Dams and Landslides

Chapter 5

(May 31, 1994)


Written Statement Submitted to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party by Ten Members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference1

by Sun Yueqi, Lin Hua, Wang Xingrang, Xu Guangyi, Qiao Peixin, Chen Mingshao, Luo Xibei, Yan Xinghua, Zhao Weigang, Lu Qinkan

The Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges project, led by the former Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, convened its ninth expanded meeting in late November, 1988. The discussion concentrated on reports concerning the two following subjects: “Overall Planning and the Water Level” and “A Comprehensive Economic Evaluation.” After consultations between the Economic Construction Group of the Three Gorges project under the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and the Leading Group For the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project, nine of us who are members of the CPPCC were invited to the meeting. Sun Yueqi was represented by Lu Qinkan. After listening to the reports and reading all the relevant documents, we put forward our comments and suggestions as summarized in the following:

I. It Is More Advisable to Delay Construction of the Project

1. Considering the national economy and the principles and present tasks of the Party, it would be inappropriate to launch the Three Gorges project soon. The third session of the Thirteenth Party Congress (September-October, 1987) recently made an overall analysis of our current economic situation and set forth principles to bring our economic situation under control so as to further economic reform. In order to curb inflation and growing demands for investment funds, capital construction must be drastically reduced.2 Faced with such a situation and task, we believe that an early launching of this extremely large-scale project is by no means appropriate, for it involves many complicated problems, will take a long period to complete, and will be very slow to produce results.

According to the strategy of national and economic planning laid down by Thirteenth Party Congress, it is of paramount importance at the present stage to effectively quadruple the gross national product and raise the living standard of the people to that of a well-off society by the end of this century. As far as this grand project is concerned, even if everything goes as planned, it will be another 12 years before electricity is generated, and another 20 before the project is complete. The early launching of this project will result in tremendous inputs but no outputs in this century. Moreover, it will not help realize strategic objectives, but will divert necessary resources and materials-which are perpetually in acute shortage-from other smaller-scale projects that would produce quicker economic results. It would be more appropriate for us to postpone the Three Gorges project until we have built a much stronger economic base and acquired more advanced technology.

2. The funds required for investing in the project far exceed the capacity of our national economy. The static investment of Y36.1 billion proposed by the assessment report is woefully inadequate. The estimated investment was based on 1986 prices, but 1987 and 1988 showed considerable price increases. Also, the overall investment failed to include the following: 1) the Y0.003 which will be retained from each kWh (amounting to Y250 million)3 to form the “Construction Fund for the Reservoir Area”; 2) expenses for further relocation of the residents as a result of rising water levels caused by the accumulation of sediment in the reservoir; and 3) expenses to dredge the navigation route around the end of the reservoir. In view of all these facts, the actual static investment needed is far larger than Y36.1 billion.

According to the financial assessment conducted by the leading group, profits from the electricity generated by the Gezhouba dam and the future Three Gorges hydro-electric power station account for about 50 to 65 percent of the total investment forecast for the project, not including interest charges. But the Ministry of Finance indicated that the State Council approved the financing of the project with the profits generated by the Gezhouba dam, but not with the future profits from the Three Gorges project. The above-mentioned assessment was conducted in such a way that it could hardly convince anyone of the project’s financial feasibility.4

Although some attention has been given to the possible increase in prices and interest charges, the Y93.45 billion proposed in the assessment report as a dynamic investment still seems insufficient. Based on calculations by the Construction Bank, the amount required for dynamic investment should be somewhere between Y200 billion and Y500 billion.

Is it really possible for our national economy to finance such a huge investment? The leading group’s assessment report compared estimated GNP and national income figures with the estimated investment for the Three Gorges project over the next 20 years. Because the project represented only an infinitesimally small portion of the GNP and national income, the assessment report concluded that construction was feasible. But this is not an appropriate method of calculation. It is even less advisable to try to convince people of the capacity of our national economy to sustain such a project by comparing the investments in the Itaipu hydro-electric power station5 with national incomes of Brazil and Paraguay in the corresponding years.

According to a report in the June 1, 1988, Internal Bulletin on International Affairs:6

In order to maintain a 10 percent rate of economic growth, Brazil’s military government launched quite a number of large-scale public projects, with the investment for the Itaipu hydro-electric power station alone absorbing US$18 billion. Faced with a serious shortage of funds and resources, the country has had to take out foreign loans and credits to complete these large-scale projects, which drove Brazil to the edge of an abyss of hyper-inflation. The inflation rate in 1980 reached three digits at 110.2 percent. The rate in 1984 was 223.8 percent and reached 365.95 percent in 1987.

The major task in the coming two to five years is to bring under control and consolidate our national economy, a process which in itself will involve numerous difficulties. If we rush into the construction of the Three Gorges project, which is 40 percent larger than that of the Itaipu hydro-electric power station, it is very likely that it will induce additional rounds of overheated investments. For this reason, one has to be very cautious.

3. Some intractable problems concerning the Three Gorges project.

a. Sedimentation: The Yangtze River is the fourth-largest river in the world and carries substantial volumes of sediment. As it stores flood waters, the Three Gorges reservoir would block the moving sediment and cause it to pile up on the river bed. Ever-growing heaps of sediment around the end of the reservoir might affect the navigability of the waterways, raise the water level and increase flooding at Chongqing, and worsen flood disasters in Sichuan province.

b. Population Relocation: The plan for a 175-meter high water level for normal storage conditions would involve relocating 1.13 million people by the year 2008. If the problem of sedimentation is also considered, the relocated population would increase by 300,000 after the reservoir had been on line for 20 years and would further increase by 500,000 in 50 years’ time. By then, the aggregate number of people resettled would reach 1.4 to 1.6 million or more, most of whom would be resettled in Sichuan province. Then, the area around the reservoir would face serious food shortages because of overpopulation. With the construction of the reservoir, 430,000 mu7 of arable land would be submerged, with thirteen cities and 657 factories relocated to nearby hills where reclamation must be carried out for resettlement. All this would far exceed the tolerance of the environment. Moreover, the relocation of several million people could provoke serious social problems. As Comrade Qian Zhengying said in 1985: “Population relocation is a key problem of both economic and political importance.”

c. Technical Issues: The structures for ship passage at the Three Gorges dam would employ five consecutive levels of shiplocks, with the first of the five having to adapt to the tremendous changes of water levels in the reservoir. Both the size of the passage gate (34 meters in width, 38 to 42 meters in height) and the water input valve (50 meters in diameter) would exceed all present international standards. Besides, if any one of the five shiplocks were to become inoperable, all navigation would be disrupted, a problem of great concern to the Department of Shipping. The shiplift for lifting 11,500 tonnes up 113 meters would also break the world’s record. Compared with the largest one in the world (in Belgium) the shiplift at the Three Gorges would have to be 30 percent more powerful in terms of lifting tonnage, and 55 percent higher in lifting height. In China the largest installed shiplift in the mouth of the Danjiang River (Danjiangkou) has a vertical carrying capacity of 450 tonnes and is 50 meters in height, far below the requirements of the Three Gorges project. Are we, with our present technology, able to build such a large-scale shiplift? It would be more appropriate to first conduct some experiments at existing hydro-electric power stations.

d. Environmental Effects: At the November, 1988, ninth expanded meeting of the leading group, Ma Shijun, chairman of the Experts’ Group on Ecology and Environment and a member of the Academic Committee of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, stated that an academy study of the ecological impact of the Three Gorges project concluded that the adverse effects would be greater than the benefits. Comrade Hou Xueyu believed the Three Gorges project would have a profound impact on the environment and natural resources and, therefore, argued that great caution should be taken in deciding whether to launch the project.

e. Risks: Since there are now many potentially dangerous spots around the Three Gorges area, the high dam may induce earthquakes which, in turn, would cause landslides. Furthermore, should the dam burst, several critical areas and cities located in the lower reaches, including the Jianghan plain, the Dongting lake area, Yichang city, Shashi city and Wuhan, would inevitably face disaster.
The dam could also become a possible target of strategic importance in time of war, since the reservoir would play a pivotal role in flood control, power generation, and navigation. Even in peacetime, it would be necessary to be prepared for a possible surprise military strike.

On December 24, 1970, Premier Zhou Enlai wrote a letter to Chairman Mao regarding the Gezhouba dam. Zhou stated: “When considering construction of the Three Gorges dam, it is necessary to take into account…the international situation and the progress of air defense capability, and the accumulation of experiences in building high dams.”

On December 16 of the same year, while being briefed on the progress of the Gezhouba dam construction, Premier Zhou commented to Lin Yishan (who led the Yangtze Valley Planning Office in the late 1970s): “The Three Gorges project you are talking about is not our generation’s business. Leave this project to our children in the 21st century.” On this matter, we should also take a very cautious approach.

