China finally admits massive dam problems


CHINA HAS finally conceded that there are massive problems with the colossal Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project.

The ruling state council has issued a statement acknowledging serious flaws in the dam across the Yangtze River, as the rate of water release was increased to ease a severe drought devastating downstream rice-growing areas. Environmentalists have been highlighting the problems for years.

“The government will properly handle the negative effects brought by the project to the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and improve the long-term mechanisms for geological disaster prevention,” ran a statement carried on the Xinhua news agency.

Premier Wen Jiabao’s statement, released after a state council meeting, said Beijing would ratchet up efforts to “preserve the ecological environment and promote biological diversity in the areas impacted by the world’s largest hydro-power complex” by 2020.

One of the engineering marvels of the world, the dam, which was built over 17 years and cost an estimated €18 billion, led to the flooding of scores of towns and hundreds of ancient historical sites, and necessitated the relocation of 1.4 million people.

Xinhua also reported that the government vowed to stick to the principle of putting people first and promoting sustainable development in post-construction work. This is in some ways a departure from previous relentlessly positive remarks about the dam project.

The dam started generating power in 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics, and it has been hailed as a major new clean energy source and a way to tame the notoriously flood-prone Yangtze. Flooding along it killed more than 4,000 people in 1998, and countless more over the centuries.

The statement from the cabinet stuck to the usual upbeat line about the dam, stressing the important role it had played in shipping and efficient use of water resources, and in stopping flooding and generating power.

The government also agreed efforts were needed to urgently solve problems concerning environmental protection, geological disaster prevention, and the wellbeing of relocated residents.

Critics have long warned of the dam’s environmental, social and other costs. These voices have become louder in recent years and despite official efforts to muzzle dissent, appear at last to have gained a hearing within the leadership. Meanwhile, experts, particularly after earthquakes in recent years, have warned of the potential for seismic disturbances, landslides and mudflows.

Environmentalists have warned for years the reservoir could turn into a cesspool of raw sewage and industrial chemicals backing onto nearby Chongqing city, and feared silt behind the dam could cause erosion downstream. China has made scant progress on schemes drawn up a decade ago to limit pollution in and around the reservoir.

Last year, heavy rains washed huge quantities of rubbish and debris into the river, forming a slick of garbage that in parts was solid enough to walk on.