Dams and Landslides

Planning for Disaster: China’s Three Gorges Dam

Patricia Adams
Multinational Monitor
September 19, 1993

ON THE NIGHT OF AUGUST 27, 1993, a dam burst high in a remote western province of China, sending torrents of water crashing down on nearby villages, killing more than 200 people, and rendering thousands more homeless. Though no official reason has been given for this latest human-made disaster in a country plagued by them, one government spokesperson admitted that a destructive earthquake which hit the region of the Gouhou dam in 1990 “may have had some effect” in causing the dam to collapse under this year’s flood waters.

Amid the horror of the death and destruction in this outlying area rose a different fear among opponents of the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest, now under construction on the mighty Yangtze River. Though thousands of miles away from the Gouhou dam, the Three Gorges dam is also located close to seismic fault lines. Located in one of China’s most densely populated areas, a dam burst at Three Gorges would, says engineer Philip Williams, president of the San Francisco-based International Rivers Network, “rank as one of history’s worst man-made disasters.”

Situated in the upper reaches of the Yangtze, the world’s third largest river and one its most dangerous, the dam would attempt to control the 6,300-kilometer river that surges through the legendary, 200-kilometer stretch of narrow canyons formed by limestone cliffs, known as the Three Gorges.

Dam proponents – the Chinese government, engineering giants like Hydro- Quebec and international aid agencies like the World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) – claim the Three Gorges dam will do what no other dam on earth has been designed to do: protect millions of people living along the middle and lower reaches of the river from disastrous floods; generate up to 20,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity for China’s energy-hungry industrial centers; and transform a 600-kilometer stretch of the fast-flowing river into a smooth navigable waterway for ocean-going vessels.

The dam would cost a staggering $12 to $20 billion. “It is,” expounds Tao Jing Liang, a top official with China’s ministry of water resources and electric power, “the biggest and most essential project in China’s history.” When finished, the gargantuan wall of concrete and steel would span 2 kilometers across the river and soar 185 meters into the air, creating a 600-kilometer-long lake behind it, flooding the homes of an unprecedented 1.3 million people from more than 100 towns, 800 villages and nearly 100,000 hectares of China’s best farmland. The benefits, say advocates of the dam, outweigh these costs.

But environmentalists and engineers from around the globe, and eminent scientists and economists within China, think otherwise. By forever changing the hydrology of the river for thousands of miles, they argue, the dam would destroy commercial fish stocks and deprive the complex floodplain agricultural systems of the water and silt they need, threatening the livelihoods of 75 million people who live by fishing or farming along the Yangtze’s banks. Important archaeological sites – some dating back to 10,000 B.C. – would be submerged. Many species of fish and fowl would be threatened with extinction. And, contend critics such as University of Manitoba professor Vaclav Smil, author of several books on China’s energy sector, alternative sources of electric power – including efficiency improvements and smaller-scale turbines that operate on everything from natural gas to chicken manure – are cheaper and more readily available than power from the dam, which would take 18 years to build.

But most important, critics argue, the dam will not perform as planned. The dam would obstruct, not improve, navigation by making shipping vulnerable to an untested lock system that would prohibit the passage of every ship whenever serious technical problems arise. The promised flood control benefits are exaggerated, scientifically unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Experts state that the dam would put more people at risk of flooding than would be removed from harm’s way.

Upstream communities for hundreds of kilometers would be threatened when the fast-flowing Yangtze’s massive silt load is dropped in the slow-moving waters of the reservoir, creating mud banks that cause floods. Downstream of the dam, millions of people, lulled by a false sense of security created by the dam, are expected to settle on what are now the floodplains of the Yangtze, putting them at risk of the floods that will inevitably come. To make matters worse, with sediment trapped behind the dam, the “clearwater” flows passing through the dam will erode banks and dikes, causing still more flooding. And the 500-kilometer coastline, where the Yangtze empties at Shanghai, will be starved of the sediment that has for millions of years slowly raised mudflats that protect the coastline from storms and rising tides.

