Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 16

(May 31, 1994)

ONCE THE GOLDEN WATERWAY IS SEVERED, CAN ANOTHER YANGTZE RIVER BE DUG?

A Conversation with Peng De1

by Fang Xiangming and Li Weizhong2

I. The Three Gorges Project Will Produce Sedimentation That Will Hinder Navigation

Connecting the three biggest economic zones of eastern, central and southeastern China, transportation on the Yangtze has an annual volume that accounts for 76 percent of the total water transportation in China, which explains its name, “The golden waterway.”

Peng De: Since the transportation capacity of the Yangtze River is approximately equal to that of 14 railway lines, the development of the river should give more emphasis to shipping than to flood control. Premier Zhou Enlai once pointed out emphatically: “If a dam in the Yangtze River hinders navigation, this dam must be blown up.”

Fang and Li: At present, there are two schemes for the Three Gorges project: One plans to maintain a water level of 150 meters for normal storage conditions, and to create a 300-kilometer waterway between Wanxian county and the dam, improving navigation. The other scheme would maintain a water level of 175 meters, which would improve navigation conditions all the way to Chongqing, Sichuan.

Peng De: This is an illusion. What worries me is that the sedimentation caused by the project would block the waterway. The Yangtze is the third-largest river in the world, with the third-largest annual flow. Its sediment load at present is the fourth highest in the world. Due to deforestation along the river banks, the total sediment load has now reached 680 million tonnes per year, and the Yangtze will soon rank as the third most silted river in the world.3 Dealing with the problem of sedimentation associated with damming such a river would be a difficult problem anywhere in the world. In 1980, an American group of experts conducted a field survey at the Three Gorges site. The chief representative considered sedimentation to be the most difficult problem that would result from the construction of the dam. In its report, issued in June, 1986, the Three Gorges project expert group for the World Bank agreed that sedimentation was one of the major problems facing the entire project.

Some Chinese experts regard sedimentation as the cancer of the project, which would become incurable if discovered too late; so they are now trying hard to make their point known. According to many experts, if the 150-meter-water-level scheme were employed, a backwater reach would form, stretching 300 kilometers from the dam. This area would be most susceptible to huge deposits of sediment. When the water level was lowered in the reservoir, navigation would be even worse than today. If the 185-meter-water-level scheme were used, the backwater area would be closer to the Chongqing port and the mouth of the Jialing River, threatening navigation even more seriously.

Under present conditions a natural balance is achieved, as sediment deposited in the waterway during the flood season is washed away afterwards. But after the construction of the Three Gorges project, sediment would continue to increase during each flood season; little would be washed away and the reservoir would gradually lose its capacity to generate power. Consequently, the sediment problem would increase in severity as time went by. In 50 years, 10 billion m3 of storage capacity would be taken up by sediment. If the water level at the reservoir were lowered, shoals would appear everywhere.

The Indus and the Nile have the most sediment of any rivers in the world, but their dams were not constructed to ensure navigation. Navigable rivers, such as the Danube and the Rhine, contain little sediment and their dams are built at the upper reaches to block sediment there. Today, the Itaipu power station in Brazil on the Parana River, the biggest in the world, has an annual sediment load of only 45 million tonnes, less than one-tenth of that of the Yangtze River.

Nowhere has such a large power station been built on a navigable river with such a high sediment content. Yet similar cases are not rare in China and instances of sediment blocking navigation have occurred around the reservoirs at the Danjiangkou, Xijin, and Huanglongtan rivers, among others, causing ships and boats to capsize.

Sedimentation in the Yangtze River would cause unpredictable damage to navigation. Can humans totally control nature? Some experts are trying to work out ways to solve this problem, but I think such efforts are only wishful thinking. Let’s look at some examples. The storage capacity of the Liujianxia reservoir is 5.7 billion m3. After 17 years, one billion cubic meters have been filled up by sediment. The Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power employed the method of “storing the clean water and flushing out the muddy” in an effort to clear out the sediment. But only two kilometers away from the dam this flushing method ceased to work. Yet, according to the scheme for a 150-meter water level for the Three Gorges reservoir, the area where sediment is deposited would stretch 300 kilometers away from the dam. Under these circumstances flushing sediment is clearly unrealistic.

At the Sanmenxia Gorge reservoir, after only two years of service, sediment deposits reached the town of Tongguan, Hunan province, and became so serious that the dam had to be rebuilt, without, however, resolving the sediment problem. At the Three Gorges, the procedures for dealing with sediment would be much more complicated and difficult than at the Sanmenxia dam, where the sediment is fine in texture. The Three Gorges area contains a mixture of fine and coarse silt and pebbles which are more difficult to wash away. Some experts who are eager to start the project are experimenting with models to show that the problem can be solved. Others believe that the results gained from using models are unreliable. Even those who are busy testing models are a bit worried that the Three Gorges reservoir might become another Sanmenxia Gorge dam.

II. Improving Navigation on the Yangtze River Does Not Require the Three Gorges Project

Apart from the sediment problem, the project also involves many navigational difficulties, such as shipping channels whose technical standards of design, manufacture, construction and operation must all exceed current international standards.

The construction of the Three Gorges dam is to last for nearly 20 years. How, over this period of time, could navigation on the Yangtze River be guaranteed? How should the docks, which must adapt to the water levels needed for navigation at both the beginning and the end of the reservoir construction period, be built? And how much will all of this cost?

