Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 18

(May 31, 1994)


An Interview with Lu Qinkan1

by Chen Kexiong2

Chen Kexiong: I understand that as early as the Nationalist period you were sent to America to study and work out the first draft plan of the Three Gorges project.

Lu Qinkan: Yes. In 1944, J. L. Savage, an American expert in high-dam design, came to do an investigation in China and put forward a plan for Yangtze River development. Then, Savage wrote a report to the Nationalist Government that piqued their interest. So the National Resources Committee co-chaired by Qian Changzhao sent 50 engineers (myself among them) to Denver, Colorado to do research under Savage’s direction on a final design for the Three Gorges project. At the same time, field investigations were started at home. In the original plan for the project scheme, I remember the high water level of the storage reservoir was around 200 meters, and the reservoir was supposed to generate more than 10 million kW of electricity. But after one year of study in the United States, the work had to be stopped.

Chen Kexiong: Why?

Lu Qinkan: At that time, the Nationalist government was on the verge of defeat in the civil war, and the domestic political situation was so unstable that the United States withdrew its proposed investment in the project. Among the 50 of us sent to America only 30 returned home and the rest stayed abroad.

Chen Kexiong: Since 1949, the question of whether to start the Three Gorges project has recurred on numerous occasions. What has been your stand on this matter?

Lu Qinkan: Between 1955 and 1957, as a representative from the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, I worked in the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO), in charge of hydrology and water utilization studies. There, I did some research on flood control and power generation on the Yangtze. At that time, I believed the Three Gorges project would require too large an investment and would take too long to build. Based on these, and other, more technical problems, I thought it better to delay the project. That was the time when Chairman Mao Zedong had already swum across the Yangtze River, and written the poem “A Smooth Lake Over the High Gorges.”

At that time, Lin Yishan, the director of the YVPO, and Li Rui, the director of the Hydro-electricity Bureau, were writing journal articles publicly arguing whether the project should be started. Soon after, in 1959, Li Rui was politically persecuted at the Lushan Conference where he was accused of opposing Chairman Mao’s desire to build the Three Gorges project. Those Party members who worked under him and shared his views were all labeled “Li Rui’s Anti-Party Clique.” Since I was not a Party member, I was spared persecution.

After the Chengdu Conference in 1958, when the “Great Leap Forward” was launched, the project was again pushed forward. About 10,000 scientists and researchers were gathered at Wuhan to study the technical problems of the project. I was so nervous that I dared not oppose the project any longer and had to swim with the tide. However, the project was suspended as a result of the country’s difficult economic situation in 1960-1962. During the 10 years of “the Cultural Revolution” (1965-1975) it was not possible to put the project on the national agenda for economic construction.

After the downfall of the leftist “Gang of Four” in 1976, the YVPO once again presented the project to the State Council. The premier, Hua Guofeng, and several other vice-premiers had agreed to it. But Zhao Ziyang, who was then the first Party secretary-general of Sichuan province, expressed some reservations, saying that too much land had to be submerged, too many people had to be moved and Sichuan was far from ready for such large-scale reservoir resettlement.

Chen Kexiong: Why didn’t you sign the leading group’s assessment? After all, 400 experts did.

Lu Qinkan: There were 14 specialized experts’ groups. The experts could sign only their own specialized group report. I was on the experts’ group dealing with flood control. Since I had done research in this field, I believed the role of the Three Gorges reservoir in flood control would be very limited, and was overestimated in the assessment report.

Chen Kexiong: Really? But it is the general understanding that flood control is precisely the major function of the project.

Lu Qinkan: Yes. In the 1950s and 1960s, flood control was stated as the primary function of the project. Yet, recently, the main function has changed to a more comprehensive role including flood control, power generation, and navigation.

Chen Kexiong: But the assessment states that the Three Gorges reservoir is irreplaceable as a means of flood control and that “the reservoir can effectively control the major source of floods in the lower and middle reaches.”

