Nu River residents get a shock from the Manwan dam

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South Wind Window (Nanfeng chuang) 29 June 2004

Farmers who would be displaced by the controversial Nu River scheme were shocked at how people resettled a decade ago have fared: 'We don't like to see a situation where dams make power companies and governments richer, and poor people only poorer.'

This article appeared on June 6, 2004, in South Wind Window (Nanfeng chuang), a popular magazine and sister publication of Guangzhou Daily (Guangzhou Ribao).

The proposed cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River will require the relocation of 70,000 or even 80,000 local people and affect hundreds of thousands of people living in areas below the dams. Many of those affected are members of ethnic minority groups. Unfortunately, because of the remote location, lack of access to information and language barriers, many indigenous people have been unaware of the planned hydro dams and have had no idea that they are likely to be resettled in the near future. If by chance the would-be-migrants did ever learn anything about this, they would likely respond this way: "All we know is what the government has told us: that building the dams will benefit us."

"The temporary suspension of the plan to dam the Nu River is a result of the struggle between environmentalists, the government and the hydropower companies," said Yu Xiaogang, founder of Green Watershed, one of the non-government organizations that has played a key role in the campaign against the Nu River dams. "Everybody knows the latter is trying to push ahead with the schemes anyway. As it stands, NGOs, governments and power companies have all taken part in this debate, but we have heard nothing from the real stakeholders - the indigenous people living in the Nu River valley who will be most affected by these dams.

"So we are going to invite some local people who stand to be affected by the proposed Nu River dams to take a look at the lives of people who have already been resettled on the Lancang [Mekong] River," Yu said. "We want these prospective migrants to see for themselves how those who are already resettled are faring. In this way, the Nu River residents can get a sense of what the future holds for them, and then make up their own minds. Even if they have no objection to the government's plan, the trip should teach them some valuable lessons that will assist them in protecting their long-term interests."

On May 24 this year, Yu Xiaogang led a group of 14 residents from the Nu valley to the closest existing dam, the Manwan on the Lancang River. Construction on the dam began in 1986 under the ambitious slogan, "The day the Manwan dam generates electricity is the day local people become rich." The Manwan was also hailed as one of the best-built key water projects constructed during China's seventh and eighth five-year-plans, because it was constructed rapidly and with a relatively modest budget.

After the dam went into operation, it did indeed bring enormous economic benefits - annual revenues of about 320 million yuan (US$40 million) for the Yunnan power company and governments at the central, provincial and county levels. But the Manwan dam failed to bring the promised benefits to the people it displaced. The resettlement funds were too meagre to adequately compensate local people for their property losses. [Manwan migrants received less than 8,000 yuan each, one-quarter the average amount going to people affected by the Three Gorges dam]. With the filling of the Manwan reservoir, livelihoods suffered and standards of living declined with the sudden loss of natural resources such as farmland, forests, grassland and fisheries. Nothing came of a plan to distribute between 3 and 5 per cent of power output from the dam to the affected people because they were far too poor to fund the construction of the necessary transmission lines.

According to a survey by a Yunnan rural economic investigation team, before the reservoir was filled in 1993, people in the Manwan dam area had enjoyed an annual per capita income that was 11 per cent higher than the average for Yunnan province as a whole. But now, people who have been displaced by the Manwan dam have only 46 per cent of the average annual income in the province.

"There is no doubt that the power company earned lots of money and the state earned tax money," Bi Wenzhi, a Manwan migrant who had been moved from Tianba village, told the Nu River visitors. "But neither the power revenue nor the tax money brought us anything at all."

"It's heartbreaking even to mention Tianba, which was one of the most beautiful villages in the Manwan area," villager Zhang Xurping chipped in. "We were so much better off there as well."

Located 800 metres upstream of the Manwan dam, Tianba was the first village to be inundated by the rising reservoir. The residents had no choice but to move to higher ground, and were resettled here and there on the slopes above their old village.

"We had a sense that we still belonged to the same community only when we took collective actions such as our appeals to higher authorities for help, or quiet sit-ins in front of the Manwan hydropower station," Bi Wenzhi said.

