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Controversy over the development of the Nujiang Dams, China

A government and private industry plan for building two reservoirs and thirteen dams along the middle and lower reaches of the Nujiang River was stopped by persistent civil society movements at the end of 2016.


Between March and June of 2003, the Huadian Group and Yunnan provincial government established the Yunnan Huadian Nujiang Hydropower Development Corporation, which would be in charge of building “two reservoirs and thirteen dams along the middle and lower reaches of the Nujiang” [1].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Controversy over the development of the Nujiang Dams, China
State or province:Yunnan
Location of conflict:Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Electricity
Project Details and Actors
Project details

"[The] series of thirteen hydroelectric barrages on the river...was expected to generate revenue of 34 billion yuan ($5.4 billion) per year" [3]. According to the 2003 "Nu River Middle and Lower Reaches Hydropower Planning Report...[the proposed dams would have] a total installed capacity of 21.32 million kilowatts and an annual power output of 102.96 billion kilowatt-hours" (ibid). The project was stopped in 2016.

Level of Investment for the conflictive project13,580,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:50,000 people potentially displaced (mainly ethnic minorities)
Start of the conflict:13/08/2003
End of the conflict:2016
Company names or state enterprises:Yunnan Huadian Nujiang Hydropower Development Corporation from China
Relevant government actors:Wen Jiabao, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the State Council, the Ministry of Water Resources, the National Development and Reform Commission
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:EJOs: Friends of Nature, Global Village Beijing, Green Earth Volunteers, Green Watershed, the Institute for Environment and Development, Brooks Education Institute, Wild China Films, International Rivers; Prominent activists/individuals: Yu Xiaogang, Wang Yongchen
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsThe impact of China’s energy hunger will be felt beyond its borders. Some 7 million people in neighboring Burma and Thailand live in the Nujiang’s lower basin, which would almost certainly be affected by the construction of five dams upriver. Beijing’s unilateral change of course reveals a disregard for China's smaller, southern neighbors, American University’s Shapiro says.
“Sadly, the Nu River dams also represent China's big-power disrespect for the equitable sharing of water with downstream neighbors in Southeast Asia,” she says, “where China's control of the headwaters of the major rivers that provide livelihoods to millions is creating a deep sense of unease" [7].
Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Application of existing regulations
Project cancelled
In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao called a halt to the project to order further impact assessments as required under a then new environmental law
Proposal and development of alternatives:At the end of 2016 the projects was cancelled.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao called a halt to the project to order further impact assessments as required under a then new environmental law. Chinese green groups celebrated a rare victory over unrestrained growth. But some of the leading critics of the dam proposal, such as Yu Xiaogang, who runs a Yunnan-based environmental group, and Wang Yongchen, a journalist in Beijing who co-founded one of the country’s first environmental NGOs, questioned whether the project was truly killed or merely postponed. [...] So it was little surprise that China’s State Council, the central administrative body chaired by the Premier, moved late last month to lift the ban on damming the Nu River and gave Sinohydro the go-ahead for five dams including the Liuku and Saige sites. In particular, the Songta dam, the farthest upriver and the only structure on the Nu in Tibet, has been approved for construction by 2015, notes International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental NGO [8]. But at the end of 2016 the project was cancelled.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Lin, T.C. (2007). Environmental NGOs and the Anti-dam movements in China: A social movement with Chinese characteristics. Issues & Studies, 43(4), 149-184.
[click to view]

[2] Dore, J., & Yu Xiaogang. (2003). China plans to dam the Nu/Salween River. Watershed, 9(2), 4–5.

[3] Boyd, O. (2013). The birth of Chinese environmentalism: Key campaigns. In S. Geall (Ed.), China and the environment: The green revolution (pp. 40-95). London: Zed Books.

[4] Wells-Dang, A. (2012). Civil society networks in China and Vietnam: Informal pathbreakers in health and the environment. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] Mertha, A. (2008). China’s water warriors: Citizen action and policy change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[6] Büsgen, M. (2006). NGOs and the Search for Chinese Civil Society: Environmental NGOs in the Nujiang Campaign. The Hague: Institute ofSocial Studies, Working Paper No. 422.

[7] Environmentalists struggle to stop Chinese dam project
[click to view]

[8] Chinese Environmentalists Lose Fight to Stop Nu River Dams
[click to view]

[9] The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2016. Joy as China shelves plans to dam 'angry river' . Environmentalists celebrate as Beijing appears to abandon plans to build giant ydroelectric dams on 1,750-mile Nujiang
[click to view]

Johnny Erling. Wang Yongchen is cheering and jumping for joy at Bingzhongluo on the Nujiang River. The Nu River beneath her flows deep. It is unhindered and free, without a dam obstructing its natural course. It is everything the Beijing environmental activist could wish for.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:EJOLT team at School of Geography and China Centre, University of Oxford
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:1632
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