Dams and Landslides

Chapter 28

(May 31, 1994)



by Dai Qing

Though 70 years old, Qian Zhengying distinguishes herself as the leader of the pro-dam faction for the Three Gorges project. But even this may not adequately describe her role. For the past few decades, she has been the key leader in mainland China’s water-engineering programs.

Beginning with responsibility for East China’s water resources, Qian quickly made her way to Beijing in order to assume the office of vice-minister and then minister of water resources and electric power. Finally, she obtained the seemingly less prominent yet crucial position of chief of the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. Despite strong opposition and suspicion from the National People’s Congress (NPC), she pursued every possible means to have the resolution on launching the project passed. When the executive body for the implementation of this resolution, the Commission for Construction of the Three Gorges Project of the State Council, was established, again we found her there acting as its “advisor.” She has been a relentless advocate for the earliest possible start, and the grandest possible dam on the Yangtze. She is the pro-dam faction’s spiritual leader.

Like many Communist Party officials who have reached retirement age and have had to step down, Madam Qian is a member and vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The CPPCC has changed considerably from its founding session in the summer of 1949. That first session was attended by Chairman Mao Zedong and vice-chairmen Zhou Enlai, and Li Jishen, but those days are just a memory. The present-day CPPCC has no real power and no longer makes laws. It is an organization heavily influenced by Party patronage, established to unite the democratic parties and overseas Chinese, and assist the Party. Nevertheless, an increasing number of communist cadres continue to compete for CPPCC positions. Qian did not want to miss such an opportunity. By the time she was to retire as minister of water resources and electric power at age 65, she had already made a deal with the late CPPCC chairman, Li Xiannian, to become one of its vice-chairmen.

Qian joined the CPPCC in 1988 as an expert in water engineering but, ironically, was assigned the portfolios of medicine, public health, and sports. Important as these are, she has done little in these fields. She has devoted her energy to her earlier passion, the Three Gorges project, and has determined that this project is going to be the prime focus of her entire life. To her critics, she continues to be a witty and quixotic opponent.

In 1983, Li Rui asked her: “Shall we talk, once again, about the Three Gorges?”

“On that matter,” she replied, “I’m prepared to be thrown into prison even at age 70!”2

Her latest remarks, hollow as they are, are stern as ever. When her own children asked her:

What is the point of all that you’re doing? Look at the number of projects you’ve built; do you not think you have done enough? Why must you leave behind one final project, which might sully your name? Once you fail at the Three Gorges, you might even be beheaded.3

She replied, “If I am kept from damming the Three Gorges, I will not rest even in death!”4

Recently, she has become even more vigorous. At a meeting in 1993, she once said, with a victorious smile on her face: “Why does the opposition still refuse to surrender?”

In response, Zhou Peiyuan said: “Because we are concerned, we can’t rest assured.” Li Rui said: “Facing danger, how can one fail to speak out?” Lu Qinkan continues to warn that “the most important thing for flood control on the Yangtze is strengthening the dikes and developing flood diversion zones.” Huang Wanli, Tian Fang and Lin Fatang write one letter after another to the state authorities, calling on them to reconsider the launch of the project. Sun Yueqi, who is more than 100 years old, can only share his past experiences with the occasional younger visitor. Every Chinese citizen is entitled to add his or her opinion to the Three Gorges debate. It is a project to be built with their money and on their land, so why should they not voice their opinion?

Qian’s role model, Mao Zedong, once said: “Crush the enemy who refuses to surrender.” But it is also part of Chinese culture to “surrender to reason, not power.”
Here, for Qian, are some questions for which we who do not have official titles yearn to know more about:5

I. The Assessment Report

1. According to an article published in the Literary Gazette on March 17, 1992, entitled “How Has the Three Gorges Project Been Worked Out-an Interview with Qian Zhengying” you stated in 1986, “I did not expect that I would be chosen to head this fresh round of feasibility studies (the leading group’s assessment).” I am surprised. Those of us who are concerned with the Three Gorges remember how hard you lobbied Song Jian, head of the State Science and Technology Commission, for the position. You did this even though the State Council had already given control of the assessment to the State Science and Technology Commission and the State Planning Commission. When you spoke to the journalist, had you forgotten your earlier lobbying efforts-or were you trying to evade responsibility should the project fail?

2. When you became head of the leading group in 1986, you filled all of the leading positions with dam supporters. All of them were ministers or vice-ministers, chief engineers or deputy chief engineers of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, officials from the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO) or the Preparatory Office of the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation.
No access to leadership positions was provided for government officials in charge of transportation, geology and seismology, environment, electrical equipment or public finance. Most of the 412 experts involved in the assessment were under the control of officials from the ministry. Thus, the majority of experts had no chance to air their views in sessions that examined the subject reports and the conclusion of the assessment report. Those meetings were limited to only the leading group members, leaders and deputy leaders of the experts’ groups, and their advisors.
Was this leadership structure not a product of the ministry’s monopoly, for which you should be held responsible? How, under such circumstances, could the assessment report meet the requirements of the joint document issued by the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council in 1986-that the report, “in the spirit of technological democracy, should enable sufficient discussion for experts with diverse views, in order to base its conclusions on scientific grounds”?

3. During the months prior to the 1992 NPC examination of the project, many experts submitted their opinions to the media. When these opinions were then submitted to the ministry, why did its officials censor those views which opposed the project and permit only those in support of the project to be released? During the NPC session, why did the ministry issue only its own propaganda material to the delegates, and not the criticisms raised both within and outside of the assessment? Was the principle of “letting one hundred schools of thought contend” put into practice? Were the NPC delegates allowed to “derive wisdom from diverse views?”6 Can this kind of decision making be in any way called democratic or scientific?

II. Flood Control

1. During your interview with the Literary Gazette, you said “the number one task” of the Three Gorges project was “flood control on the Yangtze.” May I ask what you meant by the Yangtze? Did you mean only its middle reaches or the entire Yangtze valley? I assume that you, once the minister of water resources and electric power, still remember the 1981 floods in Sichuan. After the dam’s completion, the Three Gorges will raise the water level upstream. How then can the project not place Sichuan under even more serious threat of flood? Nor should you have forgotten the flood that hit Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhejiang provinces in 1991. Will the Three Gorges project in any way curb floods due to flooding of the Yangtze’s downstream tributaries?

2. The project, once built, will control only 20 percent of the Yangtze’s yearly flow. Will it be able to guarantee flood control in the river’s middle reaches, namely at Hunan and Hubei provinces? The Yangtze’s 1954 flood swept over 47.55 million mu of farmland, but the project, as you said, will protect only 1.77 to 3.27 million mu of farmland from the threat of flood. Is this all that will be protected from a 100-year flood?

3. Even an extremely large-scale flood, such as the one in 1870, did not breach the Jingjiang River dikes. Since the dikes have been reinforced many times since then, why do you allege that “once such a flood occurs, it is likely to burst out of the dikes on both banks of the Yangtze and kill 100,000 people”? The threat of a catastrophic flood has been the crucial point in your argument for damming the Three Gorges. Why have you not mentioned that, if built as designed, the dam will raise the flood level at Chongqing to more than 200 meters, which is two to four meters higher than the level reached during the 1870 flood? Must the Yangtze’s upper reaches make such a sacrifice for the sake of the middle reaches?

III. Sedimentation

1. How knowledgeable are you about the Yangtze’s sediment content? Are the river beds of the upstream tributaries mainly gravel and sand or, like that of the Yellow River, mainly mud? If it is gravel and sand, does it change its formations? If so, under what conditions, and driven by what force? Is this movement in any way measurable?7 The estimates of sediment build-up in the future Three Gorges reservoir are based on a simulation test assuming that the river bed, contrary to fact, never moves. Was this test designed by fools, or was it designed to fool others?

2. The Yangtze is recognized as having the fourth-largest sediment content of any river on earth. This fact is acknowledged in the report of the Experts’ Group on Hydrology: “Due to rampant deforestation and destruction of vegetation, land reclamation, road building and development of the mining industry, soil erosion has increased over the past few decades to an extremely serious point.” Yet how could this statement be followed by the conclusion that the Yangtze “shows no sign of increasing sediment content”? Can anyone be convinced by this logic? Dare you be convinced by it?

3. I assume that you are aware, Qian, that roughly 20 percent of the reservoirs built in China in the past 40 years have now become totally silted up. There has been no mention, so far, of how long the Three Gorges reservoir will last. Do you believe that a reservoir can accommodate an unlimited amount of sediment within a limited area? Do you have plans for removing the sediment build-up in the area near Chongqing? Surely, maintenance of the Chongqing harbor reach and flood control in Sichuan are important. Why then do you not treat them as such? As for the possibility that the middle reaches of the Yangtze would become choked with sediment, your only response up to now has been: “Haven’t I told you many times that the coming generations are bound to have greater intelligence than we do? Let’s trust their ability to solve their problems.” What a sense of responsibility!

4. On how to operate the reservoir: A method has been proposed to slow down the sedimentation of the reservoir, namely “storing the clear water and flushing out the muddy.” In practice, sediment flushing is accomplished by releasing large volumes of water-thereby lowering the reservoir’s pool level-during the Yangtze’s flood season, from June to September. But how can flushing sediment through the dam prevent the on-going sedimentation of Dongting Lake-a problem that has drawn your particular concern? Moreover, if the reservoir’s water level is being lowered during the flood season, how can it fulfill its flood-control function of storing flood waters? And how can you possibly flush out the sediment that builds up towards the end of a reservoir that will extend for hundreds of kilometers?

To “store the clear water and flush out the muddy” is not a new approach. It has been applied to the Liujiaxia, Yanguoxia, and Qinglongxia gorges and its failure has compromised all of the projects’ objectives-electricity generation, navigation, irrigation, and flood control. Will the objectives of the Three Gorges project also be compromised? If so, will the project have any purpose at all? Even by sacrificing all of the project’s objectives, you still cannot guarantee the success of the sediment-flushing method.

IV. Navigation

It is claimed that the Three Gorges project will enable 50 million tonnes of goods per year to be carried to Chongqing on 10,000-tonne cargo ships. This was preached to Deng Xiaoping as one of the “four greatest advantages” of the project and, as rumor has it, was the most important reason for his support.

1. Do you know of a high-sediment river, anywhere in the world, which has remained navigable after being dammed? At the Hoover dam on the Colorado River, and the Aswan dam on the Nile, navigation has been possible only within the reservoir zone. The Mississippi is also a large, navigable river, but it is dammed only on its upstream. The Danube, the Rhine and the Volga have strong flows and light sediment content, but none has been dammed on its main course. Is this because foreigners have no interest in exploiting their water resources, or because they refuse to believe that a river not dammed is a waste of energy?

2. The Hanjiang River, one of the tributaries of the Yangtze, was once a navigable river. However, since the Danjiangkou reservoir was built under your leadership it no longer is. Within the reservoir’s backwater zone, the original navigation channel has been altered and tends to even disappear, while the new channel, frequently interrupted by rapids, is not suitable for navigation. The broad river course has been filled with solid sediment banks and build-up, causing numerous shipping accidents. Zhou Enlai said in 1971: “The Yangtze is too important a waterway to permit anything to go wrong. If navigation is interrupted, then the dam has to be blown up. That would be a great crime.” I wish his words still rang in your ears.

3. In a low-flow year, the Yangtze can carry 10 million tonnes of goods. But according to the Yangtze Navigation Administration, dredging the river course would allow for the annual transportation of 18 million tonnes of goods per year between now and 2000. By 2015, the amount would increase to 30 million tonnes per year. By 2030, with the help of efforts to coordinate water storage in the upstream reservoirs, it might reach 50 million tonnes per year, which is the navigation target set for the Three Gorges project. This three-stage construction would require a total investment of Y3.34 billion. As you know, Qian, this is not even one-tenth of the budget for the Three Gorges project.

4. The Yangtze, once dammed at the Three Gorges, would still be hard pressed to accommodate the transportation of 50 million tonnes of goods per year. It would require the year-round operation of large ships (20 percent of them with 3,000-tonne capacity, and 80 percent with 10,000-tonne capacity), and no interruptions due to undesirable navigation conditions. Madam Qian, is this realistic? Besides, how well will the five-stage shiplocks function? Will their highly sophisticated design facilitate navigation after all? Dam advocates have never mentioned the limitations of the locks; for instance whether they will be able to work continuously, whether they will help avoid accidents and what maintenance they will require. Not to mention the limitations imposed by construction lasting up to 20 years. Given this, I wonder: is the lofty goal of having 10,000-tonne cargo ships arrive in Chongqing just a propaganda ploy?

V. Electric Power Generation

1. For the past 50 years, power generation has been a main consideration for those who support the earliest possible start-up and grandest possible design for the Three Gorges project. Not only does the Yangtze have abundant water resources, but central and south China have serious shortages of power. However, it will take at least a decade before the Three Gorges begins to supply power. China’s economic development, as you know, cannot afford to wait that long. Various provinces on the coast are now negotiating joint development projects requiring less resettlement and consisting of small and medium-sized hydro power stations on the tributaries of the Yangtze, and down the Lancang River valley. Describing the Three Gorges project as “indispensable” is simply not true, is it?

