Nu River lessons

In his second report from southwest China’s Nu River, Liu Jianqiang investigates the resettlement programmes that are in place for residents displaced by hydroelectric projects on the river’s tributaries.

Few are aware that hydroelectric plants have already been built on the Nu River's tributaries. And few are aware of how inadequate the resettlement and compensation arrangements for those affected by these projects have been. If we look at the experience of these arrangements, the future does not look good for the 50,000 who may be displaced by projects on the Nu River itself.

I learned this from the residents of Yunnan’s Gongshan County, since I felt that locals from the area would have a better understanding of their fate than any government official, hydroelectric company or NGO. 

The welfare of the 50,000 people living in the vicinity of the Nu River has long been a focal point of the debate about the proposed dams. Dam supporters claim local residents will see an influx of wealth, while opponents say the loss of their land will only leave them further impoverished.

So far, the facts seem to support the dam opponents – those relocated do not seem to enjoy the richer lives they were promised by the hydroelectric companies.

Sinohydro Corporation, which is to build the Nu River dams, was also responsible for a dam at Manwan, on the nearby Lancang River. Before construction started, the company claimed the residents of Manwan would become wealthier, but they have only seen their lives worsen since power generation started in 1993. At the time, the dam was heralded as a model for others to follow; it was one of the cheapest and most efficient projects of its kind. But it turns out this was achieved by providing the lowest levels of compensation and support to locals. Half of the 240 residents of Tianba, a village situated 800 metres from the dam, now support themselves by picking through the discarded rubbish the dam has brought. According to a report in the Xinhua-run International Herald Leader, some locals do not even have electricity, a fact which exposes the emptiness of government promises to “replace coal with electricity.” A survey by provincial authorities found that before the dam was built, income in the area was 11.2% more than the provincial average for areas with dams, now it is less than half of that.

In 2002, an internal Xinhua report about local poverty since the dam was built was handed to national government leaders, who demanded an investigation into the case.

But this is not an isolated case. Zhang Kejia, a journalist at the China Youth Daily, reported that in the past half-century, 16 million people have been relocated to make way for large-scale hydroelectric projects. Of these, said Zhang, 10 million still live in poverty. Company officials reject these figures and claim they are baseless – so let's look at some authoritative sources. One such source is Tang Chuanli, head of the Reservoir Resettlement Bureau at the Ministry of Water Resources, who has put the total relocated population at over 23 million – with one-third living below basic subsistence levels.

Basic subsistence levels mean having enough to eat and clothes to wear. How can the residents of the Nu River valley – faced with the possibility of such poverty – feel secure in their future?

Of course, dam supporters disagree. This is all history, they say. There were problems with compensation in the past, but that does not mean there will be problems now. And this is reasonable; one can point to the plight of other people, but one cannot say the Nu River residents will suffer the same fate. So far, the 13 hydroelectric plants are only proposals. 

But the locals have not been kept informed and are not being given their right to participate. Supporters of the dams say that part of the income from the projects will be used for compensation and that locals will benefit, but there is no evidence that this will be the case. Should we doubt their good intentions? There is also no evidence that their rights will be protected, but are there any examples of their rights being infringed?

To ascertain this, it is worth looking at the the village of Dimaluo. It is situated 30 kilometres from the Nu River on the
Dimaluo River, a tributary of the Nu. Two years ago, a hydroelectric plant was built in Dimaluo, the largest on a Nu River tributary to date. The village has 12 subdivisions, of which three were directly affected.

One hundred villagers were relocated to Hualong New Village, eight kilometres away. “It has a great name,” a villager remarked, “but what about the reality?”

The houses at Hualong New Village are clearly an improvement on Dimaluo; every family member has their own room with concrete walls, a stone floor and a tiled roof. But the relocated villagers are not happy. Their original houses may have been simple, but they had two floors. Sleeping on the upper floor meant they could keep away from the river’s humid air, but now they sleep on the damp concrete of the ground floor. Moreover, a house only provides shelter, but what about food – or fuel? The cost of power has risen and the locals can no longer afford it. When the weather is cold the villagers need firewood, and while in the past they could cut down trees as necessary, now the trees are owned and they have to pay. Each household received around 10,000 yuan (around US$1,290) in compensation, but that only lasted about a year. Some residents are now keen to sell their new homes and move back to Dimaluo, but there are no buyers – and there is no land to return to.

The villagers were given some land two to three kilometres away, but it has been forested and cannot be touched for the next four years. Even if they get permission to cut down the bamboo growing there and plant crops, the land is poor and steep.

Most villagers have no source of income and are forced to cut and sell firewood – backbreaking labour that brings in around 100 yuan (US$13) a week. If this is their plight after only a year, what will the future hold?

Another group of 170 people saw part of their land flooded, for which they got 300,000 yuan (US$38,780) in compensation, about 2,000 yuan (US$259) per head. However, the village used to be sustained through a combination of crop agriculture and cattle farming, and the loss of land meant they could no longer support their cattle. This meant no dung for fertiliser, so the villagers had to rely on expensive and ineffective chemical alternatives. With such a serious impact on their livelihoods, what use is such meagre compensation?

Another 200 people, who now live 800 metres above the river, saw a road driven through their land – and face the risk of landslides whenever it rains. For this damage to their land they got a mere 60,000 yuan (US$7,756) in compensation, 300 yuan (US$39) per head. And on top of this, 100 roof tiles per household (1,000 in total).

One villager told me that they dare not speak out; local officials have told them: "This is a state project and you mustn't cause trouble. The area is poor and we need the money from mining and power projects.”

The villagers have seen that some do get rich, but it is not them. They are poorer, and their homes have been ruined.

The lessons are there for the learning. I would like to ask those well-meaning businessmen one question: if you cannot look after 500 people, what hope is there for the Nu River's 50,000?


Liu Jianqiang is a Beijing-based investigative journalist

Also by Jianqiang Liu on chinadialogue: Fog on the Nu River

Homepage photo by Calvin Xu