Catastrophe in the making

Proponents downplay the possibility of a catastrophic human-made disaster, though several fault lines run right under the dam site itself. To critics, such as the International Rivers Network’s Williams, the proponents’ analysis glossed over the potential for reservoir-induced earthquakes and landslides, compromising their dam design as a result. The compromise may also be present in the dam’s submerged spillway bays – 27 in all and each one with the average flow of the Missouri River. The dam’s engineers are confident they can design, construct and operate them, even though these engineers admit their size would be “well beyond proven world experience.” If they are wrong, they could lose control of water flows, risk overtopping and catastrophic destabilization of the dam structure itself.

The dam’s origins

 The idea of damming the Three Gorges was first proposed in the 1920s by Sun Yat-Sen, revolutionary and founder of the republic. Since then the debate over whether to build the Three Gorges dam has been as tempestuous as the Yangtze River itself.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the foremost U.S. dam-building agency, was the first to help Chinese engineers pick a site in the 1940s, only to be replaced by the Soviets in the 1950s. The Yangtze floods of 1954, which left 30,000 people dead and one million people homeless, brought a renewed sense of urgency to damming the Three Gorges. Chairman Mao Tse Tung vowed to speed up preparations for the dam. Since that time, hundreds of government agencies, bureaucracies, and academic bodies have participated in detailed studies on all aspects of the megaproject. But the plans have never been finalized because efforts to push the project through China’s elaborate decision-making process have been interrupted over the years by ideological struggles, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, economic troubles and prolonged governmental debate over the feasibility of the project.

By 1981, the U.S. specialists were invited back, leading to a five-year agreement with the United States for technical assistance to Chinese dam builders. That same year, Sichuan province was struck by devastating floods, adding fresh fodder to those pushing the dam. By 1985, a high-powered consortium of U.S. dam-builders known as the U.S. Three Gorges Working Group was formed, including representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the American Consulting Engineers Council, Guy F. Atkinson Company, Bechtel Civil and Mineral, Inc., Coopers and Lybrand, Merrill Lynch Capital Markets, Morgan Bank, Morrison-Knudsen Inc., and Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation. That working group submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power which recommended that a cost- benefit analysis acceptable to potential financiers be conducted and that the dam be built by a joint venture between the Chinese government and the U.S. Three Gorges Working Group, with possible funding from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Sweden, Japan and Canada.

But to the U.S. consortium’s chagrin, its reputation preceded it. In 1986, the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources of Electric Power, apparently fearing that U.S. corporate endorsement of the dam would only strengthen the hand of dam critics inside China, asked the Canadian government to finance a $14 million feasibility study to be conducted by a rival Canadian consortium. The consortium, known as CIPM Yangtze Joint Venture, included three private companies (Acres International, SNC, and Lavalin International) and two state-owned utilities (Hydro-Quebec International and British Columbia Hydro International). The World Bank would supervise the feasibility study to ensure it would “form the basis for securing assistance from international financial institutions.”

A flood of opposition

Then, early in 1989, with the Canadian feasibility study recently concluding that the dam “should be carried out at an early date,” and a Chinese feasibility study recommending an even higher dam, an extraordinary political event occurred within China. Prominent citizens, scientists, intellectuals, journalists and artists – gathered to condemn the recommendations that the dam be built – released Yangtze! Yangtze!, an independently published collection of interviews and essays critical of the Three Gorges project. Speaking at the press conference organized by the book’s editors, author Chengjing Jie declared: “We hope the authorities halt this big-name, big-money, low- benefit project that serves as a monument to a handful of people.” The critics’ news release stated: “For the first time ordinary Chinese people will not keep silent on a weighty economic policy decision. They don’t want to see an endless repetition of foolish policies.”

Yangtze! Yangtze! marked what the Far Eastern Economic Review would call “a watershed event in post-1949 Chinese politics:” for the first time, China’s journalists, intellectuals, and public figures dared to lobby the public to influence the governmental decision-making process. The publication of Yangtze! Yangtze! was a feat of breathtaking determination: it was produced in under four months in order to influence delegates attending the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meetings in March and the National People’s Congress (NPC), at which a final decision to build the dam was expected. Momentum gathered. Hundreds of delegates called for the Three Gorges project to be postponed into the next century, leading to the announcement that the project would be shelved for at least five years. Days later, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee denounced the Chinese feasibility study, saying it was not conducted in a scientific or democratic manner, and called for a complete reappraisal of the entire project.