2. The estimated installed capacity for the project is 17.68 million kW, while its firm capacity is 4.99 million kW. Is this not a waste? In order to provide enough water to keep the power plant working during the dry season, the flow from the Three Gorges to the Gezhouba dam will have to be frequently adjusted, affecting navigation on the golden waterway. Does such low-efficiency power generation constitute a worthwhile project?

VI. Resettlement

1. Of the many large reservoirs built outside of China, none has required the resettlement of more than 120,000 people. In China, by contrast, there are three reservoirs that have each involved the resettlement of more than 300,000 people, and all have created a series of lingering problems. According to the project design for the Three Gorges dam, one million people will have to be relocated, and their resettlement alone will consume nearly one-third of the project’s entire budget. Is this a rational design?

2. How many people will be resettled by the current plan for a dam with a 175-meter normal pool level? The project’s original plan, which called for it to be launched in 1989 and completed in 2008, would have relocated an estimated 1.13 million people. Now that both the launching and completion dates have been postponed, and the population continues to grow, how many additional people will need to be relocated? Because the dam will be 185 meters high, it is estimated that another 200,000 people will have to be moved from their homes in order to achieve “overstorage.”8 A few years later, when sediment builds up in the river bed, more people will be threatened by the new flood level, and will have to be moved. Taking all of these factors into account, how could the Three Gorges resettlement plan involve only 1.13 million?

3. According to the figures you provide, the total resettlement budget will be Y18.5 billion, or Y16,000 per person. Assuming there is no embezzlement or waste during the process (a highly unlikely assumption), the budget will still be drastically affected by newly increased costs for resettlement compensation, new compensation standards, and inflation. China’s average rate for resettlement compensation in reservoir construction increased 40 percent from 1984 to 1988, to at least Y20,000 per person (compensation in the building of the Ertan reservoir on the upstream of the Jinsha River was Y36,000 per person in 1990). May I ask you, Qian, how Y18.5 billion will be sufficient to allow the resettled population from the Three Gorges project, more than half of whom are urban residents, to maintain at least the same living standard? If the resettlement plan is allowed to go ahead despite its insufficient budget, how can you guarantee that it will not give rise to any major economic and political problems?

4. During the past 40 years, while your career advanced, more than 10 million Chinese citizens were relocated to make way for water-engineering projects, bearing untold suffering. How could you have the conscience to remove more than one million people for the building of a single dam? I doubt that the Chinese people will accept your orders as readily today as they have in the past.

VII. Budget

1. The capital requirements for the Three Gorges project are calculated according to a method which ignores factors such as the interest on bank loans and inflation. This is called “static investment.” No other long-term construction projects in the world leave these costs unaccounted for. I am told that you have had these additional costs estimated and that they significantly increased the total cost of the project. Why, then, did you fail to inform the NPC of this estimate?

2. The state budget is the main source of investment for the Three Gorges project. In fact, it is the main source of funding for all dams in China. This, however, can no longer be the case now that, since its Fourteenth National Congress in 1992, the Chinese Communist Party has embraced the market economy. I am curious to know whether you, as a veteran communist, will prove your dedication to the Party’s new cause by reevaluating your project in light of the new concepts of the market economy, or whether you will maintain your old ways of doing things. It seems that, by boasting about a “double celebration in 1997,” you are trying to pressure the state financial authorities for money in the name of a political slogan. Will this not undermine the entire economy’s transition?

3. Dam supporters claim that a major source of investment for the Three Gorges project will come from revenues generated by the sale of electricity from the Gezhouba dam. In other words, the Gezhouba dam is to turn its revenues over to the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation. May I ask, first of all, how the Gezhouba dam, whose construction lasted 18 years, will be able to pay back its Y4.80 billion in static investment (actually well over Y10 billion dynamic investment)? Secondly, will this policy be applied to other rivers? In other words, will existing power plants turn their profits over for the construction of new power plants on the same rivers? It is also argued that once the Three Gorges power station begins commercial electricity generation, its revenue would be immediately reinvested into the project. But as the Ministry of Finance argued during the project’s assessment, there are no provisions in the state financial administration for a project to use its own revenue-whether before or after paying back state loans. Is the Three Gorges project so important for China that it can ignore the country’s financial authority?

