China Cites Three Gorges Woes


CHINA, Yichang: Photo taken 18 May 2006 shows pollutants and trash floating on the side of the giant Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river in Yichang, central China's Hubei province. Photo: AFP

After years of international criticism and warnings of environmental risk, Chinese officials have started to acknowledge major problems with the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River, experts say.

At a conference in Wuhan on Sept. 25-26, officials agreed that the world’s largest hydroelectric project has caused serious environmental and geological damage, according to China’s official Xinhua news service.

“If no preventive measures are taken, the project could lead to catastrophe,” the officials said, according to Xinhua .

Participants largely confirmed a Wall Street Journal report in August that described a series of problems with the 185 meter (607 foot) high dam and its 660 kilometer (410 mile) long reservoir. Widespread erosion, fatal landslides, and pollution have all followed the $23 billion project’s completion last year.

Silt and sewage have been building up in the dam’s reservoir, while algae and wastewater have been building up downstream. Seawater is now flowing inland along the Yangtze estuary past Shanghai because normal siltation has been blocked, the Journal said.

The Three Gorges project has long drawn opposition from rights activists because of its forced displacement of over 1.2 million residents—together with the destruction of homes, farmland, businesses, and cultural landmarks—to make way for the dam and its reservoir.

China’s government had justified the dislocations by pointing to the need for flood control on the Yangtze and to the project’s goal of producing over 18,000 megawatts of electrical power, enough to save 100 million tons of carbon emissions, according to official claims.

A new openness

Speaking to Radio Free Asia, Elizabeth Economy—director of Asia Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations—cited a new openness in China to admitting problems with the dam.

“For the current Chinese leadership to come out and say in essence this was a mistake, I think, is politically a relatively bold move,” Economy said.

But Economy added it is unclear how the government will deal with the problems resulting from construction of the huge project.

“It’s hard to imagine how they’re going to shore up the embankments or deal with the fact that they didn’t clean up many of the factories that were submerged when they flooded the Three Gorges. Even dealing with the level of pollution that’s been created in the reservoir will be problematic.”

Chinese engineers are now concerned that silt build-up behind the dam will leave the structure ineffective for flood control and power generation, perhaps as early as 2010, Economy said.

Government ‘more sensitive’

Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said “there’s been a lot of progress in China in terms of information disclosure and news media attention on environmental issues” since the dam was built.

Turner said that environmental awareness has been raised to new levels in China by a series of major pollution problems and accidents, including a spill of toxic chemicals into the Songhua River in 2005.

“The growing number of publicized large pollution spills in China, I think, has made the government much more sensitive, that they need to be seen as accountable.”

Turner added that controversies have been growing generally around the building of dams in China. One of the solutions proposed for the silt build-up at Three Gorges has been to build even more dams, she said.

“For the Three Gorges Dam to actually be sustainable, they are planning to build six more large dams upstream to help stop the siltation problem. And there has been local opposition to some of the dams where they want [to place them]—for example, Tiger Leaping Gorge.”

This plan for a dam and hydropower project in a picturesque canyon of the Jinsha River of Yunnan Province, some 1,500 kilometers upstream from Three Gorges, would displace approximately 100,000 people. But farmers in the area have been given no information about the plan, the Asia Times reported last year.

Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.


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