This unprecedented show of opposition to the dam, a project known to be favored by Premier Li Peng, was one of many blows dealt to the Chinese leadership in early 1989. According to sinologist Frederic Moritz of Pennsylvania State University, the premier’s “loss of face” due to the Three Gorges project opposition helped fuel the student protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square. China’s burgeoning environmental movement had scored a momentous victory by successfully opposing the government’s plans to build the massive dam. But their victory, and the unprecedented public repudiation of the proposed dam, was short-lived.

The clampdown begins

The daring act of launching China’s first public campaign against a project supported by the highest levels of government would cost the critics. Dai Qing, the book’s chief editor, was arrested soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre and jailed without trial for 10 months, during which she was told she would be executed. Yangtze! Yangtze! was banned on the grounds that it “abetted the turmoil.” Criticism of the Three Gorges dam was, and remains, strictly forbidden.

With the critics silenced, Premier Li Peng, a Soviet-trained hydraulic engineer and the project’s champion, revived deliberations on the fate of the Three Gorges. According to the South China Morning Post, the dam-builders now had a good chance to get the project off the ground, since the dam’s critics had been silenced by the government’s campaign against “bourgeois liberalization.”

But criticism of the project was not silenced abroad. The Canadian environmental group Probe International forced disclosure of the Canadian feasibility study using Canada’s Access to Information law. After a thorough review of the study by nine independent experts from around the world, who found systematic bias and compromised engineering throughout the study, Probe International published its findings in a book entitled Damming the Three Gorges, and launched precedent-setting complaints of negligence and professional misconduct against the Canadian firms that carried it out.

But Beijing was not about to allow this challenge to the proposed project to interfere with its schedule. In anticipation of securing formal parliamentary approval from the National People’s Congress, the Chinese government started moving people from the dam site. By the summer of 1991, 50,000 people had been uprooted. “We are experimenting with moving households,” explained Guo Shuyan, governor of Hubei province, “so that when the project is approved we will be able to carry out the relocation process as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”

Later that year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation signed a contract with the Chinese government to provide consulting services and technology for the Three Gorges dam. The contract also pledged assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The dam’s turbulent approval

While Beijing prepared to secure approval for the dam from the March 1992 session of the National People’s Congress, renegade delegates in the normally sleepy, rubber-stamp parliament prepared to contest it. Furious that they were denied access to critical reports of the dam, they requested a parliamentary debate. But on the day of the vote, the chairman refused to allow any discussion.

In a last ditch effort, one delegate, Huang Shunxing, interrupted the vote by standing and shouting his opposition. Pandemonium reigned for five minutes as the press descended on the delegate. When the chairman yelled that no one would be heard from, another delegate, Liu Caipin, shouted: “The NPC has violated its own law.” She then pressed the objection button on her computer and stormed out, chanting “I protest, I protest.”

In taking the vote, Premier Li Peng was dealt another blow when, for the first time in the history of communist-led China, one-third of the delegates registered their opposition to a government proposal by voting no or abstaining. But with two-thirds of the dutiful delegates voting in favor, the Three Gorges dam was officially approved.

Cold feet, clay feet

As Three Gorges moved closer to becoming a reality, its foreign supporters increasingly moved to distance themselves from the project. Pierre Senecal, vice-president for environment at Hydro-Quebec and an author of the Canadian feasibility study, told a recent conference of impact assessors in Shanghai that his study’s conclusion that resettlement was feasible “is not valid anymore,” citing population growth and the shortage of replacement land. Another contributor to the Canadian feasibility study, Professor Carl Nordin, recently told a special seminar at the American Society of Civil Engineers National Hydraulics Conference in San Francisco that “there are quite a few problems with the Canadian study. … I don’t support a lot of the Canadian options.” CIDA, the Canadian aid agency that funded that feasibility study and which endorsed the study’s conclusion that the plans to build the dam “should be carried out at an early date,” officially announced that it would not provide any more money to the dam because of “budgetary restrictions.” Unofficially, CIDA representatives acknowledge that the agency had tired of getting flak from the Canadian public. As for the World Bank, inside sources say the Bank was “walking on eggs” over the Three Gorges dam, and any World Bank money for the dam would be “camouflaged as some kind of social contribution – roads, schools and so on.”