4. It is also proposed that the charge for electricity use will be increased and the revenue generated will be set aside for the dam at the Three Gorges. This charge will be collected from areas whether they benefit from the project or are victimized by it, and from individuals whether they support or oppose the project. The revenue generated cannot be considered a loan; it is a national levy. Will such a levy help stabilize China’s economy?

5. The Three Gorges project ranks first among large development projects in terms of its hidden costs and its potential for exacting follow-up investment. Its aggregate investment was said to be Y36 billion in 1988 and Y57 billion9 in 1990. But the latest figure for static investment has soared to Y75 billion. Based on this latest figure, projections of the project’s real cost or dynamic investment now total Y220 billion, even with inflation and interest rates at their lowest possible levels. Yet, will this be enough for your financial appetite? I seriously doubt it. At a time when nothing could be more valuable to China’s economy than its sustained development, how much benefit will come from this overinvestment in the Three Gorges project?

VIII. Environment

1. According to the “Report on the Environmental Impact of the Three Gorges Project” by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, “after systematic evaluation comparing all the advantages and disadvantages, we find that the potential hazards of the Three Gorges project still appear to outweigh its possible benefits.” What is your opinion of this conclusion, from an authoritative organization that does not stand to benefit from the project? Why try so hard to have a dam built, despite warnings from the nation’s environmental scientists? Has it ever occurred to you that the days in which the construction of a megaproject could justify the destruction of nature have passed? Look at the precautions the World Bank, which you used to regard as a prospective money lender, has taken against financing projects likely to cause environmental problems.

2. The Three Gorges has been overexploited. How can its environment accommodate the relocation of so many people to the hills on the sides of the gorges? Are you and your colleagues aware that it is against the law to reclaim land on a slope steeper than 25 degrees? Are you prepared to bear responsibility for devastating soil erosion in this area?

3. I know of no measures to maintain the quality of drinking water in the proposed reservoir area. Will water quality be affected by ongoing pollution along the river, the submergence of abandoned mines, and the fishing industry in the reservoir? Why, on an issue that is so important to the livelihoods of millions of people, have no actions or plans ever been taken to address this issue?

4. As designed, the main body of the dam will be able to resist an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, indicating that the reservoir may indeed cause earthquakes. What about the residents in the reservoir area? Have any earthquake-resistance standards been set for their houses and public structures? Are there any precautions to protect against landslides which will accompany the earthquakes?
Finally, I would like to ask Vice-Chairman Qian: How long do you feel the reservoir will last-100 years, 80 years, 60 years, or 30 years? If it will last no more than a dozen years, how will it be able to provide flood control during a 1,000-year or 100-year flood? How, under such circumstances, will 10,000-tonne cargo ships be able to continue to reach the Chongqing harbor? How much electricity will the power station be able to generate? And when the reservoir is silted up, as has occurred at the Sanmenxia Gorge, what is China supposed to do-reconstruct the dam or dredge the reservoir? Where will the debris and sediment be disposed of?

The Yangtze River has nurtured Chinese civilization for thousands of years. It cannot afford any disturbance from conceited, clever, and powerful individuals. Is it by sheer luck that no one has yet destroyed it? If there is such a destroyer, I suspect, it may be you, Vice-Chairman Qian. You seem to have the ambition to leave such a God-forbidden personal mark on history. Please, think again.

Sources and Further Commentary

1This essay, written in February, 1993, was not included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze! Notes 2 through 4 were prepared by the author, Dai Qing.

2 See Li Rui, “Cancel the Three Gorges Project,” January 1992. Here Qian used the Communist Party’s love and protection of its cadres. Though China’s criminal code does contain penalties for dereliction of duty, bureaucrats are never penalized for squandering public funds when they do so with brimming revolutionary passion. Thus her remark is not surprising. For Madam Qian’s most vociferous defense of the Three Gorges project, see the speech by Qian Zhengying at the Meeting of Ministerial Level Cadres, 23 January 1979

3See Chen Kexiong, “The True Story of the Three Gorges Project,” Literary Gazette, 17 March 1992.

4Remark made to National People’s Congress staff members at Beidaihe during the summer of 1992.

5Chinese leaders are generally inaccessible to journalists who challenge government policy. The format of this chapter and the following questions show dam opponents’ frustration with official silence.

6A Chinese proverb

7For more on this topic see Chapter 15

8 Storage of water in excess of the normal pool level.

9See Appendix E


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