropower dams on the Lancang (and particularly for the Yunnan stretch) for energy export to the booming eastern seaboard has been the source of ongoing regional and international controversy, especially during the 2008 floods and 2010 drought in mainland Southeast Asia. It has also been a source of domestic concern ever since an influential report on the failures of the Manwan Dam resettlement and its impact on local ethnic communities came to light.   

Boats on the Mekong river
Boats on the Mekong river

Despite these unresolved problems (including local complaints at Manwan’s neighbor, Xiaowan Dam), construction by Hydrolancang continues without consultation with downstream neighbors and without an assessment of the dams’ cumulative impacts on the river and its people. Five megadams have already been built, eight are underway, and several more are being planned in Tibet and Qinghai (see map). This has already changed the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and blocked the transport of sediment, which provides critical nutrients to the Mekong delta. For instance, according to the recent MRC Strategic Environmental Assessment, some 55% of the sediment and nutrient load reaching Kratie in Cambodia comes from China. The dams on the Lancang are expected to reduce that figure to around 22% of current levels. Impacts to fisheries have also been recorded along the Thai-Lao border.

In October 2012, my colleague Songqiao Yao and I went with a local group to investigate the current status of dam building on the Lancang River, as well as the resettlement situation (described in Part II of the journey). What we found was both breathtaking beauty and devastating destruction.

Dams Proceeding Illegally 

China’s environmental policies are relatively strong on paper, and China’s new leadership has expressed a commitment to an "ecological civilization." Recent policies regarding hydropower planning and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Environmental Protection have also added a degree of heightened awareness around the impacts of dam-building on major transboundary rivers like the Lancang, and the importance of public participation. However, the situation on the ground – and 2700 kilometers from Beijing – could not be more different. As the traditional saying goes, shan gao huangdi yuan (“the mountain is high and the emperor is far away”).

Huangdeng Dam under construction, October 2012
Huangdeng Dam under construction, October 2012

Here in the Lancang Valley, mining and hydropower are king. According to one hydro engineer we encountered on our trip, “Hydrolancang has bought the entire Lancang River.” Projects are proceeding without approved EIAs or official approval from the NDRC (as required for major projects like the Lancang cascade). EIAs are just a box for developers to check off. The 202-meter-high Huangdeng Dam, for instance, has an installed capacity of 1900 MW, is approximately 40% complete and will likely close off the river by the end of the month, but it has not received official approval. Neither the 990 MW Wunonglong Dam (where we donned Sinohydro hats and did quite an extensive and uninvited tour) nor the 420 MW Lidi Dam farther upstream have received EIA approvals, and yet both have started construction. 

Fault belts marked in a surveying tunnel.
Fault belts marked in a surveying tunnel for the planned Gushui Dam.

Wherever the gorge narrows, you can expect to find a dam that is being planned, under construction, or already existing on the Lancang. China’s third largest dam, the 5850 MW Nuozhadu Dam on the Lancang, began operating on November 5th of this year and caused a new wave of concern among civil society in Southeast Asia, since both Nuozhadu and the existing Xiaowan Dam have multi-seasonal regulating capacity and could fundamentally alter flow patterns downstream.  

For local communities, workers, and towns, there is also the real and present danger of an increase in landslides (a common sight in the valley) as a result of dam and mining construction activities and associated road building. The region, like the Nu Valley, is seismically active and criss-crossed with fault belts, and geologists have also warned about the increasing risk of reservoir-induced seismicity. On the day we were to visit Wunonglong, we discovered that a major landslide had just swallowed a newly built road leading to the site, and we were forced to take a half-day detour. Driving through this valley along steep crumbling rock walls (not to mention living under them) is not for the faint of heart.

In September, China committed to publishing all EIAs on the internet. Two weeks ago, the State Council issued a mandate that all large projects must undertake a social risk assessment before they start (though the social risks described here refer to the risk of protest rather than the risk to local lives). If China’s new leadership is serious about these commitments and their commitment to greater transparency, it will need to reign in Huaneng’s influential hold on the valley and encourage greater information sharing with downstream countries. A personal trip to the Lancang Valley and a visit to the many communities being resettled would also be a good start. Then perhaps Mengsong and Guonian won’t be the only success stories on the Lancang.

In Part II, Songgqiao Yao, International Rivers consultant, shares stories from the local villages we visited.

Click on the individual dams for more information about their status:

View Dams on the Lancang River, China in a larger map

More information: