“If you were born somewhere, how would you feel about having to move to someone else’s place?” Chen Quiangguo asked rhetorically.
After leaving the Tibetan community of Cizhong, we had decided to follow up on some rumours locals had shared that the nearby village of Yanmen was set to be flooded by the reservoir of the soon-to-be completed Wunonglong hydropower dam. Relocating villagers to make way for dams was something we had encountered repeatedly throughout our journey, but in this case the residents of Yanmen were not to be given a new piece of land but rather they were to be absorbed into Cizhong.
Whereas the most common challenge faced by dam migrants was how to go about creating a new community from scratch – often in an undesirable location far from schools, hospitals, employment, and other important infrastructure – in this case the situation had been flipped. How could an entire village be joined with another without severely straining the available land of the host? Before continuing north towards the Tibetan plateau, we stopped in Yanmen to ask how residents planned to deal with the problem. It was there we met Chen Quiangguo, sitting on a plastic cooler along Yanmen’s main thoroughfare.
“I have lived here my whole life,” Chen said, “and now the whole village is going to be evicted. I am not sure where we will go when I lose my farmland.” His life was in a state of uncertainty, and with Wunonglong set to be operational in 2018, he did not have much time to make a decision.
Like the people we had spoken to in Xialuoga who too faced the prospect of abandoning much of their town to a dam’s reservoir, Chen directed most of his anger at local government more so than at the national level.
“I think the power company [Sinohydro] is more powerful than the local government. Whenever we disagree with the company we report it to the local government, but I don’t think they have much power over the company,” he explained. Considering that Sinohydro was a state-owned corporation – and one of the biggest companies of any kind in all of China – he was most likely right.
20km away along a winding mountain highway, the build site of the Wunonglong dam was not the high security location that we’d expected it to be. Instead of guards and gates a special viewing platform had been build to accommodate tourists, complete with decorative gardens and informational diagrams showing the location of all present and future dam projects on the Lancang. China clearly saw its massive damming projects as a source of engineering pride, something to be marvelled at rather than hidden away.
From the lookout perched above the deep river valley where Wunonglong was being built, it was hard not to be struck by the monumental scale of the construction. Hulking industrial dump trucks were reduced to moving yellow dots, and the workers were nothing more than specks identifiable only by their brightly coloured hardhats.
Where the Lancang should have flowed there was instead a plain of gravel and metal scaffolding that covered the valley walls like latticework. Even more impressive was the fact that the river had not been blocked, but rather diverted in its entirety through a tunnel that had been carved through the base of the surrounding mountains. Despite the environmental ramifications of such dams for China’s downstream neighbours and the human cost of flooding huge tracts of land, this manifestation of China’s engineering prowess was truly awesome to behold.
Back in Yanmen with a clearer visual picture of the source of the village’s destroyer, we spoke to shopkeeper Ge Dacheng about his future plans. Like Chen Quiangguo, he was uncertain as to his future: “I will be evicted next year I think. Because I rent my shop and do not own the land, I do not have as much to lose [as some others in Yanmen], but I do not know where I will go. I’ll have to see what housing is available and what it costs.”
As the current plan encouraged most of Yanmen’s residents (at least those who could not afford to move to bigger cities) to move to Cizhong, Ge and Chen were at least fortunate that people in Cizhong were not unanimously opposed to their arrival. The prospect of giving away inherited farmland to a community of incoming strangers could have sparked deep resentment in Cizhong and made assimilation all but impossible.
However, when we’d asked 64-year-old wine maker and Cizhong land-owner Zeng Tei how he felt about an influx of newcomers, he responded optimistically.
“I heard they are making this community bigger,” Zeng had said. “I don’t know why these people need to come here, but I don’t think it’s a danger to my family. In the past people here used to be starving, but now things are plentiful. I hope that when new people come I will have a bigger market for my crops – and that they will buy more of my wine!”
Towards the Plateau
While our first reaction to China’s network of dams might have been to rail and shout about the ecological damage being done to the Lancang (and later the Mekong) – as well as the hardships looming for those who had to be relocated to make way for their reservoirs – after spending upwards of a month following the river through Yunnan province, we realized that this would not be entirely fair.
Though the Mekong was a transnational waterway, directly supporting the livelihoods of more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia, international borders and the modern geopolitical system meant that governments were prone to put their own national development interests before those of their neighbours. Though after more than a year on the Mekong we had our own left-of-centre views regarding the future ramifications of such insular thinking, this was nevertheless the reality of modern politics.
And time after time in China (with only a few rare exceptions), we had seen that the Lancang was not a particularly useful river for the people who lived along it. Whereas in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, millions of people fished in the muddy brown waters, irrigated their rice paddies, or transported their goods along the Mekong, the fast-moving Lancing and the hard to access topography it snaked through provided little in the way of direct benefits to Chinese people. We had seen very little in the way of fishing, a mere fraction of the agricultural activity that was present in Southeast Asia, and virtually no transportation was possible due to the river’s rocky bed, untamed speed, and indirect course.
In the largely Tibetan mountain town of Deqin, parts of which sit at nearly 4000 metres above sea level, the practical uselessness of the Lancang was reinforced repeatedly by the people we spoke to. Cili Dingzhu, a Tibetan resident of Deqin replied with an emphatic “no, no, no,” when we asked if the Lancang provided anything for his community.
In fact Cili Dingzhu had been hard pressed to think of a place anywhere in the area where people lived within walking distance of the river. When he did eventually remember once such village, we had driven through the mountains for more than an hour to reach it and found it to be little more than a cluster of houses perched on the steep valley walls. There were no pipes feeding them Lancang water, and no boats tied to the shore. Almost unnaturally blue and capped with intermittent patches of whitewater, in Yunnan’s rugged north the Lancang was simply an obstacle to be crossed, not a boon to be enjoyed.
In this sense the Chinese government had made the best possible use of the river as a means of developing their country. Other nations around the world had made excellent use of hydropower dams to build their economies and build their energy industries, and it would not be fair to expect China not to do the same. Yet we knew that as practical as China’s treatment of the Lancang might be, there were millions of people living the south who had an altogether different relationship with the river.
In an ideal world nations would cooperate to make sure that natural resources were managed with the collective good in mind, but that world did not yet exist.
As we left Yunnan for the final phase of our journey on the Tibetan plateau, we were acutely aware of how much the river had changed since we had begun to follow it in Vietnam, and how greatly its importance in people’s lives varied from north to south.
“Wow, you’ve been on this river for a long way!” Cili Dingzhu remarked when we explained the nature of our trip. “Does it flow through Beijing?”
A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.