Because the regulation of the water level by the Three Gorges project would result in unstable water flow between the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams, navigation would be seriously endangered. What’s more, the Three Gorges reservoir would retain sediment and empty out clear water. This would deepen the river-bed at the lower reaches of the Gezhouba dam, lower the water level of the dam and thus result in an insufficient water depth at the threshold of the shiplocks.

If the scheme for a 150-meter water level for normal storage conditions were adopted, the 80-kilometer waterway near Chongqing would still remain an unimproved natural watercourse.

Yet, if the scheme for a 175-meter water level were used, the area submerged by the reservoir would undergo greater losses, which would definitely increase the project’s costs and the population needing resettlement. These, and many other more detailed technical issues, pose difficult problems for which the experts concerned have no satisfactory answers. However, I believe that navigation along the Yangtze River can easily be improved without resorting to the Three Gorges project. After the dredging of the Yangtze, at a cost of Y100 million, the annual shipping volume has reached five million tonnes. If this process were continued using explosives to clear away the dangerous shoals, and extending the docks, the shipping volume could reach 15 to 30 million tonnes. These measures would cost only a fraction of the budget for the Three Gorges project.

Comments by Fang and Li: If the project is indeed carried out on the basis of the need for flood control and power generation, the upper reaches and the tributaries must be harnessed first in order to block the flow of sediment into the proposed Three Gorges reservoir. Unfortunately, despite the fact that other experts agree with Peng De, their opinions have not been given adequate attention.

III. There Should Be More Democracy, Rather Than Rule by the Voice of One

The Three Gorges project has been an ambitious undertaking by well-known Chinese leaders over several generations, from Dr. Sun Yat-sen to the late Chairman Mao. During the early days after the founding of New China in 1949, the project was designed to implement the saying: “We will achieve what foreigners have achieved, we will get what foreigners haven’t got!” Soon surveys and plans for the project proceeded to the marching rhythm of the “Great Leap Forward” campaign.

Peng De: Some 30 years have gone by. Each time the national economy has improved, the project is brought up again even though its problems have not been adequately addressed. The project viewed as “the second Ten Thousand Li4 great wall” has stirred the hearts of many people. Those who support the project often try to remove those opposed to it from the departments or units involved, in some cases even by resorting to political persecution. In the newspapers, the one voice that is for the project drowns out different opinions and contending views. Over these 30 years, the assessment meetings for the project have not reached any agreement because, I think, the key issues concerning the project have not yet been fully discussed.

At a session of the State Council in 1984, the project had the support of the leading people from the Central Committee of the Party. During the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meeting of 1985, several members from the Ministry of Communication wished to discuss the project. It was argued, however, that the decision for the project might already have been reached by the Party Central Committee. If so, why should they bring trouble on themselves, as there was no point in raising the issue at all. However, at the first group discussion, I spoke out anyway, suggesting that the project be delayed, as too hasty a start would leave many issues unsettled. My suggestion was supported by all 72 members of the group. I was asked to speak at the conference. Some even encouraged me by saying: “You go ahead and speak out. If you are stripped of Party membership, we will all stand up for you.” I had then already retired from all my former positions so there could be no danger of being dismissed, and therefore I made my speech at the conference. Later, Comrade Yang Jingren passed down the opinion of the State Council that the project had not been finalized and was still open for discussion by the experts concerned. We were quite happy with this response. This meeting again impressed upon me the importance of democratic procedures of decision making.

During the Second World War, scientists from the United States developed the atomic bomb, hoping to quickly bring peace to the world. But they were naive, and later saw that what the bomb brought to mankind was the ruthless destruction of Japan. Albert Einstein, together with about 100 scientists, submitted a petition to President Truman, demanding a stop to the manufacture of atomic bombs, but the White House refused to listen because of its need to maintain supremacy in the world. More and more atomic bombs appeared, followed by hydrogen and neutron bombs as well. Here we see the defeat of science by politics, which resulted in the deadly risk of worldwide nuclear war.

In the history of hydro-electricity in China, cases of science being defeated by political need and public feelings are not at all rare. The Sanmenxia Gorge dam is a case in point. During those days, this project was used as a criterion for judging one’s political stand. Those who supported the project were for the Party, while those who had different opinions were against the Party. As a result, the Sanmenxia Gorge dam was completed, but it has had to be reconstructed several times, and each time, relocated people were made to move back and forth at great expense to the state.

The Gezhouba dam was a rehearsal for the Three Gorges project. Since some people found it difficult to think of immediately starting the Three Gorges project in the early 1970s, the Gezhouba dam was hurriedly launched: the dam’s location at the lower reaches of the Yangtze River shows disregard for the priorities of the development process. Since the Gezhouba dam was started before the plans and design had been completed, the construction period lasted 18 years. Even today, there still remain many worrisome problems. I am very concerned that if the Three Gorges project is started, it would be impossible to stop. After its completion, if some unpredictable disasters occur, people of my age will not be there to see and so can escape being held responsible; but what will our children do?

Once the project severs the golden waterway, the river will be irretrievably gone. Even if the dam were later blown up, I really doubt that the Chinese people could dig another Yangtze River.


Sources and Further Commentary

1Peng De is former vice-minister of the Ministry of Communication. At the 1985 Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, he warned of the danger of starting the Three Gorges project hastily, but his views were never made public. This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Fang Xiangming and Li Weizhong were journalists with China Youth News.

3 Despite efforts at reforestation, “damage caused by deforestation in the [Yangtze] basin has already far outstripped what soil erosion control can restore.” Smil, China’s Environmental Crisis, p. 62.

41 Li = 500 m

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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