Dams and Landslides

Chapter 25

(May 31, 1994)

HIGH DAM: THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES1

by Yang Lang2

On December 22, 1988, then U.S. president Ronald Reagan issued a televised threat against a Libyan chemical plant in the depths of the North African desert. The attack did not take place, but the impact was far-reaching.

As a result of the threat, Libya was put on a war alert, and residents started fleeing the capital en masse. According to western news agencies, people were fleeing because of a fear of chemical leaks, since the plant was only 96 kilometers away from the capital. Although he did not bomb the plant, President Reagan did successfully “psychologically bombard Colonel Qaddafi.” Then U.S. secretary of state, George Shultz, made it clear on January 5, 1989, that America was deliberately making Qaddafi uncomfortable.

The threat to the chemical plant caused havoc throughout Libya. After carefully studying this event, a new term, “designated deterrence,” was coined by our military analysts to refer to this kind of military threat. While the international situation on the whole is developing toward relaxation, regional conflicts and crises are still occurring in many areas. The power and impact of this type of psychological deterrence cannot be overestimated.

The question of whether China needs or has the capacity to employ such methods, and at the same time whether we are vulnerable to such threats, should be a focus for discussion when assessing the Three Gorges project from a military perspective.

Experts have pointed out that the construction of the Three Gorges dam would threaten our national defense. Sichuan’s Political Consultative Conference Investigation Group stated:

If a war breaks out, the Three Gorges dam will inevitably become a primary target. Should the dam be destroyed, large cities in the lower and middle reaches would immediately be submerged, resulting in incalculable losses.3

Those who are for launching the project believe that:

There have always been threats of a modern war, and the dam has large gates at its base that could let the stored water out very quickly. At most it would take seven days to reduce the water level to that of flood-control level. Even if the dam were blown up, the rushing water would be constrained by the narrow valley (200 to 300 meters in width) of the Nanjinguan pass in the lower reaches. This could protect the cofferdam and the foundation of the dam and reduce the volume of flood water, thereby limiting land areas affected and preventing the disaster from involving the entire lower and middle reaches. Therefore, the threat of a flood disaster resulting from an attack should by no means be a deciding factor in the construction of the Three Gorges dam.4

I. The Threat of a “Modern War” and Possible Countermeasures

Generally, there are warnings of coming conflicts between countries, or between groups of countries. Such warnings might include military friction on the borders, deteriorating relations, concentration of troops, or theater confrontations, all of which normally require 10 days to one month of preparation. In this sense, the signs of war are obvious.

But future patterns of war may be entirely different. Politicians are faced with the sometimes conflicting goals of protecting state interests and the strategic interests of the region, and taking all possible means to avoid serious damage to the national economy through an all-out war. For these reasons, “surgical strikes,” or “single-target attacks” have become an increasingly popular strategy of modern warfare; examples include the long-distance surprise attack on the Libyan capital by the U.S. Air Force in 1985 and the two successful strikes by the Israeli Air Force against the Iraqi nuclear facility.5 In many of these cases, there is no forewarning at all. On the other hand, even if war is impending, it is very difficult to predict when it will take place, whether it will be a long- or short-range strike, and what the strategic or tactical targets might be.

In the face of war, the Three Gorges dam would place the military and politicians in a dilemma: If the water is left in the reservoir, a disaster of massive proportions could occur were an enemy to successfully bomb the dam; If, however, the water is let out of the reservoir, to mobilize for a possible attack, there would be serious economic consequences and the possibility that no attack would take place. In other words, it is possible that future enemies could use the threat of an attack to inflict serious economic consequences on the Chinese people. We shall discuss this point in detail later.

II. On the Assertion That Only Limited Disaster Would Result from a Collapse of the Dam

It is necessary to analyze the possible effects of a dam collapse to properly assess the project. In this area, there may be some differences between the analysis from a military point of view and that of the department in charge of water resource construction. While direct losses from disasters caused by the collapse of dams may appear restricted to the local environment, the indirect effects can be much more extensive. For example, while the bursting of the Huayuankou dam6 in 1938 did not prevent invading Japanese troops from driving southward, large areas of land all the way to Anhui province and the northern part of Jiangsu province were affected by the flooding waters. This flooding created serious political problems for the Nationalist government and gave Chiang Kai-shek the lasting stigma of “the historical criminal” who caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

In 1954, in order to control floods in the Jingjiang River, the diversion of flood water affected 19 million people, and resulted in the loss of more than 30,000 lives and the interruption of railway lines between Beijing and Guangdong for 100 days, even though every effort was made to limit the consequences of the disaster.

