Flood, drought and pollution: it's a dam mess


WHEN THE CHINESE government finally conceded last weekend that there were major problems with the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, it came as a shock, despite mounting evidence that all was not as it should be on the mighty Yangtze. Since March last year cities along the river have suffered a terrible drought, thousands of reservoirs have been drained and shipping has been restricted.

The ruling state council, China’s cabinet, said more water was being released from the dam to help parched rice-growing areas in such provinces as Hubei, where the dam is located. The language of the statement was typical, stressing the “enormous comprehensive benefits” of the dam, but hinting at “pressing issues” that must be tackled urgently. Environmentalists have been highlighting these issues for years.

A 32-year-old woman from Jinzhou in Hubei says the water supply there is available every second day only, and the drought is making life difficult. “There has been little rainfall in our area, and we always have to store water in case the supply gets cut off,” she says. “I don’t care that much about the dam, and I don’t have that much knowledge, but I can see the weather is changing, and also some natural disasters, like earthquakes. I don’t know whether there is a link, but I am worried.”

There is pride in China about what is one of the engineering marvels of the world: the colossus spanning the Yangtze, built over 17 years at an estimated cost of €18 billion. Scores of historical sites and cities were flooded to make way for it and 1.4 million people were displaced. Although the government has changed its view about the dam’s ability to withstand a major flood, it is seen as a great advertisement for Chinese engineering and ingenuity.

The dam started to generate power in 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, and it has been hailed as a clean-energy source and as a way to tame the flood-prone Yangtze, which has killed many thousands of people over the centuries.

In recent years there have been reports of landslides, minor earthquakes and disastrous pollution in the area around the dam, but no mention of any link to the project. Ecologists who tried to raise the issue were silenced, but the authorities could not quell the online voices and village mutterings that blamed the dam for unusually long droughts and heatwaves.

Now it looks as if there is finally official recognition that there is a problem.

“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 after a state council meeting attended by premier Wen Jiabao last week.

Environmentalists said the reservoir could turn into a cesspool of sewage and industrial chemicals backing on to nearby Chongqing, one of the cities most affected by the project, and silt behind the dam could cause erosion.

Last year heavy rain washed huge quantities of rubbish and debris into the river, forming a crust of garbage. But the operators of the dam are steadfast in their defence of the project.

“I can assure you, the drought situation on the Yangtze has nothing to do with the Three Gorges Dam. Faced with the change in the weather and the drought conditions, the Three Gorges Dam is using its storage water to compensate and help the middle and lower part of the river, which has immensely eased the drought,” says Zhu Guangming, a spokesman for the China Three Gorges Project Group. “The benefits from the dam are not only in dealing with flooding, in providing hydropower and river shipping, but also in supplying water in an ecological way. Those media reports criticising the dam and saying it is the cause of the drought are without scientific basis.”

Lu Yaoru of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, one of the country’s foremost experts on geology and water conservation, told the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Communist Party, that to blame the dam for all the weather woes in Sichuan province, upriver from the dam, was a mistake. He has been saying for some years, however, that three problems could arise: erosion of the riverbank, a change in water quality and an increase in sand deposits.

“Cutting the Yangtze in the middle and dividing its ecology into two parts means there will be changes on a geological level and also in terms of how the water flows. Objectively speaking, every project has an impact on nature; the question is to what degree,” he said. “We need to evaluate the dam in a comprehensive way, and not blame all the woes of the middle and lower reaches on the dam. But we need to build up better protection of the riverbank along the Three Gorges, to avoid a major landslide disaster or seismic instability.”

Sheng Tang, a 40-year-old from Chongqing, says the project was possibly premature, and built for political reasons. The dam was perceived as an effort by former leaders Jiang Zemin and Li Peng to secure their place in history. “During the opening ceremony of the project, both Jiang Zemin and Li Peng took part, but didn’t show up for when it went into operation,” he says.

There had been criticisms by local people all along, but most believed the government was taking the steps necessary to reassure them.

“Maybe we can only see some small parts of the whole project, so we have our doubts, but from the macro point of view it has a lot of benefits. It is true that, during the recent years in Chongqing, the weather has become a little bit weird, the temperature can go up and down in two days by 20 degrees and, yes, there is drought,” says Sheng Tang. “But I’m not an expert. I don’t know and can’t see the relation between this kind of weather change and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.”

Wang Cheng, a 33-year-old Chongqing resident, says there is an impact from the dam, because everything you do that interferes with nature has to have some kind of influence. Not just hydroelectric dams but other forms of power plants too. There is such a need for electricity in China that even if there were no Three Gorges Dam, there would be something else, with a similar impact or even worse.”