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The Spirits of the Dead Meet Big Hydropower

This is the next post in a year-long series written by Ed Grumbine, professor of environmental studies at Prescott College and author of Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River. You don’t need hydroelectric dams, coal-fired power plants, or even solar-cells and wind farms to produce energy for some of the most important tasks that humans engage in. Honoring gods and spirits only requires a bit of paper money, small items of discarded clothing, incense, and a match. Walking home from work through my Kunming neighborhood a few nights ago at dusk, I smelled smoke. This wasn’t diesel exhaust of air pollution; this was a live fire smell. I turned a corner and was confronted with an ageless tableau—on the sidewalk up the street were lots of people feeding small open fires. The low flames licked up into the sky as the smoke disappeared into thin air. Incense added its sweet perfume to the mix. Family groups fed paper money and worn-out bits of clothing into the flames and didn’t seem to notice a foreigner passing by. I must have walked by 50 fires before reaching my apartment. Later, I learned that the fires were made to honor the ghosts of dead ancestors and family members, part of an ancient pattern that persists in today’s high-velocity China despite all the new glass-faced high rises and burgeoning numbers of sleek black automobiles. If these fires were the only energy that modern China demanded, then Yunnan’s three great rivers, the Nujiang, the Lancang (Mekong), and the Yangsi might remain free-flowing forever. But China requires more energy than cheap paper and butane lighters can ever provide. And the fastest-growing country in the history of the world has already made two key commitments to its citizens to provide a middling standard of living, and to the international community to reduce the world’s largest carbon footprint. A week after I witnessed the sidewalk fires, Zhang Guobao, China’s National Energy Administration director announced that the country plans to boost its hydro-power capacity by 90 percent over the next ten years. The goal is to double to 15 percent the amount of non-fossil fuel energy in China’s energy mix, and also to make good on China’s pledge to cut its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent over the same period. This carbon emissions reduction goal simply cannot be met without ramping up hydro power (as well as all other forms of renewable energy). What will happen to China’s rivers, ecosystems, and local peoples living within the footprint of the dams and reservoirs? My book, Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River, is my best effort to grapple with these questions. A mere four months after publication, China is about to change the rules of the hydro power game forever. The rivers of Yunnan and Tibet hold the majority of China’s undeveloped hydro megawatts and government officials are about to throw one trillion yuan ($147 billion US) at dam construction over the next half decade(that’s over 10 percent of the entire amount of money spent by the U.S. on its recession-busting fiscal stimulus package—spent on dam construction only). Five years from now in August, the citizens of Kunming will still be lighting ritual fires to honor their ancestors. By 2020, Yunnan’s rivers may join the list of ghosts to be propitiated.