R. Edward Grumbine

R. Edward Grumbine

 

R. Edward Grumbine has been involved in integrating conservation science into resource management planning and policy since the 1980s. Currently on leave from Prescott College in Arizona, he is serving as a senior international scientist at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yunnan Province. His current work includes dam development impacts in the Mekong River, hydropower issues in the India Himalaya, and defining environmental security on China's western borders. He is the author of numerous academic papers and several books, including Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River: Nature and Power in the People's Republic of China, Ghost Bears: Exploring the Biodiversity Crisis, and editor of Environmental Policy and Biodiversity.

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Dams on the Wild Nujiang

The central government’s seven-year moratorium on dam building in the Nujiang (“Angry River”) watershed is soon to be lifted and China’s last wild river will be wild no more. Last week, the Chinese National Energy Administration announced that...

The central government’s seven-year moratorium on dam building in the Nujiang (“Angry River”) watershed is soon to be lifted and China’s last wild river will be wild no more. Last week, the Chinese National Energy Administration announced that hydropower development was now ready to move forward on the Nu.

The river that brought me to Yunnan six years ago is no ordinary river: It is big, wild, and, because of its incredibly steep drop off the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, features the most raucous rapids that I have ever seen. The Nujiang also flows through China’s richest treasure trove of biological and cultural diversity; more endemic plants and animals along with many ethnic nationality groups are crammed into this watershed than any other place in the country. Whether the native peoples and wild species survive the coming onslaught of mega hydropower development is an open question.

Why is the central government lifting the dam moratorium now? At the risk of simplifying a complex issue, here are some numbers to ponder. Today, China burns more coal than the U.S., Japan, and the European Union combined, and the country’s use of coal is set to grow for at least another 20 years. As a result into the foreseeable future, China will remain the worlds’ largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The central government wants to do everything it can to limit China’s carbon footprint and hydropower from dams must be part of the solution. By 2020, Beijing is committed to getting 15 percent of national energy from non-fossil fuel sources including hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, and others. If China is to get close to this goal, it will need to add 140 Gigawatts (GW) of new hydropower to the system. At full development, the Nu can produce about 21 GW of this total; for comparison, China’s Three Gorges Dam—the largest in the world—contributes some 18 GW.

What these figures show is that even with the dams on the Nujiang, China’s hydropower goal still requires numerous dams on other rivers all across China that will need to generate electricity equivalent to another six Three Gorges dams. Few sites on any Chinese river are going to escape the engineers’ eye even though the country already has more dams than any nation in the world. In fact, it is hard to imagine any river anywhere in China, including those in still-undeveloped Tibet that over the next decades will remain free-flowing for any appreciable length. But in losing its rivers, China will be gaining a partial solution to the staggering load of carbon that it is releasing into Earths’ atmosphere.

The question is: Will all this energy development be enough to slow and eventually stop the growth of Chinas’ carbon emissions? The answer is, no one knows. One can say for sure that without dams on the Nujiang, monster nuclear power plants, and world leadership in new forms of green energy production, China doesn’t stand a chance to gain control of its emissions.

But the cost to the country’s species, ecosystems, and rural people will be high. As long as the international community continues to drag its collective feet on controlling carbon emissions and climate change, rivers like the Nujiang everywhere on the planet will be at risk.

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From Temples to Office Towers in Kunming

The Bamboo Temple is one of the major Buddhist shrines in Kunming. Built in the 13th century, restored in 1890, and is set high above the city surrounded by native forest and plantation. The temple is well cared for unlike some I have visited in...

The Bamboo Temple is one of the major Buddhist shrines in Kunming. Built in the 13th century, restored in 1890, and is set high above the city surrounded by native forest and plantation. The temple is well cared for unlike some I have visited in China. Like all such sites, it is heavily visited by tourists as well as active religious practitioners. Two ancient cypress trees (said to be 450 years old) guard the entrance and carefully manicured magnolias and pear trees grace the inner courtyard. During my visit, incense clouds floated up, people bowed before the numerous Buddhas and arhats, and picture-taking was forbidden.

After offering my respects, I left the temple and took a trail downhill through the forest back to Kunming. The upper canyon I entered held native oak and Castanopsis spp. trees, the only wild ecosystem I have seen so far in the greater urban area. I descended into planted Eucalyptus. This forest reminded me of similar stands in California, except that local farmers had carved out terraced plots of mustard and cabbage along the lowermost crease in the canyon.

Then I was back in the city. Following a concrete-lined stream on a local road that snaked down behind old apartment buildings, I passed under a highway still under construction and connected onto a wide boulevard with newly-planted trees. I was surrounded by construction cranes and the skeletons of high rise apartments; this was the western cutting edge of development in Kunming.

Fifty percent of all new buildings on Earth are being constructed in China today. The reason: Over the next 10-15 years, the country expects urban in-migration roughly equal to the entire population of the U.S. It is impossible to appreciate this pace of development without seeing it for yourself. North, South, East, and West: Kunming, like all cities in China, is rapidly expanding inward, outward, and upward.