Lu Qinkan: Let’s analyze the floods that have happened since 1949 along the Yangtze River. They are of three types:

1. Big floods throughout the whole river, such as in 1954;
2. Floods that are serious only at the upper reaches, such as that in 1981; and,
3. Floods that have occurred due to local storms only at the lower and middle reaches, such as that in 1991.

The flood of 1954 was the biggest of the past century. The total volume of flow in July and August, 1954, was 458.7 billion m3, of which 103.2 billion m3 exceeded the flood-control capacity of the dikes. Serious damage was inflicted on 18.88 million people and 47.55 million mu of cultivated land. Over the past 30 years, the dikes along the Yangtze River have been reinforced several times. Also, after the completion of the flood-control scheme planned in 1980 for the lower and middle reaches, the discharge capacity of the Yangtze River has been enlarged. If a flood as severe as that of 1954 recurs, the volume of the flood waters overflowing the dikes could well be reduced by half, and the remaining 50 billion m3 could be disposed of in the assigned flood diversion areas. Conversely, the Three Gorges project can only control floods from the Chuanjiang River at the upper reaches, and cannot control the floods from many of the large tributaries at the lower and middle reaches such as the Xiangjiang, Zishui, Yuanshui, Lishui, Hanjiang and Ganjiang rivers. According to the leading group’s flood-control report, the Three Gorges project could only substitute for a part of the flood diversion areas. If a flood like that in 1954 recurred, requiring the diversion of 50 billion m3 of flood water, the Three Gorges project could only divert water above Chenglingji, leaving 30 to 40 billion m3 of flood water to be diverted. The Three Gorges project could only save 1.77 to 3.27 million mu of arable land from submersion, leaving 6.7 to 8.2 million mu submerged at the lower and middle reaches. And, for the city of Wuhan, the project would neither lower the flood level nor reduce the water volume in nearby flood diversion areas. The project would be even more useless for Jiangxi and Anhui provinces on the lower reaches.

The second type of flood, represented by the 1981 flood, was very serious at the upper reaches. The peak discharge at Chongqing of 85,700 m3 per second, was already reduced to 70,800 m3 per second at Yichang further down river as a result of channel storage. The lower and middle reaches were not affected at all. Therefore, the Three Gorges project is hardly necessary for this type of flood. But the Three Gorges project would increase an already high flood level at Chongqing, because of the storage of flood water and sedimentation in the reservoir. As a result, flood damage in Sichuan province would become even more serious.

As for the third type of flood, it need not be said the project would be totally useless. Hence I maintain that the role of the project in flood control is limited.

Chen Kexiong: In both the report submitted by the YVPO and that of the leading group, flood control was cited to demonstrate the necessity of the project, with the added warning that “if the 1870 flood recurs, the dikes on both sides of the Jingjiang River would burst; if a break occurred at the middle reach on the northern dike near Yanka, the death toll could reach 500,000.” What do you think of such claims?

Lu Qinkan: According to flood-level marks, the 1870 flood at the upper reaches was indeed more serious than the one in 1981. Yet, in Wuhan, the highest flood level was between 27.36 and 27.55 meters, which was more than two meters lower than that of the flood in 1954 and ranks as the sixth-highest in the past 120 years. The 1870 flood was not serious at the lower and middle reaches. The flood discharge of the Jingjiang River first ran southward and broke the southern dike at Songzikou, rushing into Dongting Lake. And the northern Jingjiang River dike, weak as it seemed at that time, withstood the flood above Jianli.

Today, river networks have been established at Songzikou and the northern Jingjiang River dike has been strengthened and heightened too. As the northern dike had not been broken by the floods 100 years ago, how could one say, after the conditions have been much improved, that today it would burst in the high-risk areas near Shashi city and take hundreds of thousands of lives? Furthermore, according to frequency calculations, floods like the one in 1870 happen only once every 2,500 years. I therefore find it hard to justify an immediate start-up of the project.

Chen Kexiong: Do you totally object to the Three Gorges project?

Lu Qinkan: No. I only meant to show its limited role in flood control, which is not as effective as some people have predicted. I think a realistic evaluation should be conducted, and I think we should choose the proper time to launch the project.

