The real Nu River story

A Chinese television series was intended to inform the public about controversial hydropower projects in the country’s southwest. But the programmes ignored half of the story, writes Ding Yuanfang.

In December last year, the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) network broadcast a five-part television series called “Nu River story” (watch in Chinese here) as part of their “Green Space” series. The programmes left me shocked.

“Green Space” aims to provide informative programming about environmental issues, yet the broadcasts clearly welcomed the development of dams in the Three Parallel Rivers area: a UNESCO World Heritage site in southwest China known for its precious ecological resources. (To read more about the controversy over the Nu River dams, see “Fog on the Nu River”, by Liu Jianqiang). The series silenced five years of debate and ignored principles of journalistic balance, coming down firmly on the side of the developers and local government. It claimed that the hydropower projects would present no threat to World Heritage sites, local culture, plant or animal life, and that relocated residents would be treated well, with guaranteed homes and food. The programmes claimed the dams would do nothing more than bring bridges and roads, create jobs, improve housing, provide water and electricity, increase tax revenues, relieve poverty and bring economic development.

If only that were true. The series was not objective and the viewer was not presented with all the facts about the Nu River debate. The information was filtered selectively, and no consideration was given to long-term development or the environment. Its stance was in complete agreement with the interests of the local government and dam developers. How credible is a journalistic voice when it speaks solely for the interests of political or business groupings?

The programme acknowledged that no other water engineering project has caused this level of debate in China. Since 2003, a range of academics, journalists, individuals, central and local government officials and NGOs have come forward to express their views. The Chinese premier Wen Jiabao called for the project to be “seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.” The causes for the debate were mentioned, but in an incomprehensive and unbalanced manner.

This is a list of the experts, academics and officials interviewed during the series:

• Xu Dingming.

Although described as chair of the National Expert Committee on Energy, Xu also has two other important roles: he is deputy head of the National Energy Office and head of the State Council’s Energy Bureau.

Zhang Boting.

Zhang is deputy secretary of the China Power Generating Engineering Society. This group was formerly under the State Grid, and is now a part of the China Hydropower Engineering Consulting Group, a subsidiary of which – Hydrochina Beijing Engineering Corp. – is one of the major planners behind the Nu River dam project.

• Gu Hongbin

Gu is a senior engineer at the China Water and Hydropower Planning Institute.

• Yang Yongping

Yang is a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

• Chen Xiaoyong

Chen is a deputy researcher at the Kunming Institute of Botany.

• Hou Xinhua

Hou is governor of Nu River prefecture.

• Yang Canzhang

Yang is head of Yunnan’s Migration and Development Bureau.

• Liu Yun

Liu is head of the Three Parallel Rivers Scenic Area Management Bureau.

Of these eight interviewees, four are local government or water management officials and two are experts from the water management authorities; the remaining two are experts from other disciplines. It is clear that the water management authorities and local government are pushing for the hydropower projects to go ahead. Sure enough, those interviewees gave the projects their full support. The only opposing voices were set up as targets for attack. What hope did the audience have of drawing a reasoned conclusion?

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project is a major focus of the debate over the Nu River. However, nobody from the Ministry of Environmental Protection – the ministry responsible for carrying out the report – was interviewed for the programmes. Only the water management experts were invited to comment on this issue. “How can the public participate on the basis of a report about aquatic life?” said the senior engineer. “Those kinds of opinions will just result in mistakes for future policy-making. They would not be of any help.” Was this contempt for public participation the best the series could offer us?

Only the academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences were more neutral. One of the researchers said, albeit hesitantly, that if the entire length of the river was developed the consequences would be “very serious”.

Issues such as the development of the Nu River represent an ideal opportunity to raise public environmental awareness and education. The debate may appear to be simply between a few environmentalists and those with an interest in building dams. In fact, the discussion is a wider one about different views of the river: should it only be valued in economic terms, or in terms of its ecological aspects? It is a struggle between short-term and long-term interests; local and central priorities; departmental and public concerns. Resolving these questions requires public participation, reasoned input from scientists and wise decision-making. The media’s role should be to provide rational, comprehensive, fair and objective information.

Had “Nu River story” provided the public with in-depth information and an understanding of both sides of the debate about ecological protection and economic development, then it could have scored a victory for environmental education.

Unfortunately, the programme failed in these objectives, and I will not speculate as to the reasons why. I sincerely hope that if the projects do go ahead, the results will be as positive as the programme predicted. But this has not been the case for previous dam projects.


Ding Yuanfang is a Beijing-based journalist.

Homepage photo by Josua_and_Eva