A yellow card for the Three Parallel Rivers

An outstanding site of biodiversity in southwest China may lose its world heritage status, the United Nations' cultural wing has warned. The area's development must be balanced with environmental concerns, writes Wang Yongchen.

Southwest China’s Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, in Yunnan province, has been issued with a warning. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently said at a conference that the site may lose its World Heritage status if it fails inspections in 2008.

This is bad news. On July 30, 2003, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee took only 18 minutes to decide that the area should be included on the World Heritage List; it is the only site in China that meets all four of UNESCO’s requirements for World Natural Heritage. On July 3 of that year it was formally given World Heritage status. At the time the deputy governor of Yunnan province, Wu Xiaoqing, described the Three Parallel Rivers as: “a mountain valley bringing a source of biodiversity together with geological features, flora and fauna, beautiful scenery and diverse cultures.”

But the celebratory cheers had barely died down when the first warning came a year later. The World Heritage Committee’s twenty-eighth session issued a verbal warning, saying that if significant changes did not take place within set time limits, decisions would have to be made on whether to include of the area on the List of World Heritage in Danger — or even on whether the site could keep its world heritage status.

The "yellow card" has been shown, and the site is now at risk of seeing that final red card. But why? One reason that the committee stated was a lack of openness and transparency.

Local government in the area is currently pushing ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects. The new acting governor of the province, Qin Guangrong, was quoted last November as saying: “Hydroelectricity in Yunnan, particularly in the Three Rivers area, will affect 12 prefectures and cities in the province — 62% of its population and 70% of its area — and holds an important position in regional economic development.”

Local government-supported hydroelectric projects have rapidly taken shape in the vicinity of the Three Parallel Rivers. Media reports revealed in March this year that: “One of China’s five major power generators, China Huadian, has signed an agreement with provincial leaders to speed up projects on the Nu River and Jinsha River. Huadian soon established a presence around a number of river basins in the area, and took a leading role on projects on the middle reaches of the Jinsha and the Nu, where work is now underway. Huadian is to speed up its expansion in Yunnan.” Surveys for the projects are in full swing, as is the relocation of local residents. In early 2007, the locals of Xiaoshabei on the Nu River were moved to a new government-built village.

And what have the local officials who are responsible for protecting this site been doing all this time? Nobody knows.

A statement from the thirtieth session of the World Heritage Committee complained that exploratory work for hydroelectric development on the Nu River has had a very visible impact, and construction of a dam will have a huge effect on the area’s aesthetic value, as this naturally flowing river becomes a series of reservoirs. The committee called for the local government to submit a report by February 1, 2007, clarifying the extent of the changes to the Nu River area, including a geological survey, details of mining activity and an explanation of how approving the dam could be balanced with upholding standards on the protection of World Heritage sites, particularly in terms of its effect on the valuable Three Parallel Rivers area.

But the public still do not know the details. As early as August 2005, more than 90 NGOs and 450 individuals called for the authorities to publish an environmental impact assessment on the plans before reaching a decision. They are still waiting.

Authorities at a central level are well aware of what is happening. On July 3, 2007, the minister for water resources, Wang Shucheng, said: “There is currently no overall plan for development of hydroelectric plants on the Nu River; previous reports have been from the point of view of power generation. As ecological and other issues need yet to be considered, a comprehensive report is being prepared. Once that is complete, power generation, water use and environmental protection will all be considered.” Wang indicated that it has not yet been decided how the area will be developed, or whether it will be done at all.

But local governments are driven by economic interests, and they have not been as transparent as they could have been. Nobody knows who is contributing to the planning report and environmental impact assessment, or how much weight will be given to ecological concerns. However, it seems we can almost assume that the locals will be unable to participate in the process. And if their right to know cannot be assured, what hope is there for public or environmental interests?

During the national political conferences of 2004, Zhang Tinghao, a representative to the National People’s Congress, called for a new law on protecting world heritage sites. Zhang said that in recent years the conflict between protecting culture and promoting economic growth had heated up. There are many examples: the theme park built beside the Leshan Giant Buddha; the dams upstream on the Lan River; the escalators constructed at the Zhangjiajie scenic area; the fire at Wudang Mountain’s Yuzhen Palace; the masses of tourists crowding the Forbidden City, Xian’s Terracotta Warriors and the Dunhuang caves. All of these destroy the authenticity of world heritage, and in some cases the sites are now beyond saving. How, then, should we deal with plans to turn the free-flowing Nu River into a series of stagnant reservoirs?

World heritage status should ensure protection. UN experts have said they hope the local governments responsible for China’s heritage sites will learn from the Three Parallel Rivers and realise that the status brings with it responsibilities — and the need to fulfil specific commitments. It is not as simple as benefiting economically from the tourism industry and developing at will. These warnings should prompt us to consider further why China does apply for world heritage status; and that is good news.

Yongchen Wang is a reporter for China National Radio. Wang founded Green Earth Volunteers, a Chinese environmental NGO, in 1996. She is also a winner of the Globe Award, China’s top environmental prize.

More stories on Nu River development on chinadialogue:

1. Report from the Nu River: "Nobody has told us anything."

2. Fog on the Nu River