I’d observed this kind of Chinese hyper growth many times, but now on my right arose a dense cluster of 30-story skyscrapers. Holiday City set a new standard for me—not only were these behemoths taller than the Kunming average, there were 21 of them on one huge lot. (The footprint of any one of these towers was far larger than the Bamboo Temple.) Mixed-use commercial/residential in design, the scale of the supporting stores also set Holiday City apart—envision a full-sized WalMart anchoring your apartment home. At completion, there would be new living quarters in this development for 10,000 families.

I wandered into the sales room for Holiday City. There was a detailed scale model of the entire complex complete with artificial river, landscaped parks, stand-alone preschool, and maps and models describing every one of the thousands of individual units. The parking lot was full; on this Sunday afternoon middle-class Kunmingers were buying units with enthusiasm. I counted 21 sales representatives engaged with customers.

Unlike Holiday City, many new commercial and residential buildings across China remain unoccupied, snapped up by speculators betting that prices will continue to rise. My Chinese friends don’t believe that this will lead to a U.S.-style real estate bubble. The middle class is burgeoning, people are streaming into China’s cities, and the government is monitoring the situation. But nobody really knows where China’s building boom is heading.

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In the Mountains of Yunnan

Living in Kunming has its benefits:-great food; friendly people; helpful colleagues; and stimulating work. But for a city of its size, there is precious little public open space and I have yet to discover any place where one can walk on dirt or...

Living in Kunming has its benefits:-great food; friendly people; helpful colleagues; and stimulating work. But for a city of its size, there is precious little public open space and I have yet to discover any place where one can walk on dirt or grass more than a few meters at a stretch. After two months in town, it was time to get out into the mountains.

I had been finalizing a paper on Yunnan’s experiment with national parks; what better idea than to visit one of these areas for a hike? But my Tibetan guide Tsebho—who lives in Xiangrila near Pudacuo National Park—had a better idea: “Let’s walk all the way across all of Yunnan’s three parallel rivers to the Nujiang.  If we can do it, it should take about 12 days.”

“Why not?” I replied. This trip would be the ultimate antidote to urban life in Kunming; in fact, we didn’t even know if the route was possible. We did know that few if any foreigners had attempted it.

Aside from a challenging itinerary to cross three great rivers and the 15,000 foot ranges that separate them, the route could yield important information about habitat quality and potential for biological connectivity between Baima Xueshan National Nature Reserve and large chunks of roadless country to the south. Baima was scheduled to become a national park by 2015. The rationale for turning nature reserves into national parks was that, unlike current policies that restrict visitor access in the name of conservation, (limited) tourism development could support environmental protection; people would be welcome in the new parks.

Climbing over the Shaka range west of Xiangrila, was relatively easy. We hiked up a narrow defile below soaring metamorphic rock cliffs following local herder trails till we topped out in yak pastureland. The herders had already descended to the valley for the winter and all their huts were abandoned. We pressed on into higher pasture, then subalpine scrub and meadow to camp at 13,000 feet.

The morning broke cool and clear. We ascended higher into a series of alpine basins, finally cresting a 13,600 foot pass. A steep descent into lichen-covered old growth fir forest—the Pacific Northwest in Yunnan—we encountered no one. Hours later, hobbled by 3,000 feet of sharp downhill in less than 2.5 miles bearing heavy packs, we camped on an old logging road, the only flat place we could find.

“We’re over the first mountains and into the Jinsha,” Tsebho announced, “but it’ll take all tomorrow to reach the river. We’ll have to hop a local bus 45 miles to the village at the end of the road and hire horses to carry our packs over Baima. Then all we have to do is get up over the next range to the Nujiang.”

But we never made it. At the Jinsha, at the close of our third day, the rains came down, the temperature dropped, and so we holed up in a ramshackle unheated guesthouse ($4/night) at roads end, waiting for the weather to break. We sat for two days; the rain only let up for a few hours.

Then, we had another problem. The village boss refused to let us proceed since we didn’t have an official permit to enter Baima. Tsebho argued that we would stay south of the reserve but the official remained unconvinced.

Then company arrived at the guesthouse.  A Chinese hiking club from the mega-city Shenzhen staggered into town. With little experience, but having read on the Internet about a Chinese group doing our route in reverse in 2006, they had already crossed over two of the three ranges. But they were beat. In fact, given the poor weather, they decided to call it quits an hour after meeting us.

The presence of the Chinese hikers solved our permit problem. How could the village boss say “no” to us if another group without a permit had just accomplished what we wanted to do? Chinese conservation policies are strict on paper but enforcement on the ground is often circumstantial.

Neither the hikers nor the village boss, however, controlled the weather. On the sixth morning, it was still pouring and probably snowing in the high country. So we, too, decided to terminate our hike and retreat back to Xiangrila.

I learned three lessons from this trip. First, caution is always warranted when dealing with high mountains and difficult trails. It has rained nine of the last ten days since we returned. Second, never underestimate determined Chinese hikers; given their lack of experience, they were lucky they travelled safely as far as they did. And third, travel in China’s nature reserves can be a crap shoot, and visitor regulations are in need of reform. Yunnan’s new national park rules may do just that.