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Lancang (Mekong) River

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China’s Rivers at Risk

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge.
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Dammed, diverted and polluted, China’s rivers are reaching an ecological tipping point. Today there are more than 25,800 large dams in China, more than any other country in the world. These projects have forced more than 10 million people from their homes and land, many of whom are still suffering the impacts of displacement and dislocation. Together with industrial and agricultural pollution, dam projects are responsible for the ecological decline of many river basins in China. Some rivers don’t meet the sea anymore, and around 30% of China’s rivers are severely polluted.

Yet despite the poor record of dam construction in China, the Chinese government has ambitious plans to expand hydropower generation, more than doubling capacity to 250,000 MW by the year 2020. Most of these projects will be built in China’s remote and mountainous southwestern provinces. Huge hydropower cascades have been proposed and are being constructed in some of China’s most pristine and biologically and culturally diverse river basins - the Lancang (Upper Mekong) and Nu (Salween) Rivers, and upstream of the Three Gorges Dam in the Yangtze River basin.

One of only two major free-flowing rivers in China, the Nu/Salween, is threatened by plans to build a 13-dam hydropower cascade. Nine of the dams would be located in or adjacent to the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, which is known to be one of the ecologically richest temperate regions in the world. In April 2004, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao suspended construction on the projects due to a huge public outcry about impacts on the environment and ethnic minorities. However, proponents are advocating a scaled-back version of four dams, and the central government may grant permission soon. IRN is working with an international coalition to stop the dams and protect the World Heritage area.

Map of dam the projects in Greater Shangri-la Region.
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China’s construction of a 15-dam cascade and navigation channel along the upper reaches of the Lancang/Mekong threatens this fragile river basin. The scheme will impact the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting millions living downstream in Southeast Asia. Construction is proceeding without consultation with China’s downstream neighbors and without assessing the dams’ potential social and environmental impacts.

Meanwhile, construction continues on the world’s largest hydropower project, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Construction on the dam itself was completed in May 2006, but the project is scheduled for completion in 2009. The project has been plagued with corruption, spiraling costs, environmental problems and resettlement difficulties. Roughly one million people have been displaced by the project so far, with many living under poor conditions with no mechanisms for lodging grievances or appealing decisions. Other projects proposed in the Yangtze River basin, such as the Tiger Leaping Gorge and Mugecuo dams, have been the focus of strong opposition.

A growing movement within China is challenging the government’s approach to hydropower development and demanding more transparent and participatory planning processes. China has huge potential for energy efficiency and renewable energy. China’s National Development and Reform Commission estimates that China could reduce its energy use by 100,000 MW by 2020 through demand side management policies and efficiency measures. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has estimated that China could generate up to 1,000 GW of clean, renewable wind power. China could become a global leader in renewable energy; the only thing lacking is political will.

IRN is working with the growing Chinese river protection movement to call for a cautious approach to development that balances economic growth and environmental protection.


Will China’s Rivers Survive the Next 20 Years?
Record-breaking dam building boom could make free-flowing rivers an endangered species in the world’s most dammed country. World Rivers Review article by Ma Jun.
Yunnan Hydropower Expansion
An update on China’s Energy Industry Reforms and the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha Hydropower Dams. Working paper by Chiang Mai University’s Unit for Social & Environmental Research & Green Watershed, China.
China’s Water Crisis
China’s Water Crisis (Zhongguo shui weiji), written by journalist and environmental consultant Ma Jun, is the most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis and reference on the enormous water resource crisis confronting the People’s Republic of China. Ma chronicles the history of floods, water scarcity, and pollution problems in all seven of China’s major drainage basins and proposes solutions for future sustainable management. Order China’s Water Crisis through East Bridge Books.

latest additions

China Not to Repeat the West’s Mistakes in Africa
China has become a major financier of infrastructure projects in Africa. An IRN report and a media advisory summarize the concerns of civil society that in this new role, China not repeat the errors which the West made in the past, May 14, 2007.
Background Paper on China Exim Bank
China Exim Bank has become one of the most important financiers of large dams around the world. Read an IRN background paper on this institution in English or Chinese, December 20, 2006.
Chinese Prefecture Cancels Dam Project on Sacred Tibetan Lake
Ganzi Prefecture announced in early November it was scrapping a controversial dam project on the sacred Tibetan Megoe Tso Lake in western Sichuan Province of China. A spokesperson for the Ganzi Prefecture was quoted as saying that "although hydropower is clean energy, we are strongly against the impacts of this development on the environment", November 14, 2006.
Chinese River Defender Wins Goldman Environmental Prize
Yu Xiaogang, the Founder and Director of Chinese NGO Green Watershed, has been awarded the prestigious 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize for his pioneering work in protecting rivers and watersheds in China. Mr. Yu has led a citizens’ movement to protect China’s rivers and people from the impacts of dams, and has been a key player in the movement to protect the Nu River, one of only two undammed major rivers in China, April 24, 2006.
Chinese Groups Demand Disclosure of Environmental Studies
A broad coalition of Chinese groups have written to the Chinese government urging public disclosure of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Nu River Hydropower Development Plan. Endorsed by 459 individuals and 92 organizations, the letter was sent after Chinese groups learned that the government was considering approving up to four dams on the pristine Nu River in coming months. Read IRN’s press advisory, August 31, 2005.
Additional Information

Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director

International Rivers Network


Phone: +1 510-848-1155