August 17, 2011

Dam Water in China: Water Losers

Meagan Hawes

Meagan Hawes

Guest Blogger

Undergraduate, Environmental Engineering, JHU

Along the Keriya River, one of twelve waterways in western China where dam construction began last year, the mood is weary and palpably tense. For those on the bank, what the dams will bring remains uncertain; what they have taken away is already great.

Construction camp along the Keriya River

New York Times journalist Jim Yardley writes, “[Large dams] lie at the uncomfortable center of China’s energy conundrum.” The construction of dams reduces the nation’s reliance on coal-fired power plants, yet it creates enormous human and environmental upheaval. None know this discomfort more than the millions of riverside peoples displaced by dam construction.

“I am a farmer,” a wrinkled man says in Uygur, the local language, “But now I work construction.” Like many of the men sleeping in canvas tents, he once grew millet and herded sheep downstream. His grandfather settled alongside the Keriya, furrowed trenches for irrigation, and eventually passed on the right to water, as is traditional among the Uygur, as a form of property to his son. (He inherited the water from his father.) However, as the river’s conquest by the hydroelectric project began, the water supply downstream dwindled, and the trenches grew clogged. No longer able to sustain his fields, or himself, this man joined on, instead, as a construction laborer with the project.

In an article addressing sustainable water, the Food & Agriculture Organization chronicles this all-too-common story:

“Farmers, small rural enterprises, herders and fishing people—all need water to secure their livelihood. However, as the resources become scarce an increasing number of them see their sources of income disappear. Silently, progressively, the number of water losers increases—at the tail end of the irrigation canal, downstream of a new dam, or as a result of excessive groundwater drawdown.”

A construction worker takes a break, Keriya River

Alongside the Keriya, fifty of these “water losers” have found temporary work helping to raise the dam. Like the Ugyur man, many are displaced farmers. Will they go back to farming? They shake their heads. Plots of land along newly built canals are expensive.  To head upstream seems foolish, as more construction is already being planned. Nor does permanent employment with the hydropower companies seem likely: available jobs are given first to the ethnic majority, which these Ugyur men, like most of the rural farmers, are not. (This discrimination is fueled in part by the national government’s “Go West” program, which subsidizes jobs and housing of the Chinese ethnic majority, the Han people, who migrate west, and is reinforced by political tensions between the Han and the Uygur over the region’s autonomy.) They speak of construction work with nomadic resignation: in supplying economic viability, via water resources, to one region, the dams have taken it from another.

In a statement outlining the dam-based sustainable development plan of western China, the National Development and Reform Commission declared, “Facing the future, we are standing at a new, historic starting point.” Where to go, and what route to travel, are by no means simple questions, and all answers will likely cause some measure of discomfort. Watching the construction men pack into their tents, however, the scar that dams are creating on the rivers’ human environment becomes painfully apparent.  Once a relatively stable, self-reliant population, these farmers have been stripped of their cultural roots, and dropped—largely unaided—into a life of transient dependence.  When the rhetoric of sustainable development was being drafted, for whom did the authors mean “sustainable”? And for how long?

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