II. Tributaries First and the Mainstream of the River Second.

1. Rather than an exclusive emphasis on the Three Gorges, an overall plan and a proper order should be established for the development of the whole river basin based on concrete conditions. The Yangtze River has many tributaries, large and small, covering an extensive area of land. The big tributaries, such as the Yalong, the Minjiang, the Dadu, the Jialing, the Wujiang, the Yuanshui, the Xiangjiang, the Hanjiang and the Ganjiang rivers, have annual water volume equal to or greater than that of the Yellow, the Huaihe, and the Haihe rivers together. It is therefore necessary to give priority to the tributaries, so as to meet the needs of local economic development in a timely manner.

Overall planning for the Yangtze River’s development should take into account the Survey Of the Land Resources In the Southwestern Areas and Studies On a Development Strategy recently proposed by the Investigation Group on Resource Development in Southwestern China. Overall planning should also take into account the proposal by Sichuan province for developing the waterpower and natural resources at the upper reaches, the plan by Guizhou province for developing the Wujiang River, and the plans for the development of tributaries proposed by Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangxi provinces among others.8 Proper consideration of these local programs is important in the economic development of the areas concerned and absolutely necessary for environmental protection and improvement.

2. Enhance work on harnessing the Yangtze River. In order to be prepared against big floods in the next 10 to 20 years, the main channel must be dredged, dikes strengthened, and safety facilities consolidated in the flood storage and diversion areas. At the same time, dredging should be carried out in the tributaries to meet the growing needs of navigation as the economy progresses. Water and soil conservation should also be carried out to reduce increasingly serious soil erosion. We should avoid the tendency of waiting for the Three Gorges project and expecting it to solve all the problems.

3. Carry out the development of the tributaries at the maximum possible speed so as to ease the acute shortage of electricity and make comprehensive use of water resources. Presently, the following hydro-electric power stations are under construction on the tributaries of the Yangtze: the Tongjiezi on the Dadu River (600 MW), the Baozhusi on the Bailong River (700 MW), the Ertan on the Yalong River (3,300 MW), the Manwan on the Lancang River (1,250 MW), the Dongfeng on the Wujiang River (510 MW), the Geheyan on the Qingjiang River (1,200 MW), the Wuqiangxi on the Yuanshui River (1,200 MW), the Ankang on the Hanjiang River (800 MW), the Wan’an on the Ganjiang River (400 MW), and the Shuikou on the Minjiang River (1,400 MW), totaling 11,360 MW of installed capacity. The construction of these 10 large-scale hydro-electric power stations on the Yangtze’s tributaries should be completed on or before their scheduled completion dates and in accordance with their work plans and investment schedules. At the same time, medium- and small-scale hydro-electric power stations should also be constructed.

There are also a number of hydro-electric power stations on the tributaries that have been assessed, or are in the process of being reviewed, but for which construction has yet to begin. Measures should be taken to ensure an early start for these projects, so as to bring them on line by the year 2000. These projects include: the Taipingyi and the Zipingpu on the Minjiang River (260 MW and 680 MW respectively), the Pubugou on the Dadu River (3,300 MW), the Hechuan on the Jialing River (500 MW), the Hongjiadu and the Pengshui on the Wujiang River (540 MW and 1,200 MW respectively), the Jiangya on the Lishui River(400 MW), the Fuxikou on the Zishui River (270 MW), the Pankou on the Duhe River (510 MW), the Taihe on the Ganjiang River (180 MW), the Tankeng on the Oujiang River (600 MW), the Shanxi on the Feiyun (240 MW), and the Tianhuangping pumped-storage hydro-electric power station on Tianmu mountain (1,800 MW). The total installed capacity for these projects will be 10,480 MW.

Most of the above-mentioned power stations can serve as multipurpose projects for flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply, fish farming, and tourism. The local people concerned may provide a certain amount of financing, which would also make the job of population relocation easier. Besides, it would be a better idea to have different power stations run by a number of enterprises, rather than by a single one, so as to quicken the development of hydro-electricity. Therefore, in making an overall plan we must ensure that the aforementioned projects are not hindered by the debate over whether and when the Three Gorges project should be started.

As for structural reform of the hydro-electric construction system, we support the proposals by the Ministry of Power9 to establish hydro-electricity development companies organized according to river basins and regions. In the initial stage of the formation of those companies, financial support might be granted by the state so as to help them become enterprises that ultimately bear responsibility for profit and loss in their operations. By selling surplus electricity to the national grid, they would become self-financing.

In addition, the leading group’s assessment found that the preparations for the projects on the tributaries, including the Jinsha River, are far less advanced than those for the Three Gorges project. We therefore would like to bring to the attention of the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Water Resources the fact that they should allocate more funds for the purpose of surveying and design since, we believe, the amount required for this purpose would not be large but the benefits would be substantial.

