Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Chinese Dam Policy

Big dam projects are a major part of the festival of concrete that is modernizing China. The most famous is the massive Three Gorges Dam, the capitalist fulfillment of a three thousand year old Imperial dream. The Three Gorges fight is over and the dam is almost done. The new battleground is the southeast Yunnan province, where Tibetan mountains meet Vietnamese rainforest. The first plan I heard about was a 13 dam project on the Nu river, which has recently been put on hold by the highest levels of government. Plans are moving forward, though, for an eight dam project at Leaping Tiger Gorge.

I'm just beginning the planning stages of a return visit to China in the Summer of 2007. My colleague Steve Robinson from Geology and I would take some students to look at environmental issues in spectacular Yunnan province. As a part of this, Steve has sent me a bunch of links to articles about the Leaping Tiger project. E Magazine has a succinct summary of the reasons to oppose the dam wrapped up in some decent journalism. The CBC also has a short from a largely anti-dam perspective. The Sydney Morning Herold covers both the Nu and the Leaping Tiger dams. Countercurrents.org provides more details on the environmental impact, pro and con. Most of these articles interview the same opposition leaders: Xia “Sean” Shenquan, an ethnic Tibetan who runs a guesthouse for tourists and backpackers with his Australian-born wife, and Ma Jun environmentalist author of China’s Water Crisis. (The water crisis book looks good. Maybe Steve and I should use it in our class.)

Environmentalists typically fight against dam building--a tradition of opposition that goes back to John Muir's fight against the Hetch Hetchy Dam. The concrete reasons for opposing dams include the displacement of people, damage to ecosystems, and the ruining of pretty canyons. Many environmentalists also have a more vague feeling that a free flowing river is just better, more natural, than a dammed one. Massive engineering projects always have complex effects, though, and are never amenable to simple moral judgments. This is especially true of contemporary China, if only because new dams can provide a clean alternative to the nasty coal they currently burn for electricity. The Leaping Tiger dam is also being pushed as a remedy to past environmental problems. The countercurrents article explains that many Yunnan reservoirs have become polluted and silted up due to mismanagement. The new dams would provide clean drinking water to people who need it.

The dam projects bring out a conflict between the practical and aesthetic sides of environmentalism. One stream of environmentalism has always had very pragmatic goals, like clean drinking water and safe energy. Global climate change and increasing strains on fresh water supplies make these issues a global priority and new dams can help solve them. Another stream of environmentalism, though, has always been concerned with saving beauty, and there is much beauty to be saved in Yunnan. The mountainous rainforest is a major center of Asia’s biodiversity, ethnic diversity, and linguistic diversity. The new dams threaten the Naxi people, whose have a rare matrilineal inheritance system and a fascinating ancient music tradition. My philosophical work has led me to favor the pragmatic aspects of environmentalism heavily, but I have no easy answers to the dam issue. I am positive, though, that the issue needs philosophic attention.

Top picture: Sean Xia at Leaping Tiger Gorge from the CBC.
Bottom picture: Naxi musican from wikipedia.

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