Geography Reference
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Dachaoshan, Xiaowan, and Jinghong Dams are currently operational; Nuozhadu Dam is
nearing completion; and a handful of other facilities on both the Upper and Lower Cas-
cades are in various stages of planning or construction. With the commencement of con-
struction on the Xayaburi Dam in Laos in 2012, environmental activists fear the beginning
of a “domino effect” that will see scores of projects on the Mekong River's main stem and
tributaries in the years to come (Ngo 2012). Riparian nations in the Mekong basin will con-
tinue to face major governance challenges as they seek to balance energy development, hu-
man well-being, and ecological conservation.
Meanwhile, one river basin to the West, the Nu River development plans have spurred
a decade-long battle, which now appears to be winding down in the wake of the 2013 an-
nouncement by the State Council that at least five of the dams—including Songta in the
Tibet Autonomous Region—will proceed under the Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).
With the installment of a new government, Premier Wen Jiabao—whom many perceived to
be a populist leader with a skeptical view of rapid hydropower expansion—stepped down,
thus removing the last major political obstacle to the Nu River projects. Organizations such
as UNESCO and International Rivers continue to “remind China of its obligation to protect
the Three Parallel Rivers Area under the World Heritage Convention” (International Rivers
2013a), but these appeals seem unlikely to meet with much success. The MEP has released
guidelines that forbid the construction of dams within protected areas (Brody 2012), but
the boundaries of the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Area in Yunnan all come into effect
at areas of higher elevation, away from the locations of extant and planned dams, a polit-
ical move that in hindsight seems designed to expedite hydropower expansion (Grumbine
As the anthropologist Arthur Kleinman and his colleagues observe in a recent edited
volume on the moral dimensions of life in contemporary China, one contribution of an-
thropological research is to provide critical information about “local worlds” of “moral ex-
perience” within which decisions are made and negotiated (2011:3). I have suggested that
such an examination is equally necessary forthe villagers whose lives are upended bythese
megaprojects as well as for the scientists, advocates, bureaucrats, and policy makers who
are charting China's future course of energy development, sometimes in the midst of great
In taking a moral economy approach to the study of water and power generation in con-
temporary China, I have for the most part resisted the temptation to advance a particular
agenda about what outcomes are “right.” Instead, I have tried to elucidate the goals and
strategies of key constituent groups as they relate to balancing conservation and develop-
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