Construction of the dam was a double blow to local farmers: It affected not only the quantity but also the quality of available land. The average per capita farmland decreased by more than half a mu (0.58 mu). Moreover, "we can't even produce as much from four mu of land on higher ground as we could produce in the past from one mu in the river valley," one elderly farmer said.

Professor He Daming, director of the Asian International Rivers Centre at Yunnan University, points out that the Manwan dam was planned in the days of a centrally planned economy, built during the transition to a market economy, and operated in the market economy period. Local people are now suffering greatly, with no jobs or sufficient farmland to grow their crops. Their lives are in limbo, despite repeated appeals to higher authorities for help.

The situation only worsened when the Manwan dam was transferred to the Yunnan Huaneng Lancang Hydropower Co. Ltd., as a result of the government's reform of the power sector. With headquarters in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province and far from the Manwan dam, the company's focus is on hydropower generation, not the "leftover" problems of the resettlement operation.

And so, many people who had lived in Tianba village and been displaced by the Manwan dam now roam around working as "floating labourers" outside the reservoir area. With their low educational levels, they earn too little to meet even their basic needs. Dozens of displaced people, especially the old and infirm, have been forced to become garbage scavengers, picking through the rubbish discarded by the hydropower plant. "We can earn 10 or 20 cents [fen] a day selling garbage," said Yang Wencui, who, at the age of 78, was going through a heap of garbage. "If we're lucky, we can make one or two yuan."

One 26-year-old who was carrying her two-year-old child began crying when asked why she was picking through the garbage: "With no land and no job, we’re struggling to survive. This is the only way."

"We are most worried about the young people," Yang Wencui added. "We can't afford to sent them to school, and with no land to farm at home or outside job opportunities, what they can do is get into trouble more often."

Though they live close to the hydropower station, the displaced people benefit little from it, as the cost of electricity soars – from 17 cents [fen] in the past to as much as two yuan per kilowatt hour now.

Another problem is the rapid buildup of silt in the reservoir since its filling in 1993. In only three years, the reservoir's effective storage capacity declined to the point it was expected to reach in the 15th year of operation. Moreover, water quality in the reservoir is deteriorating, Prof. He said.

With more people now living on higher ground, and the sudden intensification of development activities that have entailed deforestation and the reclamation of steeply sloped land, erosion, landslides and riverbank collapses have increased dramatically. More than 100 landslides or riverbank collapses were recorded shortly after the Manwan reservoir was filled in 1993. In March of 1995, for example, a need to regulate the reservoir water level and lower it dozens of metres triggered severe landslides in several locations. The incidents caused serious damage to the homes of many of the displaced people. The financially strapped local governments asked officials at the hydropower station to address the problems, but they claimed it had nothing to do with them.

The Tianba villagers' case is far from unique in the Manwan area, and in some places the situation is actually much worse. Li Guojun, who was displaced from Taipingzhang village, complained: "Before resettlement, we could easily water our crops in the river valley. But now we no longer try to grow crops because we have trouble pumping water up to higher ground. We are too poor to buy irrigation equipment and to pay the electricity fees."

All of this came as a shock to Cha Fasheng, one of the 14 visitors from the Nu valley: "We never expected to find that your lives had become so hard after resettlement. Why didn't local governments do anything for you?"

To which a Manwan migrant replied: "You know what? Local officials are reluctant to even show up around here because they failed so badly with our resettlement."

Zheng Shaozhen, another resident from the Nu valley, said: "The government tells us that building dams will bring us benefits and make us rich. But after this visit, we really have no idea what our future might hold."

Two days of visiting with the Manwan migrants forced the Nu River residents to seriously ponder their own future. And all of them seemed to be quite shocked by the plight of the people displaced by the Manwan dam.

He Yuke, from Xiaoshanba village in the Nu valley, said, "We have to think about all this carefully upon our return. Only idiots would want to follow the path the Manwan migrants were forced to take. But we also cannot confront the government. If it decides to go ahead with the Nu River dams, it also has the responsibility to protect the interests of ordinary people. We don't like to see a situation where dams make power companies and governments richer, and poor people only poorer."

Translated by Three Gorges Probe (Chinese) editor Mu Lan.