(May 31, 1994)
THE THREE GORGES PROJECT: AN ENORMOUS ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER
An Interview with Hou Xueyu1
by Zhu Jianhong2
Zhu Jianhong: Is it true that you didn’t sign the assessment report concerned with the environmental aspects of the Three Gorges project?
Hou Xueyu: That is true. I think the Three Gorges project will do more harm than good to the environment and the natural resources of the Yangtze River valley.
Zhu Jianhong: But the assessment does admit this in its conclusion.
Hou Xueyu: The report has put forward many solutions to the environmental problems. But I doubt that they could be effective.
Zhu Jianhong: Perhaps, being an ecologist, you tend to overestimate the nature of this problem?
Hou Xueyu: In fact, I think the assessment report underestimates damage to the local environment. For several decades now, those engaged in hydro-electric power construction have given little consideration to environmental concerns, including the impact on the lives of local residents.3
Zhu Jianhong: Is this only a prediction or has it happened in reality?
Hou Xueyu: Of course it has happened. Due to the lack of knowledge about ecology and sediment deposition, 40 percent of the Sanmenxia reservoir was blocked within 20 years of its completion and had to be reconstructed several times. The dam also seriously endangered the industrial and agricultural production of the western plain area and the city of Xi’an. Recently, The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams4 was published, which analyzed 31 dams in 23 countries and concluded that most of them have damaged the lives of local residents. The book examined cases such as the Aswan dam in Egypt, and dams built under the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States. This book is now being translated into Chinese. I hope it will help in further assessments of the Three Gorges project.
Zhu Jianhong: Once the Three Gorges dam is built, it will be the largest hydro-electric project in the world. I presume its effect on the environment would be tremendous. Could you tell us something more about its impact?
Hou Xueyu: The project would submerge 19 counties and more than 400,000 mu of cultivated land, including some of the richest soil along the river basin. Along with the well-known mustard tuber, medicinal herbs and grain, 73,900 mu of orange groves, which produce a net profit of Y1,500 per mu, will be lost. The losses would be at least Y100 million per year, Y1 billion in a decade.
Zhu Jianhong: It has been suggested that, in order to make up for the losses caused by the project, new land for orange groves be opened up on terraced fields.
Hou Xueyu: This is an irresponsible suggestion. After the rich plains are gone, only rocky hills with thin layers of poor topsoil would be left. Those terraced fields could easily be washed away by heavy rainfall in the area.
Zhu Jianhong: Some researchers have published reports arguing that the changes in climate will hardly be noticeable after the project is completed. In winter, the predicted temperature would be a bit higher and in summer a bit lower, accompanied by an increase in moisture, which, it is argued, would favor agriculture. What do you think of this?
Hou Xueyu: This is a one-sided statement. The water surface can regulate temperature, which is also affected by the altitude above sea level. Granted, the temperature after the completion of the reservoir would be 0.4 degree centigrade higher than before, but the temperature decreases as the altitude increases. If the dam was 180 meters high, the temperature increase would be offset by the increased elevation.
The major orange groves are currently located to the east of the future reservoir site in Zigui county. In the northern section of this area, at Xing mountain (275 meters above sea level), the lowest temperature ever recorded was -9.3 degrees centigrade, which is low enough to freeze oranges. If the orange groves were moved to 600 meters above sea level, the danger of freezing would be even greater. Therefore, the suggestion of developing orange groves just below 600 meters above sea level is dubious. From an environmental point of view, this hilly area does not provide favorable soil or climate conditions for growing oranges.
Zhu Jianhong: However, after the completion of the reservoir, the newly developed water resources could be used as fish ponds, even if the soil were destroyed. So the losses can still be made up. What you think of this?
Hou Xueyu: I don’t think it could be made up in this way. Water and soil are not interchangeable. The rich arable land destroyed by the reservoir could never be reclaimed. Of course, fish could be raised; but, as you know, reservoir construction will destroy some existing fish ponds. Besides, the present fishery production in our country is very low.
Apart from irreparable damage to the soil, the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the area would be permanently damaged as well. I think the Three Gorges is the most beautiful of all of the world’s gorges. The surrounding areas have many national treasures, some more than 5,000 years old. These include the famous ruins of the ancient Daxi culture, and tombs from the Warring States period [475-221 B.C.], the Eastern Han [25 B.C.-200 A.D.], and the Ming and Qing dynasties, most of which are scattered below 180 meters. Further, the Three Gorges has unique geological features that provide very important physical data for research. All of this would be inundated if the reservoir were built, and tourism would suffer incalculable economic losses.
Zhu Jianhong: But some have suggested that these historical relics could always be moved to safer places.
Hou Xueyu: They have, and one even recommended building a museum to display these relics. Even if they could be moved, their authenticity would be destroyed, together with the unique value and cultural significance of the original context. For instance, how would it strike you to compare the on-site remains of 5,000 year-old tombs with museum reconstructions?
Zhu Jianhong: Do you mean to say that all of the scenic and historical relics are worth preserving?
