China’s Three Gorges Dam Under Fire

Chinas Three Gorges Dam Under Fire

The giant Three Gorges Dam across China’s Yangtze River has been mired in
controversy ever since it was first proposed 88 years ago by Sun Yat Sen,
the founding father of Modern China. In 1992, when Chinese Premier Li Peng
submitted a proposal for the dam to China’s normally pliant parliament, the
National People’s Congress, it ran into serious opposition and ultimately
passed with the smallest margin in the legislature’s history.

Still, it is a sign of just how grave the problems are facing the world’s
largest dam that criticism is now coming from top government officials in
Beijing, who previously had studiously avoided saying anything derogatory
about the $180 billion project. In June, Chinese Premier Wen
Jiabao told a meeting of the State Council, convened to discuss the Three
Gorges project, that solving environmental problems surrounding the controversial dam project should be a priority for the country. On Sept. 25, a group of senior government officials and
scholars announced at a work meeting in Wuhan that the project had the
potential to cause a “huge disaster … if steps are not taken promptly.”
And on Oct. 9, the Chongqing municipal government announced it would have to
relocate an additional four million people in at-risk areas due to
environmental damange caused by the dam.

Originally built to control the Yangtze’s regular flooding, produce
electricity to fuel China’s booming economy and serve as
a symbol of the nation’s emerging engineering prowess, the Three Gorges Dam
has already faced a host of problems. An estimated 1.4 million residents
have been displaced by the 640-km-long reservoir forming behind it, which
also flooded several important archaeological sites. And some hydrologists say that by trapping silt the dam could actually make downstream riverbanks more vulnerable to flooding.

Now, however, scientists say things are getting worse. The water quality of
the Yangtze’s tributaries is deteriorating rapidly, as the dammed river is less able to disperse pollutants effectively.
The incidence of algae blooms has risen steadily since the reservoir was completed in 2006. The rising water is also causing
rampant soil erosion, resulting in riverbank collapses and landslides along
the shores of the Yangtze’s tributaries. Professor Lei Hengshun, an
environmentalist at Chongqing University who has devoted years to studying
and preserving the Three Gorges ecosystem, says that if the water level of
the reservoir reaches its planned height of 165 meters next year, it will
bring tributaries of the Yangtze River under even greater environmental
threat. “Now it’s a good time to review the problems that have arisen,” he says, “before a larger flooded area brings an even bigger impact on the tributaries.”

The dam’s environmental troubles go hand in hand with growing political
issues. Li Peng, the dam’s most ardent supporter, stepped down as Premier in
1998 and has little influence among China’s current leadership. The
recent storm of criticism the dam has garnered could be a result of
political jockeying in the run-up to next week’s Communist Party Congress, a
five-yearly event in which the coming reshuffles of the Party’s senior ranks
are usually decided. But it’s also possible that the criticism is a sign
that the Chinese government has reached the point at which it must do
something to address the country’s serious — and growing — ecological
concerns. It’s been a turbulent year for China’s environment. In May, a blue algae outbreak on picturesque Lake Tai in Wuxi city rendered tap water for 80% of the local families undrinkable for a week. In June, 10,000 citizens in the coastal city of Xiamen took to the streets to protest against the imminent construction of a new chemical plant. Pan Yue, Deputy Director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said earlier this year that “environmental problems are posing a serious threat to the building of a harmonious society, and have become a significant economic, social and political issue.”

At this point, it’s highly unlikely that work will stop on the gigantic
project; the dam is still on track to be completed by 2009. But with the
current administration apparently at pains to seem more environmentally
sensitive, it’s possible that its worst effects can be dealt with. Lei, for
one, thinks the government’s new willingness to talk about the dam’s
problems means Beijing is trying hard to make the right call. “No one can
guarantee the Three Gorges will be catastrophe-free,” says Lei. But the
chances are much greater that a catastrophe can be avoided “as long as the
government is able to deal honestly with the situation.”