Chen Kexiong: When would that be?

Lu Qinkan: To be more optimistic, I would say, in five to 10 years. That gives sufficient time for the national economy to improve and for technological problems to be solved. Along the Yangtze River, floods occur every five to 10 years. At present, the best way to control floods is to improve dikes, securing the facilities for flood diversion areas; build more reservoirs on tributaries, and continue work on soil conservation at the upper reaches.

Chen Kexiong: What is your biggest concern if the project is started immediately?

Lu Qinkan: First, funds for other important hydro projects would have to be diverted to the Three Gorges project. Since 1984, because of the financial needs of the project, plans for the Ertan project in Sichuan province (3 million kW), for the Wuqiangxi project in Hunan province (1.2 million kW), and for the Geheyan project in Hubei province(1.2 million kW) have already been suspended. There are still many other projects in danger of being delayed as well, such as the Pubugou on the Dadu River (3.3 million kW), the Goupitan on the Wujiang River (2 million kW), the Longtan on the Hongshui River (4.2 million kW), and the Pengshui on the Wujiang River (1.2 million kW). Although Chairman Mao talked of “A Smooth Lake Over the High Gorges,” he also said in 1969: “It is very bad for the city of Wuhan to carry a basin of water on her head” and that “investigation is needed to develop the tributaries of the Yangtze River in Sichuan province.” However, some people only quote the first comment. Why do they keep forgetting the latter?

Chen Kexiong: If the state set aside more funds for the project, would it be possible to start it soon?

Lu Qinkan: No. Until the end of this century, economic development in all areas requires extensive funding, such as in energy resources and raw materials, as well as transportation, education and scientific research. How can the state spare extra funds to finance a project that requires the investment of Y100 billion, 20 years to build, and the relocation of 1.13 million people? If the project ever got started, it would be impossible to stop it. Therefore, we should be careful in making this decision.

Chen Kexiong: Have you ever made your points known before?

Lu Qinkan: Yes. I have voiced my views at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and to the leading group. The night before the 1988 assessment meeting, I prepared a speech that I hoped could illustrate my points in more detail. But, the following day, I might not have been able to finish the speech, had it not been for Madam Qian Zhengying, who stood up to say that I was speaking not just for myself but also on behalf of Sun Yueqi, a specially invited advisor. Only then was I able to carry on. Certainly I was very grateful to the minister, and the first sentence of my speech went something like, “I am grateful that the old minister has given me the privilege of speaking again.”

Chen Kexiong: But these different views are actually unknown to the public.

Lu Qinkan: The press has not given fair coverage to the debate on the project. They have provided publicity only to the views favoring an immediate launch and have rejected articles submitted by us against it. People have been misled by such one-sidedness. At the CPPCC in 1988, I and five other members submitted a proposal calling for fair media coverage for both sides of the issue. But the Party Propaganda Department replied that “it is inappropriate to debate such issues openly in the newspapers.” I really don’t understand such a position, since the 1987 Thirteenth Party Congress stated that with regard to the reform of political structures, “important issues should be made known to the public to enhance transparency.” We don’t understand why we can’t argue openly about projects that will have such an extensive impact on the life of the people. The people ought to know about it and contribute their thoughts and comments on the issue.

Chen Kexiong: I understand that the leading group’s 10th session will be held on February 20, 1989, in Beijing and then it will present a report to the State Council for approval. What do you have to say about this?

Lu Qinkan: I am already over 70, and will not live much longer. My sons and daughters and even my grandchildren have tried to persuade me to give up. But I can’t. I agree with what Professor Huang Wenxi of Beida University who said: “We should not leave our children a monument of stupidity.”

Chen Kexiong: Some vowed that they will not rest until they see the project constructed. Since you are among the first generation of planners for the Three Gorges project, would you also regret not seeing the project in your lifetime?

Lu Qinkan: No, not at all. Because everything should be judged in terms of our national interests now that we are on the threshold of the 21st century.

Sources and Further Commentary

1This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Chen Kexiong is a journalist with the Literary Gazette.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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