The Banqiao reservoir in Henan province, with only 490 million m3 of water storage, collapsed in 1975, submerging a city and four counties, killing more than 10,000 people, and suspending rail travel between Beijing and Guangdong for 18 days. According to military analysts, should the Gezhouba dam which stores 2.3 billion m3 of water burst, it would be catastrophic for the middle reaches along both banks of the Yangtze River within Hubei province. It would endanger the city of Wuhan and disrupt communications between Beijing and Guangdong for at least two months. So, if the Three Gorges dam with a 185-meter water level and a reservoir that stores 15.7 billion m3 of water bursts, the catastrophe would not simply be a “localized disaster.”

1. Impact of the Disaster-the Loss of Effective Strength

Central China is an important strategic area in war time and a very desirable place for stationing troops in peace time.

Within the three military regions of central China, there are 10 army groups, two armored divisions, 28 infantry divisions, and three divisions of paratroops. These forces represent 100 percent of the paratroop forces, 45 percent of the army troops, 38 percent of the infantry, and 20 percent of the armored divisions in China.

Should the dam burst, these troops would be subject to floods. Not only would the country’s defensive military strength be affected, but also its strategic striking forces, including such paramilitary forces as national defense research groups, reserve forces, scientific research groups studying national defense, iron and steel ordnance industries, and communication and transportation facilities. Such losses would be unbearable in a time of war.

2. Impact of the Disaster-the Cutting of Communication, Transportation and Energy Supplies

Military analysts argue that, should the Three Gorges dam burst, rail transportation between Beijing and Guangdong would be completely destroyed by flood waters, necessitating complete reconstruction.

Even if reserve forces were not seriously damaged, their mobility and flexibility would be substantially reduced by the suspension of travel between Beijing and Guangdong, the suspension of shipping on the Yangtze by the destruction of the shiplocks, the underdevelopment of the transportation system and the poorly designed system of railway lines, the lack of alternate routes on roadways, and inadequate air transportation. Under such conditions, reserve forces could not be transported to the southeast and the southwest.

If we assume, optimistically, that within seven days of a war alert the water level of the reservoir could be lowered to the warning level, a substantial reduction of the electricity supplied to central, east, and south China would result, causing the fast-turning wheels of economic preparation for war to be drastically slowed down. This, in turn, would reduce the war-sustaining capability of Chinese industrial enterprises. It must be emphasized, however, that the time between the launching and arrival of modern strategic weapons is not counted in days but in minutes and seconds, and the precision of their impact on target is between seven and 150 meters.

3. Impact of the Disaster-the Increase in the Tasks for Maintaining Internal Security

At first warning, there would be a reduced water level in the Three Gorges reservoir, an acute shortage of energy, and a strain on the supply of electricity for production and daily consumption; such processes would inevitably induce factors of instability both socially and psychologically. In order to maintain military production and social stability and mobilize reserve forces, strength would have to be diverted from the military forces to meet the above-mentioned internal needs.

4. Impact of the Disaster-the Competition for Equipment and Weapons

Should strategic reserve forces be insufficiently large or concentrated to meet the demands of war and the sustained economic shortages of wartime, we must consider the possibility of fighting a war within national boundaries. Although this is still far from having a place on today’s agenda, we must consider the following: the destruction of the Three Gorges dam would create in the center of the country a body of water with a surface area of tens of thousands of square kilometers, which would give rise to a serious new situation with considerable military consequences. Any military maneuvers would have to navigate around this body of water, thereby reducing mobility and increasing exposure to attack. The key to overcoming these difficulties lies in competitive equipment and sophisticated weapons. It would be very difficult for our troops to gain the upper hand in this area, even in the next century.

So the edge of the sword would be very sharp. The disaster caused by the collapse of the dam would not just be “a restrained flood in a narrow pass of 200 to 300 meters in the river valley,” but a total catastrophe.

After looking at the possible effects of disasters caused by the collapse of the dam in wartime, we shall now look at possible effects of the dam’s collapse on national defense in peacetime.

III. The Concepts of “The Degree of Safety” and “The Degree of Risk”

Since World War II, there have been tremendous changes and developments in the national defense policies of the United States and the Soviet Union and in their use of strategic deterrence to achieve their respective national interests. The formulation of a strategic starting point, in fact, reflects an assessment of national security interests in case of war. In actual practice, a state of security is sought by working out strategic objectives and carrying out strategic maneuvers, so as to contain or remove the dangers facing the nation.

In this sense, the Three Gorges project has not been adequately assessed in terms of national defense and the threat of war. And, yet, it is not only the war scenario described above that could lead to catastrophe. Many experts have noted the possibility of earthquakes being induced by such a large reservoir, and examples from both home and abroad abound.7 In addition, landslides caused by the reservoir could result in surging waves that could, in turn, threaten the security of other reservoir dams. The landslides that occurred after completion of the Gezhouba dam, and the recent collapse of the Yanziyan cliff at the Three Gorges, clearly demonstrate the seriousness of these threats. Satellite photos have shown tangible movement of a huge body of rock on the Yushan slope on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Should this rock fall on the dam, severe damage would occur.