Hou Xueyu: Definitely!
Zhu Jianhong: You mentioned that the construction of the project could destroy fish ponds. Can you elaborate on this point?
Hou Xueyu: The middle reaches of the Yangtze River from Chongqing to the Chenglingji section of Dongting Lake is one of the major breeding grounds for black, silver, grass and variegated carp. Some of these sections happen to be in the area of the future reservoir.
Breeding requires a water temperature of 18 degrees centigrade. However, with the discharge of reservoir water, that temperature cannot be retained, thereby reducing the breeding period by 20 days. Because of changes in the river-bed after the completion of the reservoir, the quantities of fish would be reduced, eventually resulting in decreased output. Some rare species would be affected too, including Lipotes-vexillifer, Chinese paddlefish, and sturgeon. In danger of extinction, these species have been given priority protection by the state. These species breed in the upper reaches and migrate to the lower and middle reaches. Once the dam is constructed, they will obviously suffer major population reductions. In fact, since the Gezhouba dam was built, dead Chinese paddlefish have been discovered at the base of the dam.
Furthermore, reservoir construction would bring about changes in water quality and temperature at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and consequently reduce fish production. For instance, anchovies, white bait, hilsa herring, and prawns-all found in semi-salty water-will probably diminish in quantity. Even the breeding ground of the famous Zhoushan fish is likely to be affected.
Zhu Jianhong: From a geological point of view, what impact would the Three Gorges project have?
Hou Xueyu: The reservoir area sees frequent landslides and mud flows; altogether 214 potentially dangerous spots have been identified. The largest potential for landslides is along the river banks in Wanxian and Zigui counties. In June, 1985, 2,000,000 m3 of earth slipped into the Yangtze River at the Xintan area. The landslide caused waves 36 meters high and 100 meters wide and destroyed a warehouse, and 77 boats, and took 10 lives.
Because of the effects of the reservoir water soaking into soil and sand along both sides of the reservoir after construction, the stability of the existing landslide spots will be reduced. During the storm season, there areas are more likely to experience landslides and collapses, since there is no vegetation to protect the slopes and hillsides.
Also, the geological structure of the reservoir area shows that there is a possibility of induced earthquakes. If that happens, there could be large-scale landslides and rock collapses that would endanger the reservoir and block the Yangtze River.
Zhu Jianhong: What other serious effects would the Three Gorges project cause?
Hou Xueyu: Tremendous losses would be inflicted on industry and mining. The plan to set the high-water level at 180 meters would submerge 624 factories, including six major factories in Chongqing. Some mineral resources would also be lost since the mining areas would be below water level after construction of the reservoir.
I am also worried about the effects of population relocation. Some have suggested moving the agriculture and industries of the submerged areas to the hills behind the reservoir site. Of course, this is a better solution than just distributing financial compensation to the local people. But there are negative side effects that we should also pay attention to.
First, industrial pollution: After the completion of the reservoir, poisonous particles from submerged coal and phosphorus mines would settle on the bottom of the river bed. Also, poisonous byproducts from the reconstructed factories would be ingested by the local people in the area. The slow wind velocity, heavy fog, high humidity, industrial smog, and traffic would quickly result in pollution and induce acid rain.
Second, soil erosion by farming: At present, along the river banks of the future reservoir site, the ecological system is very weak, with forests covering only 5 percent and grassy hills 30 to 40 percent.
With the completion of the reservoir, the heavy population concentration would result in deforestation as a result of local agricultural development programs. This, in turn, would make soil erosion even worse, landslides more frequent, and the disasters of drought and flood more severe. It would be the start of a vicious circle, which would only put more pressure on the environment.
Zhu Jianhong: Some have said that a new environmental balance can be reached if the programs for population relocation and development of new towns and cities are carefully formulated and properly carried out.
Hou Xueyu: I think the destruction would outweigh a new balance. The saying, “man can conquer nature” is unrealistic. The formulation of development programs must be based on current natural conditions. For example, in China, most of the population is concentrated in the east where natural resources are located. Although we can move people west, we cannot move resources. Nature will not allow it. If one doesn’t consider natural conditions, it is impossible to work out a program beneficial to the people.
Zhu Jianhong: Do you think the Three Gorges project will have some positive effects on the environment?
Hou Xueyu: Of course, hydro-electric power is cleaner than thermal power and safer than nuclear power. But it is not necessary to develop a hydro-electric power plant in this area. Why not in the upper reaches?
Zhu Jianhong: Are the negative effects you just analyzed all irreparable?
Hou Xueyu: Some are definitely irreparable, for example damage to the natural and scenic beauty, and the cultural heritage. Others may be remedied, but only after considerable research; still others will be very costly. Some of the environmental effects will be felt in the short term while others would become evident only in the future; some can be calculated in financial terms while others are harder to evaluate as such. We haven’t discussed, for example, the likely damage of the project to the river mouth area, or the effects of a change in the salt content of the water on industrial and agricultural production, soil resources, and the coastal ecology of the delta area. At this point in time, it is very difficult to calculate accurately the seriousness of the effects or the resulting economic losses.
