Dams and Landslides

Chapter 22

(May 31, 1994)


An Account of an Interview with Tian Fang and Lin Fatang1

by Zhang Shengyou2

Tian Fang and Lin Fatang have worked together as the editors-in-chief of: A Sound Distribution of Productive Forces in China, Population Relocation in China, An Outline of the History of Population Relocation in China, and Population Relocation in the World, among others. Needless to say, they have shown great concern about the Three Gorges project. After careful investigation and scientific research, both objected to the launching of the project. They subsequently edited and compiled the following two books: On a Long-Range Strategy For the Three Gorges Project and A Second Look at a Long-Range Strategy For the Three Gorges Project. Both books contain a preface by Zhou Peiyuan and have been reviewed by Wang Xizhang. On several occasions, both have also been denied publication by various department heads. The following is a summary of an interview with them.

The Three Gorges dam will be the largest hydro-electric project the world has ever seen. As soon as the project was announced publicly, there was an enormous response from overseas. On January 28, 1986, Xiong Jie (James Hsiung), a Chinese-American professor from New York University, pointed out that the project would turn the area near the Three Gorges into a huge water pool necessitating the resettlement of nearly one million people. Xiong argued that the construction would disrupt the environment and hygienic conditions, thereby destabilizing society and causing incalculable and long-lasting damage to the Chinese nation. In addition, local cultural treasures and scenic spots would be almost entirely lost.

Between May 26 and June 10, 1986, a group of experts took a World Bank-sponsored trip to the Three Gorges area. The experts included: D. Campbell from Canada; J. Cotrin, Brazil’s representative to the Two County Committee of the Itaipu power station; L. Duscha, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; D. Graybill, from Management Resources International Inc.; A. Hochstein, Louisiana State University; L. Mueller, from Austria; F. Lyra, the Brazilian director of the Export Group for the Itaipu project; J. F. Kennedy, an American sedimentation expert; B. M. Moyes, from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; along with hydrology and electricity experts from China.3 Upon its return, the group submitted a report expressing many doubts and concerns centered on the following issues: geology, sedimentation, flood control, navigation, hydraulic engineering and construction, electric systems, economic analysis, and environmental issues.

Opposition to the project from Canadian scholars and experts was very strong. In August, 1987, Professor Vaclav Smil, an internationally known geographer from the University of Manitoba, contributed an essay entitled “Why the Three Gorges Dam Should Not be Constructed” to The World Energy Resources Herald, a Chinese domestic newspaper. He argued that such a huge dam and power station would require an enormous financial investment and a great number of well-qualified technicians.

He considered it inadvisable to work on a project that would result in so much destruction. Citing the great landslide of 1963 at Vaiont in Italy as an example, he predicted possible large-scale landslides around the proposed site of the reservoir. He suggested that building more small-scale power stations would be much more efficient economically and cost less initially.

In May, 1986, the Canadian edition of World Daily carried an essay titled, “Deteriorating Natural Ecology Will Worsen With the Construction of the Three Gorges Dam,” which stated that construction would induce serious natural disasters that would endanger millions of lives in the area. The paper also noted:

Zigui county, where the home town of [the poet] Qu Yuan is located, will be completely submerged by the reservoir. Famous historical sites such as the Zhang Fei Temple, the Kong Ming tomb, and the Fenbi Temple will all disappear. As for the Baidi Tower, although it may survive, the surrounding scenery will be lost.

In another article, the newspaper quoted from a letter by four American environmental organizations arguing that, “from an environmental and social perspective, the Three Gorges project will be the most disastrous dam in the history of mankind.”

In March, 1980, a 24-member U.S. delegation undertook a three-week fact-finding tour of the Three Gorges. The group was headed by Mr. Freeman, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and Mr. Higgenson, from the Bureau of Water and Energy Resources. Upon returning to the United States, Freeman stated, “In my opinion our delegation has killed the idea of a 700-foot dam that some Chinese engineers have been in love with for so long.” One member of the delegation, Mr. Morris, the Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, commented that the Three Gorges dam would be disastrous for navigation: “The results would be as if someone wanting to go up one floor were sent up to the top of a skyscraper.”4 In his summary to high-level Chinese leaders, Morris also stated:

From the perspective of navigation, the idea of building a dam with [numerous] shiplocks and a vertical incline of 200 meters is a dubious proposition. As for the plan for flood control, it is also inappropriate. It’s like putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Finally, Mr. Morris also questioned the merit, in terms of national security, of putting 25 million kW of electrical capacity in one place.