Unquestionably, there exist many potentially dangerous factors, many of which have yet to be recognized. Here “Murphy’s law” may well apply: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” The tragedy of the U.S. Challenger space shuttle is a case in point. In life, some of the probabilities of danger can be calculated, allowing us to think in terms of the degree of risk. In fact, such calculations regulate all production and all of the activities in our lives. In order to reduce the degree of risk, it is necessary to invest heavily in preventive measures or “lightning rods.”

IV. “A Lightning Rod” for National Defense

Should the Three Gorges reservoir be built, an enormous basin of water would be created, threatening people and property along the middle reaches. In 1984, when floods threatened, newspapers warned that there were two huge basins of water, the Guanting and Miyun reservoirs, above the city of Beijing. This resulted in the construction of large-scale dikes and embankments as a preventive measure against possible floods. Even if the geological structure of the Three Gorges reservoir were sound, there would still be a need for “lightning rods.”

In terms of national defense, this would include the following measures:

1. In order to limit the possible losses of troops and equipment caused by a dam collapse, military reserve forces would have to be redeployed. In case of war or a flood disaster, consideration would have to be given to dividing the reserve forces into two bodies, one in the north and the other in the south, so as to make it possible for troops to move quickly in either direction, should the need arise.
2. It would be necessary to arrange troops in accordance with new points of military importance. After the construction of the dam, the Yangtze River would be divided into two navigation parts: the first extending from the upper reaches to the middle reaches; and the second from there to the lower reaches. Given the country’s expected economic development, the shiplocks at the dam would eventually serve as a crucial link in the communication chains between the north and south and east and west, making them no less important than Wuhan at the very center of China. In order to guarantee the safety of this important link, extensive military forces and weapons would have to be stationed at the shiplocks in order to protect them.
3. New military installations and equipment are needed for this purpose, which would have to include strategies for dealing with such a large surface of water.
4. To deploy long-range conventional offensive weapons of high precision and enhance the capacity of such weapons to penetrate the enemy defense, a strong deterrence must be formulated.
5. An advance-warning system must be established to shorten the time lag and increase the capacity to sustain a first strike.

In order to guarantee national survival and reduce the threat of, or remove, “the sword of Damocles,” the above-mentioned military developments must be carried out simultaneously with the construction of the Three Gorges project. This would call for a short-term concentrated investment of at least Y10 billion, which has never been included in project budget estimates. Obviously, it is an enormously large investment that is beyond the capabilities of our national economy.

Some people, who do not recognize the threat, claim that “within 25 to 50 years” world wars will not be possible. We must ask two questions of them:
First, does this justify the construction of a project costing dozens of billions of yuan that will last only 50 years?

Second, did anyone know when the Vietnamese troops successfully took over Saigon in 1975, that only four years later a war between Chinese and Vietnamese troops would break out?

History has taught that the highest principle of a country should always be national interest, never morality.

Now, let’s take a detour into an imaginary scenario to illustrate some of these points. Assume the Three Gorges project has been built and it is now the year 2040, 50 years from today. The 185-meter dam is standing proudly and gloriously in central China. The dam is providing the power needed to promote the rapid acceleration of economic development along the crescent-shaped coastal areas of our motherland. Since China is a country with 1.3 billion people with the fewest resources per capita in the world, it is extremely important to our resource development.

Then, a small-scale conflict develops with Country A over disputed islands along the coast of the continental-shelf.8 As the conflict worsens, our navy gains the upper hand, and having successfully brought the disputed islands under control, prepares for their exploration and development. Country A, however, gains regional support and threatens to escalate the conflict. National pride, the islands’ valuable resources, and population and labor problems at home all lead China to maintain her position in this conflict. Those Chinese calling for a soft approach to the conflict are quickly overwhelmed by the cry of the majority for a hard line to be maintained.

On December 22, 2040 (the anniversary of Reagan’s threat against Libya), the chief of the general staff of Country C, which has been allied by Country A, informs Country A that it is seriously considering a conventional surprise attack against China’s Three Gorges dam. The military situation continues to intensify, bringing about the largest “designated deterrence” in the history of modern warfare. The war alerts sound!

Within ten days, just after January 1, 2041, the water in the reservoir is lowered to the flood-control level. A large number of enterprises and factories in central, southern and eastern China are now operating below capacity as a result of the drastic reduction in the electrical supply and the shortage of resources. Shipping capacity on the upper reaches of the Yangtze has also been drastically reduced. The hectic mobilization of troops puts additional pressure on already strained transportation facilities. The supply of daily necessities to citizens is short, and an uneasy feeling is spreading among the people.