Zhu Jianhong: Some feel it inevitable that the environment pay some price for the economic benefits the project will produce. What do you think?
Hou Xueyu: Environmental interests and economic benefits go hand in hand. A better environment will enhance economic benefits. Otherwise, the economic benefits, no matter how high, will have to pay for the environmental damage. In the end, it is the common people who will suffer these losses. It is one-sided and unscientific to consider only the benefits, such as the production of electric power, without counting the cost to the environment and natural resources.
Zhu Jianhong: Do you mean that it is impossible to achieve economic benefits at the expense of environmental interests?
Hou Xueyu: Yes. The Three Gorges project is supposed to serve three functions: flood control, power generation, and navigation. Yet, all three are determined by environmental factors. Since 1949, there has been serious soil erosion of the upper reaches because of deforestation. The forest coverage has shrunk from 40 or 50 percent in the 1950s to the present 10 percent in the southeast, 4 percent in the Sichuan basin, and as little as 1 percent in other areas.5
The annual volume of sediment flowing from Sichuan into the Three Gorges was 510 million tonnes per year in the 1970s and increased to 680 million tonnes per year in the 1980s. We can see therefore that soil erosion can increase sedimentation, which will becomes more serious due to landslides, and land cultivation on the hills near the reservoir. This will not only affect the functions of flood control, navigation and power generation, but will also shorten the life expectancy of the reservoir itself. At the Wujiang River hydro-electric power plant completed in 1980, sedimentation, after four years of operation, had already reached the level predicted for 50 years later. What then will become of the Three Gorges reservoir? For how long can it be kept serviceable? It is really a very serious question.
The environment and human survival are dependent on each other, and the environment and economic interests are not at all contradictory.
Zhu Jianhong: Should the old way of assessing a hydro-electric project be modified, or changed?
Hou Xueyu: Yes. The environment is so important that a systematic study of the ecology and conservation of natural resources at the Three Gorges has strategic significance, and is a prerequisite in the assessment of the project. In recent years, due to the lack of attention to the environment and the conservation of natural resources, the construction of reservoirs has had to be reduced in scale or suspended in many countries. For example, in Brazil, the construction of 25 dams along the Amazon River has been canceled; in Australia, a dam project on the Franklin River was abandoned in 1983; in India, the project in the Silent Valley was suspended by the government in 1980, after eight years of construction and a $3 million investment. The Tehri dam in India, which would have required the relocation of 50,000 people, the submergence of ancient towns, the possibility of induced landslides as a result of deforestation, and serious sedimentation problems, was halted because of mass protests.
Zhu Jianhong: But some people may agree that we Chinese have different values from the West.
Hou Xueyu: These people are evading the issue of the environment.
Zhu Jianhong: Among the 412 experts who participated in the leading group’s assessment, only 10 refused to sign the assessment report, and you are one of the 10.
Hou Xueyu: I was invited only to show the public that people of different opinions were included. There were many others who possess valuable knowledge and insight with regard to this project who were not invited. However, having conducted environmental research for many years, I must bear in mind my responsibilities to the country and our future generations, and must make my point of view clear to all. One is bound to say something that may prove incorrect in the end, but never should one make a false statement. I have been saying what is on my mind. Right or wrong, it should be judged by the public and tested by history. As far as I know, some experts who were not in agreement with the report, signed it, for various reasons.6
Zhu Jianhong: What are the “various reasons”?
Hou Xueyu: That’s very complicated. For example, some experts were persuaded by their leaders, who went to their houses to ask their approval. How could they refuse? Some were told that it was already finalized by the Party Central Committee. What was the use of opposing it? So on and so forth.
Zhu Jianhong: Will you still insist on your position?
Hou Xueyu: Certainly yes. Again, I think that in terms of the environment and the conservation of natural resources, the question concerning the Three Gorges project is not the timing of the project, nor the height of the dam, but the advisability of the dam’s very construction. Our generation will have made an irrevocable mistake if navigation on the golden waterway is severed.
Sources and Further Commentary
1Hou Xueyu, now deceased, was a botanist, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Conference, and an advisor to the Experts’ Group on Ecology and Environment. This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!
2Zhu Jianhong is a journalist with the People’s Daily.
3 Problems frequently encountered include the disruption of livelihoods and local social and economic structures, increases in deadly diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, and pollution from the reservoir. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, 30 to 40 percent of the 10 million people who have been relocated to make way for hydro-electric dams since the late 1950s are still impoverished and lacking adequate food and clothing. See “China Plans New Resettlement Rules,” Water Power and Dam Construction, March 1990, p. 2.
4 See Goldsmith and Hildyard, eds., Social and Environmental.
5 See the full discussion of deforestation problems in China, in Smil, China’s Environmental Crisis, pp. 61-64.
6 For more on this issue, see Appendix C.