4. The development of electricity plants according to local conditions in the respective regions. Hydro-electricity generation is a main source of energy supply in southwestern China, as are hydro and thermal generation in central China and thermal generation in eastern China.
In accordance with the natural distribution of water resources and coal and fuel deposits in our country, hydro-electric powerstations would mainly be concentrated in the southwest, with hydro-electric power and thermal generation stations and plants in central China, and thermal plants in eastern China where coal can be transported by land, or water, or through pipes (i.e., slurry) to this area.10 In this part of the country, power peaks can be regulated by the local waterpower and pumped-storage hydro-electric power stations. Nuclear energy might be developed in this area as well. If the Three Gorges project were completed, it would only provide power to central China. Eastern China would have to rely on its own resources.

III. Inappropriate Methods Employed in the Assessment of the Project Harmful to Democracy and Science

The 11 members of the leading group, appointed by the former Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, were all ex-ministers or ex-deputy ministers, former chief or assistant chief engineers, and heads of the Yangtze Valley Planning Office or the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation. All favor the immediate startup of the Three Gorges project. Under this leading group, there were 14 experts’ groups, of which 10 were chaired by persons from different departments in the system (xitong)11 under the ministry. The remaining four groups had vice-chairs from the ministry as well. Even in the enlarged session for the assessment, among the 177 participants, 103 were from the hydro-electricity system. This situation inevitably produced biases.

While many different views were expressed, and the assessment report was adopted in principle by a majority, in successive sessions an undemocratic atmosphere existed: Only those favoring the project could speak freely, while opposition views were immediately suppressed. We therefore consider that, so far, the assessment has been carried out by the department responsible for the project, and by no means is it an objective and comprehensive one.

In view of this fact, we suggest that the next step involving discussion of a feasibility study of the Three Gorges project be organized by all the departments concerned, such as the State Planning Commission, the State Science and Technology Commission, and the China International Engineering Projects Consulting Corporation. Moreover, we also suggest that more experts and specialists be invited from various departments, so as to solicit different suggestions and comments in a real and earnest atmosphere that respects democratic and scientific procedures.12 After a careful and serious study, the report would be submitted to the State Council for examination and then to the Party Central Committee and National People’s Congress for deliberation in order that a wise decision can be made.

Sources and Further Commentary

1 This statement, submitted in December, 1988, was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Investment in capital construction in China under the state-run economy has involved an enormous waste of resources over the years. These projects have consumed larger and larger shares of the state budget while providing thousands of state cadres with substantial sources of political and economic power. In some years, since the economic reforms were inaugurated in 1978, capital construction spending jumped by up to 30 percent over previous years, even as the central government proclaimed its commitment to substantial reductions. See He, China on the Edge, pp. 51, 140.

3Retained from the revenue from power produced at the Gezhouba dam.

4Planning on the Three Gorges project was marked by a “paucity of pertinent economic analysis. Domestic economic reforms had not, by the mid-1980s, introduced economic analysis into decision making on the Three Gorges dam in a serious fashion.” See Lieberthal and Oksenberg, Policy Making, p. 337.

5Finally completed in 1991 at a cost of US$18.3 billion, the Itaipu hydro-electric power station is jointly owned by Brazil and Paraguay and has a capacity of 12,600 MW.

6An internal reference document for Chinese leaders.

7One hectare is equivalent to 15 mu. Conversely, one mu equals 0.067 hectares.

8These other studies are significant because they propose alternative area development plans and other river tributary projects.

9Authority in the energy sector was greatly concentrated with the 1982 decision to transfer authority over local and regional power grids to the Ministry of Power at the central government level. See Thomas Fingar, “Implementing Energy Policy: The Rise and Demise of the State Energy Commission,” in Policy Implementation in Post-Mao China, ed. David Lampton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 206.

10There are enormous costs of transporting millions of tonnes of coal from China’s relatively remote regions in the north and west, where 90 percent of the deposits are located, to centers of power generation in the east and west. Low, subsidized prices for coal and electricity, plus the impact of highly outdated equipment, make for huge inefficiencies in energy use, especially in the industrial sector. Indeed, “China’s energy consumption per unit of gross national product is the highest in the world.” See He, China on the Edge, pp. 68-73, and Vaclav Smil, China’s Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 1993), pp. 117-124.

11A key organizing principle in the Chinese bureaucracy, “system” refers to the vertical functioning hierarchies of bureaus and lower level bureaucratic organs that can span from the central government to the local level, and provide an enormous basis of bureaucratic power and decision-making influence. See Lieberthal and Oksenberg, Policy Making, p. 141.

12As noted by Sullivan in his preface, science and democracy are the two great ideals of the Chinese revolution; they were initially promoted during the May Fourth Movement in 1919.

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