HONG KONG—A television documentary about China's massive and controversial Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project has won a major European media award.
Written by Chinese producer Shi Ming and filmed by Germany's WDR television station, "Countdown on the Yangtse" was given the MIDAS award for "best documentary" at the Environment in TV and New Media Awards in London last month.
Writer Shi Ming said the television crew revisited the project in 2007 to make the film, following an earlier documentary made by the same team back in 1995.
"We found that huge changes had taken place in China since this thing began, that there were huge changes in the relationship between the Chinese people and the Three Gorges," Shi said in a recent interview.
He said the crew had met with considerable obstacles from officials on the ground, especially when they tried to report on the millions of people displaced from cities and towns in the reservoir area.
"Things are very tense on the ground at the moment around the issue of resettlement," Shi said.
"When a foreign camera crew tried to go to the project area, they were blocked and rounded up at every turn."
He cited a survey carried out by the Chongqing municipality, which found that around 50 percent of funds allocated to resettle people had been misappropriated by officials.
"That is huge. On the ground, they are saying much more went missing than 50 percent, so of course there is a lot of anger among the resettled population."
He said an earthquake last year in southwestern China's Sichuan province, in which at least 90,000 people died, including thousands of schoolchildren, had called the safety of the dam into further question.
"At the time we were shooting this film, the Sichuan earthquake hadn't yet happened, and there had already been rockfalls, mudslides, and earthquakes in the Three Gorges area," Shi said.
"The worst-case scenario predicted at the outset was about 150 of these a month on average. But now we know that the reality has proved to be 10 times as bad."
Dams triggering earthquakes?
Chinese seismologists have said publicly that the earthquake that devastated Sichuan on May 12, 2008 could have been triggered by hydroelectric power projects, though they didn't mention the Three Gorges project.
International experts have said that more than 90 earthquakes have been triggered by the filling of water reservoirs, including the 1967 Koyna earthquake in India, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale.
According to Shi, "there is no way of knowing for sure what has actually happened to the quality and stability of the ground under the reservoir."
"When unpredictable tilting and cracking happens in the ground under the reservoir, then can you really guarantee the safety of the dam itself?" he asked, calling for a rethink of Chinese assumptions about what constitutes quality of life.
"Do the traditions that we have inherited from generations of forebears regarding the Chinese landscape and geography not lead to quality of life? Will we only achieve it with methods from America, Europe, and Japan? Must we build skyscrapers to have this?"
Shi said that making films about the Three Gorges project has shown him that the problems associated with the dam are now here to stay.
"I believe that I made a mistake in the past," he said. "I believed that we should develop first and worry about managing it all later."
"The Three Gorges has taught us that even if you want to manage it later, you can't. It is an irreversible change."
"It will be a problem left to future generations—for your children and grandchildren to deal with for many years to come. For every day that the Three Gorges dam exists, so will all the problems connected with it."
The Three Gorges project has long drawn opposition from rights activists because of its forced displacement of more than 1.2 million residents—along 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 relocation by pointing to the need for flood control on the Yangtze and to the project’s goal of producing 84.69 billion kilowatt hours of electrical power per year, according to official claims.
But officials began admitting to major problems with the project in 2007, citing a series of problems with the 185-m (607-foot) dam and its 660-km (410-mile) reservoir.
Widespread erosion, fatal landslides, and pollution followed the U.S. $23 billion project’s completion in 2006, officials told a conference in the central city of Wuhan.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Jia Yuan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.