An American physics professor, Feng Pingguan, made the following calculation about the project: the estimated construction cost of the Three Gorges dam would be US$20 billion (approximately Y11O billion) and would require 20 years to complete. Enormous funds would be tied up in interest costs on this investment, coming to as much as $40 billion (Y22O billion). Twenty years could well make a nation prosperous; for instance, the economic take-off in Taiwan needed only 20 years, as well as that of Meiji Reform in Japan.

What will we gain by investing 20 years and $20 billion in such a huge dam? The ambition to build the dam is a grand overall plan that would involve almost every aspect of the country’s economic development. Such a plan is a day-dreamer’s delight and a pragmatist’s nightmare, like those that dominated the “Great Leap Forward.”

Every small investment must be expected to achieve future profits, which can in turn be reinvested for still greater economic returns. However, the Three Gorges project is not in line with this economic principle.

On December 6, 1988, an editorial that appeared in the International Daily5 commented that there are many ways to manage the Yangtze River, and the Three Gorges project is only one of the alternatives. Plans have not been adopted to deal with the problem of soil and water conservation at the upper reaches, of the dredging of the tributary waterways, and of protecting the environment around the Three Lakes area. Similarly, work is needed on the plans for population relocation, for regional economic development and for overall economic feasibility. All of this must be dealt with before construction begins.

Since the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project announced, on November 30, 1988, that “an early start-up for the project is better than a delay,” more than 10 Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong including The Express, The Economic Daily, The Literary Gazette, The New Daily News, Xingdao Daily, and The Daily Trust, along with Taiwan’s New Life Daily, responded with opposition to the immediate start-up of the project. Some newspapers suggested that the total budget indicated in the assessment was an underestimation, while others suggested that funds for the Three Gorges project be put into the development of national education.

In the August 8, 1988, overseas edition of the People’s Daily, Tian Fang noted that the final report of a feasibility study conducted by a Canadian consultancy group was expected to be submitted by the end of September.6 The article went on to state that, according to the Canadian group, the proposed water level of the project is appropriate,7 the benefits are feasible and the project would not have any major environmental impacts. In response Tian Fang noted:

I was fairly shocked by the report. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of experts and scholars have been involved in the assessment, and many opinions about the project have been expressed. How could a group reach a final conclusion in favor of the project in only two years?

Finally, at a meeting of the International Rivers Network held in San Francisco in June, 1988, more than 30 experts from Indonesia, Malaysia, Holland, India, Canada, the United States, Australia, the Federal Republic of Germany and Brazil signed a letter asking the Chinese government to publish the feasibility study by the Canadian consultative group for an open discussion.8

Sources and Further Commentary

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

2 Zhang Shengyou is a former journalist for the Guangming Daily who now works for the Guangming Publishing Co.

3 Campbell, Duscha, Graybill, Kennedy, and Lyra were members of the World Bank panel of experts who reviewed the Canadian feasibility study.

4 Two additional trips of scientists under contract to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation were also made in April-June, 1981, and June-July, 1984. Unfortunately, the reports from these trips remain classified at the request of the Chinese government.

5 A Chinese-American newspaper.

6 Using Canada’s Access to Information law, Probe International obtained this feasibility study. Conducted by CIPM Yangtze Joint Venture, a consortium of private engineering firms (SNC-Lavalin and Acres International) and two state utilities (Hydro-QuĂ©bec International and B.C. Hydro International), the study was paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency, Canada’s bilateral aid agency. Damming the Three Gorges is a critique of the Canadian study.

7 The Canadian study recommended a normal pool level of 160 meters and included a cautionary note from the World Bank that “The feasibility report contains evidence to indicate that increasing the normal pool level from 160 meters to 170 meters and higher would not be an economically viable proposition.” See CIPM, Three Gorges, p. 4-1.

8 The letter is available from Probe International in Toronto, Canada.

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