Hydropower and ethnic resettlement in the Yalong River valley

Sichuan's Yalong River Valley.  Image: josephrock.net

Sichuan’s Yalong River Valley. Image: josephrock.net

The Yalong river is one of the largest tributaries of China’s Yangtze river watershed.  Originating in Qinghai province, the 1368 kilometer long river system creates some of the deepest gorges in the world falling 3180 meters in elevation before flowing into the Yangtze at Panzhihua in southern Sichuan province.  According to the 2013 Twelfth Five Year Plan for resources management issued by the Chinese National Energy Administration, 21 dams will be built on the mainstream of the Yalong River and two of the dams will be the highest in the world.  The Plan also includes the completion of several hydropower projects which have been on hold since 2005 due to concerns about the fragility of the local ecosystem and culture.

How will these hydropower dams impact the people who have lived in valleys along the river for generations?  Over its 50 year history of developing hydropower, China has never properly resolved issues related to involuntary resettlement caused by dams.  As construction starts to approach the remote upstream areas of China’s western rivers, this problem is only growing in severity.  Civil society believes that more dams are being constructed closer to the source of China’s key river systems, and these projects endanger the fragile ecosystem and cultural heritage of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

Yalong Dams II Version 1.05

In early 2013, researchers, experts, and volunteers from Yunnan Green Watershed, Norway University of Oslo’s School of Law, International Rivers, the Hengduanshan Research Institute, Green Earth Volunteers, and the Chengdu Rivers Association conducted research on the protection of rights of resettled populations living in the Yalong ethnic minority areas and the social impact of resettlements on relocated populations.

The team surveyed Gubai, a resettlement village for communities displaced by the Jinping Hydropower dam.  The local Xianyuan township government has selected it as a model for resettlement implementation.  In 2011, Han Chinese, ethnic peoples of the Yi and Miao minorities started to relocate to Gubai.

Despite Gubai’s model achievement, we found that conditions provided for the resettled peoples were significantly sub-standard compared to previous living conditions and economic opportunities provided also lacked in comparison.  Villagers were provided with 200 square meters of land to build a home and raise pigs and chickens.  One villager noted that their former property gave them access to more than 600 square meters of land.  Another family in the village owned a 890 square meter property prior to relocation.  Prior to relocation the pig pens and chicken coops that provided for families’ key sources of protein were located far from the villagers’ homes, but in Gubai villagers shared the 200 meters with their livestock.

“After we moved here, people and livestock must live together. There is no other alternative.  People from three villages sold all their livestock when they left, all of them.  They brought nothing with them when they came here, yes, nothing, nothing but their clothes,” noted a local villager. “The place where we used to live had four distinct seasons.  The terraced fields we once had, the kind of field that consists of level strips of land cut out of the hillside generations ago, did not need any water pumps to be irrigated. But here, we have to use a water pump to pump water from the river and pipe it to our fields in order to irrigate them.”

These peoples living in deep the mountains for generations had little cash income, but lived relatively affluent lives with the abundance of natural resources around them. Now the cost of making a living has increased dramatically in the relocated settlement and previous economic livelihoods cannot be reproduced.

“It’s not even worth the money to purchase water to irrigate the crops. For 1 mu of land (.06 hectare) we need at least five bags of chemical fertilizer, six to seven bags of phosphate fertilizer, two bottles of crop pesticides at least, and we need to use them three times.  When we first came here, we had no idea how to use the pesticides.  We had never seen anything like it back home.  But here, we can’t do without pesticides.  Some of our people cannot get used to the pesticides, some fainted and some were even poisoned.”

Villagers lack basic access to medical facilities in the settlement.  Before relocation, they could simply dig herbal plans when medicines were needed, free of charge.  In the mountains, ethnic Yi shamans called Bimo, revered as the guardians of Yi culture would often provide basic medical services to villagers and conduct rituals that would enforce social cohesion and the provision of services among the villagers.  In Gubai, relocated villagers noted that a Bimo had not visited the settlement in more than two years.

Ethnic people living in the remote mountainous areas of southwest China have a long tradition of trading valuable products with rural and urban areas of central China.  In recent decades the demand for honey in low-land areas sparked a cottage beekeeping industry in Muli.  Many villagers noted they earned several thousand RMB per year in extra income by selling honey; some families kept more than ten hives.  They also noted the market value of Sichuan peppercorns and walnuts.

Those families with old walnut trees on their property could earn ten to twenty thousand RMB per year.  The labor required to gain this income was minimal.

“We could finish picking peppercorns in one month.  As for walnuts, we would usually hire someone.  One day would be enough.  Not much help was needed.  If I got busy, others would help me after they finished theirs.  But here I have to spend money to hire people, my relatives and friends are not likely to travel this far to help me.  Think about the money that must be spent to travel here.  Other people are too busy with their own farm work.”

These are the words of an elderly man, the only one of working age in his home given that his children have now migrated to a Sichuan city in search of work.  Resettlement impacted his lifestyle in a significant manner.  His income keeps falling while his living expenses are rising.  Soon his family will fall into poverty.The traditional Yi lineage system kept communities together, provided essential services to the elderly, homes for orphans, and a social network that helped Yi communities navigate the challenges of living high in the remote mountains. Resettlement threatens this critical lineage system and the social network it reinforces.  In the future when difficulties occur, who will the resettled villagers in Gubai turn to?

The mainstream view is that hydropower provides rare development opportunities for the poor.  But the people who lived in the Yalong river valley for generations have had to give up the living skills they are familiar with, leave behind social capital accumulated over generations, move to an unfamiliar society with different customs, and start a whole new life.

This long journey is not one that leads to home.

This is the first in a five part series on ethnic resettlement and the impacts of hydropower development by Yu Xiaogang.  Link here to part 2.


Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, ethnic policy, Governance, Health, Hydropower & Ethnic Resettlement in China's Yalong River Valley, SLIDER, water

5 Responses to Hydropower and ethnic resettlement in the Yalong River valley

  1. Similar tragedies happen in Europe too, like in the lignite mining areas in Germany. Of course, these European countries are “democracies”, but democracies should not allow a majority to determine the homesteads of minorities. It is just a flawed idea of the scale of powers that should be arrogated by the democratic “sovereign”. And yes, less airports and less dams would get built that way or, maybe, they would be more expensive. Because if you had to buy out these people you’d have to pay the price they asked. They likely would be able to figure in their century old social capital. One other thing is striking though, like nuclear power, hydro power with large and high dams makes a country vulnerable and practically defenseless against attacks by e.g. cruise missiles. Flying below the radar, these missiles will destroy nuclear power plants, irradiating and leaving unarable a whole nation. Destroying dams as big as Chinas megalomaniac Three Gorges etc. projects kill everyone downstream if blown up. Factoring in effective defenses would make that energy so expensive as to leave such projects unbuilt. But central planners cannot calculate.

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