The Salween, Southwest China and Development
In the Southwest corner of China, shadowed by 21,000-foot peaks and winding toward the Andaman Sea, is the Salween River. Nearly 100 million people live beside its banks. Near its source, the river carves 7000-foot deep gorges into the Himalayas that are known as China’s Grand Canyon. These canyons harbor the world’s most biologically diverse temperate forests and a high-altitude desert that has been called by renowned biologist George Schaller one of only two unexplored places on the planet. The region’s home to Red and Giant Pandas, Golden Monkeys and 230 species of Rhododendron. Culturally, it is one of China’s most diverse locales with sixteen distinct ethnicities that call mountains home. Perhaps the simplest description of the Salween’s cultural significance lays in its Tibetan name, the Gyalmo Ngulchu, or Princess Wencheng’s Tears. She was the princess who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
A combination of these cultural , geologic, and ecologic values earned sections of the Salween designation as a World Heritage Site and National Park. Despite this, the middle reaches of the Salween are the site of a proposed 13 dam cascade. In 2003, the government’s announcement to dam the river came as a fragment of a larger scheme to power the quadrupling of the Chinese economy with 1200 new dams, where electricity in large part would be used to power manufacturing for foreign products. The announcement triggered an unprecedented surge in domestic and international outcry for the government to reconsider the value of their wild rivers. In response to this and in effort to seek balanced development in the West, the central government suspended the project until further environmental impact statements could be completed. There is some speculation that a decision may be made later in 2008. Thus, it is urgent that our expedition shows the value that these rivers have for China, and the rest of the world.
Additional threats to the environmental integrity of the Salween are rooted in the rapid expansion of China’s economy and population. Over the past few decades, as in much of the rest of China, the population of the Yunnan province has exploded with a growth rate of over 10 percent (compared to the world average of just over 1 percent). Accompanying this has been an increase of agriculture, fire wood gathering, grazing and the whole gauntlet of environmental challenges China faces with a population now at over 42 million people in the province of Yunnan alone.