Within this very tense environment, the Chinese, first in Yichang, then in the Jingjiang, Hanjiang, and Xiangjiang river basins, begin a disorganized emigration in the hope of avoiding probable disaster. The short supply of electricity, food, and grain enhances spreading anxiety and moves the whole country into a state of semi-paralysis.

Facing increasing political and civil pressure, politicians and military leaders begin heated and tense discussions in an attempt to work out a policy able to deal with the situation. Assuming that the war will not escalate from conventional to nuclear weapons, the best choice is reciprocal deterrence. But since the needed corresponding long-range conventional offensive weapons are not available, and since there is no target as important as the Three Gorges dam in either of Countries C or A, what can be done?

As time passes, China tries to stabilize the situation by strengthening the organization and administration of the state machinery, by making the maximum possible use of the available resources, and by using all possible international means to save the national pride and reduce tension at home.

In the fall of 2041, country B is about to mediate between the two antagonistic parties, the reservoir is starting to store its water again, and the situation at home seems to be returning to normal; but then, the president of Country C once again threatens to strike the dam.

The impact, once again, is very powerful. In the face of this turbulence, an editorial appears in the Central China Times describing “an enormously burdensome construction project, costing several dozens of billions of yuan left to us by our predecessors 50 years ago.”

From the point of view of national defense, the Three Gorges dam, which will cost more than Y30 billion to construct, is a sword which is not in our hand. Just like a double-edged sword, the water resources could be of benefit but could also cause serious disasters: we might use one side of the sword to blaze new trails while at the same time, the other edge might sever the life artery of our nation, including the process of our national development. At the very least, we will have squandered several dozens of billions of yuan to create a strategic target that could not be bought back from our enemies with a ransom of several hundreds of billions of yuan!

Both Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Chairman Mao Zedong have favored this project.

The Three Gorges project might be a sword that cuts at the heart of the Chinese nation. Soldiers, whether generals or young staff officers, are all very concerned. In interviews with them, I was surprised to find that, except for some perfunctory questions, no adequate and systematic assessment has ever been undertaken concerning the impact of war on the project, its effects on national defense and other questions that have an important bearing on the security of the entire nation.

One old general, who during the Korean War commanded troops to defend dams from attack and took charge of disaster relief work, told me: “Why has no one asked us about such an important issue?”

A young officer in charge of large-scale military construction, who has contributed many valuable ideas in his field, commented: “You are the first one to come and ask me about this.”

In fact, as early as 1986, some experts argued that war was the key factor that should determine whether to build the Three Gorges project. But no commanders, army generals, strategic or information analysts, general staff, chiefs of the general staff or other military personnel participated in the leading group’s recently concluded assessment, although there were 412 experts. Although 14 specific subjects of scientific inquiry were assessed, none dealt with military and national defense! This must be regarded as a grave and regrettable defect!

Luckily enough, the high dam we are talking about is only on paper, and so is the envisaged sword.

According to an old Chinese saying: “When engaging troops in combat, one must consider all possible dangers.” The highest principle in military action is to prevent and remove as many dangers as possible. If there is a real need to build the reservoir-“the Sword”-then please do not forget the soldiers who must protect it!

Damocles, a courtier of ancient Syracuse, sat at a banquet beneath a sword suspended only by a single hair. Danger is impending overhead. Are we going to make a sword that will hang over the heads of future generations for decades to come?


Sources and Further Commentary

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

2Yang Lang is deputy director of the Department of Domestic Political Affairs, China Youth News. He expresses gratitude for the assistance provided by General Tan Shanhe, General Xi Guangyi, Lieutenant-Colonel Wang Xiaojiang, Captain Qi Changming, and Captain Wang Jiang. Notes 3 and 4 were written by the author

3Science News, 14 June 1986.

4People’s Daily, overseas ed., 28 November 1988.

5The hi-tech nature of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which was closely observed in China, can only heighten such concerns.

6In June, 1938, the Nationalist army blew up the flood-control walls in the Huayuankou section of the Yellow River, north of Zhengzhou, in an attempt to prevent Japanese invaders from attacking the city of Zhengzhou, therefore endangering Wuhan, the headquarters of the Nationalist government. Three thousand square kilometers of farmland in Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces were inundated by the flood, tens of thousands of people were drowned and many became homeless. Despite this, the Japanese army stepped up its attack along the Yangtze and took over Wuhan on October 25, 1938.

7The Koyna dam in India initiated an earthquake that registered approximately 6.5 on the Richter scale. The earthquake occurred in an area that had not been seismically active, killing 200 people and rocking Bombay.

8Possibly a reference to China’s ongoing conflict with Vietnam over the Spratley islands in the South China sea.

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