Then in September 1993, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation confirmed that it will cancel the balance of its contract to assist with the design and construction of the dam, arguing that large-scale, water-retention dam projects are not “environmentally or economically feasible.”

But defiant to the end and desperate for foreign financing to build the dam, the Chinese government has stated that the firms to which it awards equipment contracts (“the Danes, the Germans, the French and the Americans are all trying to sell us equipment,” reports one Three Gorges official) will obtain concessionary export loans from government agencies such as the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

In addition, the Chinese government is taking advantage of private foreign financiers’ desperation to gain access to the huge untapped Chinese market. The government recently gave special access to China’s banking, insurance, securities and real estate markets to a joint venture – including Merrill Lynch & Co. of the United States, a Taiwanese investment firm and the Lippo Group of Indonesia – on the condition that it provide financial support for the dam’s construction.

Though officially approved, and already proceeding, completion of the Three Gorges dam is by no means a certainty, say critics. Nagging problems may kill it in its infancy. The Yantgze’s massive silt load, which is expected to cripple the dam, remains an unresolved hurdle. Domestic economic woes, simmering opposition at home and boiling opposition abroad could make implementation politically impossible. And liability concerns of financiers, consultants, and suppliers alike that the dam might increase the risk of a catastrophic flood that could kill millions – may finally close the curtain on the seven-decade long debate over the Three Gorges dam.


Probe International files complaints against Canadian Engineers

On September 17, 1990, using the findings contained in its book Damming The Three Gorges, Probe International filed complaints against five Canadian engineering firms for their work on the Three Gorges Water Control Project Feasibility Study. The complaints were filed with the regulatory bodies which are legally responsible for regulating the profession of engineering in the provinces of British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario.

Probe International accused the engineering companies of negligence, incompetence and professional misconduct, arguing that the engineers had violated their professional and ethical codes which required that they:

  • be realistic in the preparation of all estimates, reports, statements and testimony;
  • not distort facts in an attempt to justify decisions or avoid responsibilities;
  • regard their duty to public safety, health and welfare as paramount;
  • guard against conditions which are dangerous or threatening to the environment;
  • make reasonable provision for the safeguarding of life, health or property of a person who may be affected by the work for which the practitioner is responsible.

In Quebec, the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ) rejected Probe International’s complaint on the grounds that “we have authority over individuals only, and none over engineering firms.” As the OIQ explained, so many engineers worked on the study that it was “impossible for us to attribute to either one or several of our members total or even partial responsibility for any hypotheses, solutions, and recommendations.” The OIQ argued: “No individual decision was taken by any particular engineer for which he/she could be held responsible.”

The Association of Professional Engineers of the Province of British Columbia also rejected Probe International’s complaint, on the mistaken grounds that the terms of reference for the study did not require the engineers to do proper environmental and social assessments.

Meanwhile, after a two-year investigation, the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario (APEO) admitted that “there are in this case varying opinions among competent, experienced and reputable experts as to whether the Feasibility Study reflects an acceptable standard of engineering practice on the part of the CYJV [the engineering consortium] in general, and Acres in particular.”

Although the APEO went on to reject Probe International’s complaint on the ground that the engineers followed “generally accepted international engineering standards,” it failed to define those standards, or to identify who sets and enforces them. Nor did the APEO explain how those “generally accepted international engineering standards” could deviate so dramatically from the standards used in Ontario, Britain and the United States, and by the U.S. Commission on Large Dams and the International Commission on Large Dams which, Probe International argued, were violated by the Canadian engineers. Probe International has appealed the APEO’s decision.

Should the Canadian engineers be found guilty of violating their professional responsibilities in the course of carrying out the Three Gorges feasibility study, they would be subject to a range of disciplinary actions from reprimands or financial fines to the suspension or revocation of their licenses.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s