A Tale of Two Rivers: Southwest China’s Hydropower Play

By Jason Brozek

Beijing’s plans for dam construction in the Yunnan province, a crucial part of China’s 10-year development strategy, are an interesting puzzle. Two rivers run nearly parallel through this impoverished southwestern territory—the Nu River, which becomes the Salween after it crosses the border into Myanmar, and the Lancang River, which is known as the Mekong once it crosses into riparian Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Both rivers fall into the region of China that the central government has targeted for extensive hydropower development, why then, has Beijing proposed to heavily dam the smaller, slower Nu instead of the larger, faster Lancang? If, as officials have stated, the goal of the recent “Develop the West” strategy is to generate power for local development and ease demands on the regional grid, why focus on the river that offers substantially less hydropower potential?  

Two explanations seem plausible—one grounded in internal Chinese politics and the other in external, international politics. A comparison of internal and external dynamics reveals that two forces, international institutions and regional economic integration, drive this policy choice. This suggests that external pressures influence China's internal water management decisions as well as the development of the region’s many transboundary rivers.

China has built more than 40,000 hydroelectric dams—more than half of the global total—with the majority completed in the last two decades. Hydropower development in provinces like Yunnan is part of Beijing’s “Develop the West” initiative, aimed at raising living standards in the country’s poorest provinces while easing demands on the rest of China’s electrical grid.

For the purposes of hydropower development, the Nu and Lancang rivers share many features. Both are long with large watersheds—2,800 kilometers long and 324,000 square kilometers of catchment for the Nu, and 4,300 kilometers long and 790,000 square kilometers of catchment for the Lancang. Both rivers have their headwaters in the Tibetan plateau, and the steep drop from the Himalayas means that both have excellent potential for hydropower generation. But since the Nu’s flow rate is less than a third of the Lancang, the power generation potential of the Nu is substantially lower.

Yet, China’s recent plans for hydropower development in Yunnan have focused on the Nu. In 2003, Beijing announced a development plan that includes 13 new dams on the Nu with a total electricity production capacity of 42 gigawatts (nearly twice the capacity of the massive Three Gorges Dam). On the Lancang, only two dams have been completed (one in 1985 and the other in 1997), a third is in progress, and there are uncertain plans for the future.

One possibility is that this extensive focus on building dams on the slower Nu River is driven by Chinese domestic politics. The question is whether internal politics surrounding the Nu are different from politics surrounding the Lancang, and whether this difference is enough to encourage Beijing to be more hesitant about building dams on the Lancang.

Internal conflict over the Lancang was characterized by public demonstrations over a lack of communication between national authorities and local leaders, inadequate compensation for resettlement and lost land, and corruption by business leaders. One powerful force opposing construction were environmental non-governmental organizations like Green Watershed, a Yunnan-based organization that engages in public education and encourages public participation in policy debates. Not only have political discussions over the Nu followed a similar model, but some of the same players are involved—including Green Watershed. Their role in the political debate over development on the Nu has mirrored their role in the Lancang debate, including strategies like education, legal challenges, and public meetings.

In both cases, public outcry and efforts by environmental organizations temporarily delayed implementation of the central government’s dam construction plans, but did not permanently stop construction. Importantly, there is no clear distinction that can be drawn between local politics over Nu dams and Lancang dams. There is evidence, in fact, that politics over Lancang dams built in the 1980s and 1990s were a direct, powerful antecedent for domestic political debates over the Nu dams. The difference between Beijing’s development strategy must, therefore, lie somewhere outside local politics.

Alternatively, politics between China and the downstream countries that share the Nu (Salween) and Lancang (Mekong) rivers could explain the decision to build more dams on the Nu rather than the Lancang. The question is whether one set of riparian countries can more effectively constrain China’s dam-building strategy.

For the Lancang (Mekong), the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is a management institution which is well-organized and well-financed by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. For the Nu (Salween), China and Myanmar have created no formal institution and are not constrained by any multilateral agreements.

The MRC has outlined a number of principles for shared resource management, echoing the call for “reasonable and equitable utilization,” of the Helsinki Water Agreement of 1966. In addition to broad principles, the MRC has created a number of programs, including the Basin Development Plan and the Water Utilization Program, which require notification and consent of other members before development projects can be undertaken.

While China has not signed the Mekong Agreement, representatives from Beijing participate in meetings and contribute to the MRC’s reports. Though China only has a “dialogue partner” status in the MRC and is not bound to the same notification or consent requirements, it appears to be increasingly sensitive to the concerns of the downstream parties. Chinese participation has resulted in a reasonably progressive and transparent set of guidelines for all future development projects, including environmental impact assessments and stakeholder forums. Further, the Lancang (Mekong) is an important economic resource and, in addition to the MRC, the riparians who share the river have established a number of joint economic institutions. These include the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Mekong Basin Development Organization, both of which include China as a partner.  

The Nu (Salween), on the other hand, is not managed through any formal institutional structure. Instead China and Myanmar have developed plans for development and dam construction unilaterally. No monitoring, notification, consent, or public participation requirements exist, and there are no mechanisms to ensure these separate development strategies are compatible.

China has developed more extensive plans for the Nu, because it has a nearly nonexistent international framework.  Even as a non-voting member of the MRC, the argument that external pressure has persuaded China to forego extensive dam construction on the Lancang is convincing. Beijing has developed an extensive dam-construction plan where it is politically easy, not where it maximizes energy generation. China’s policy choices in the Yunnan province are constrained, at least to some degree, by its international obligations and regional partners. This, rather importantly, implies that despite the fears of international observers, Beijing is not immune to external pressures. Through its inclusive yet technical meetings, the MRC has quietly prevented China from over-damming the Mekong. While China could benefit from the electricity, tens of millions of Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese depend directly on the Mekong for their lives and livelihoods. Unfortunately for the Burmese who depend on the Salween, no such check on Chinese power exists.



Jason Brozek is assistant professor of Government and Environmental studies and Stephen E. Scarff professor of International Affairs at Lawrence University.

[Photo courtesy of Fredrik Thommesen]

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