USA TODAY 21 April 2010
By Calum MacLeod
XIAOWAN, China — Wearing cloaks of tree bark strands, villagers from the Yi ethnic minority tend wheat terraces that cascade downhill toward the riverbank.
It is a scene unchanged for centuries, and it takes place in the shadow of a modern wall of concrete as high as a 66-story skyscraper that fills a gorge of the Lancang River in remote southwestern China.
The Xiaowan dam in the hills of Yunnan Province is one of eight hydroelectric projects that will bring China’s industrial revolution to the impoverished region. It is by far the biggest of the four dams built so far that when done this year will be the biggest arch dam in the world.
But not all of the water is China's. The downstream half of the 2,700-mile-long river winds through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it is known as the Mekong.
In those countries, 60 million people rely on the Mekong not for electricity but for food, water and transport. They say the Chinese dams have reduced the river to its lowest levels in 50 years, and environmental groups accuse China of reducing the river flow downstream.
"Many local people and groups that monitor the dams in China point the finger at the dams as one of the main causes of the drying up of the river," says Srisuwan Kuankachorn, co-director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, a Thailand-based environmental group.
Srisuwan says the countries are in a drought caused by China that has killed fisheries, withered croplands and dried up waterway transportation routes.
And the problems are likely to get worse with the completion of the Xiaowan dam. A United Nations report issued in May 2009 warned that China's eight planned dams, of which Xiaowan is the fourth, "may pose the single greatest threat to the river."
"The capability of the new dam is much bigger than the other three combined," Srisuwan says.
Little leverage for compliance
At the plush local offices of dam builders Huaneng Hydrolancang, senior engineer Zhao Meng is unruffled by the dire allegations. Zhao, 58, bears a scientist's conviction that the doubters are wrong.
"However much water arrives, the same amount will leave," Zhao says. "We have no plan to keep the water or use it elsewhere. We will store water for a while as we fill the reservoir (currently 30% full), but this dam will not affect the water flow downstream."
Some regional experts agree that the hydroelectric projects are unrelated to the drought.
"China's dams have not caused this problem," says Jeremy Bird, CEO of the Mekong River Commission, an organization that helps manage the river's resources for Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
But China's refusal to provide data to the commission on the dams already is raising suspicions among analysts. This month, a Chinese delegation to the commission promised deeper cooperation but stopped short of adding to a promise to provide hydrological data for two smaller Yunnan dams.
"The Chinese must come clean on how much water they are diverting at Xiaowan and, in the future, at Nuozhadu," another dam that will boast an even bigger reservoir, says Alan Potkin, a development specialist at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University.
Xiaowan is "an enormously large dam, bigger than anything in North America," says Potkin, who worries that in two years' time both Xiaowan and Nuozhadu could be filling reservoirs simultaneously. Potkin is urging the commission to ask China for the most critical data. But he knows the board can do little if China refuses. "It has very little leverage at all," he says.
Journalists have been kept at bay at Xiaowan. A USA TODAY reporter was held up by police for three hours while trying to get to the site and then refused entry.
Local residents dispute that the drought stems from natural causes.
Here in Yunnan province, White Fish Pond hasn't seen fish for years, says Bi Xiuxian, who heads a small hydropower station on the Weishan River. For the past half-year, the river has hardly seen any water, either. So the privately owned power plant in the village of Lishimo is idle.
"Poor management of water facilities is definitely a major reason for this drought," complains Bi, an ethnic Yi. "We need new wells, better management of old wells, and more maintenance of water canals."
Elders pray for rain
China's thirst for energy will likely keep the projects moving forward without much look back, say activists.
"We need time to see the real results," says Wang Yongchen, founder of Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental group, who has monitored China's dam-building for several years. "China is developing so quickly and needs a lot of energy, but nature is not just for humans."
In Shuanghe village, Nanjian County, Yunnan province, farmer Xu Piqing stands on a bridge above the now-dry water canal that usually rushes into the Weishan River.
"We should be busy now, harvesting corn and beans, but instead we have nothing to do," says Xu, 43.
Some villagers are taking action, though.
This month, more than 100 elders will gather to pray for rain on the hilltop, lighting incense and kowtowing to the earth. It's an annual ritual, but "this year will be the biggest ever," Xu says.