Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 2. A Profile of Dams in China

by Shui Fu

November 30, 1998

The following is an excerpt from the book The River Dragon Has Come!

Edited by Dai Qing

The Chinese communist government has championed dams as a nation-building exercise — a milestone of the country’s modernization and a tribute to the glory of Chinese communism. In less than half a century, all China’s major rivers have been dammed — an experiment of naive enthusiasm, reckless actions, ill-conceived planning and human and natural disasters. The following is an excerpt from the book “The River Dragon Has Come!,” published by M.E. Sharpe and Probe International in the spring of 1998. – Editor


There were virtually no large-scale water projects in China before 1949. But in the ensuing years, and especially in the years during and since the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), the Chinese Communist Party has heavily promoted dam and reservoir construction as part of massive national campaigns. In less than forty years all of China’s major rivers have been dammed. Dam projects became more than just another kind of construction project; the campaigns promoting dam construction equated harnessing rivers with developing the country and mandated absolutely that citizens demonstrate their “positive support” and “political enthusiasm” for the projects.

Most people associate the “Great Leap Forward” with national campaigns to increase iron and steel production. But just as important was engaging the mass movement for the large-scale water conservancy campaign. At that time, water conservancy policy gave primacy to the accumulation of water and to irrigation and gave only secondary consideration to drainage and flood control.

During the Great Leap Forward, Chinese leaders thought that by 1972 hydropower would produce more than half of the country’s power. There was, however, lively debate on the subject. One school favoured relying on local initiatives to build small-scale dam projects which would emphasize the accumulation of water for irrigation purposes. The other favoured state-sponsored, large-scale projects whose primary function would be flood control.

The debate lasted for decades and was transformed from an academic dispute over the merits of the different approaches into a political struggle in which the supporters of the first approach won a decisive victory. Thus the water conservancy campaign was ultimately reduced to a campaign to build reservoirs and dams, and by 1990, 83,387 of them had been built in China.

Three hundred and sixty six of them had a capacity over 100 million cubic metres, 2,499 had a capacity of 10-100 million cubic metres, and more than 80,000 had capacities below 10 million cubic metres.

In the early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, there was a second, smaller “Leap Forward” of water conservancy projects in which dam and other irrigation projects once again began sprouting up all over the country.

The first dam construction boom in the 1950s was a thrilling time. People’s communes, the Great Leap Forward, and the manufacture of iron and steel all stimulated the construction of more hydropower projects. Leaders boldly approved projects to accumulate more water for irrigation without knowing whether they were feasible.

All a particular leader had to do was point his finger at a certain place and the decision would be made to build a dam between one mountain and another. The engineers were left to assess whether the project made sense, but few projects were rejected: No one wanted to be accused of being a “rightist” or “an obstruction on the bridge leading to communism.”

But some were concerned about the emphasis on accumulation and irrigation over all other goals, and especially about its effects on the landscape. After the 7,000 Cadres Conference in 1962, Premier Zhou Enlai openly expressed his concern about the situation. In 1964, Zhou pushed for a more comprehensive approach. In 1966, Zhou commented: “I fear that we have made a mistake in harnessing and accumulating water and cutting down so much forest cover to make way for more agricultural cultivation. Some mistakes can be remedied in a day or a year, but mistakes in the fields of water conservancy and forestry cannot be reversed for years.”

However, no one, not even Zhou, was able to block the dam-building campaign. In 1958, hydro departments in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power established the Office of the Water Conservancy Campaign. According to Liu Derun, the then deputy director of this new office: “Our daily work consisted of making phone calls to the provinces inquiring about the number of projects they were building, how many people were involved, and how much earth they had moved. In hindsight, some of the data and figures we gathered were obvious exaggerations, but no one back then had the energy to check them out.” From 1949 to 1959, 800 million cubic metres of earth was moved — 580 million cubic metres in 1958 alone.

Are Water Conservancy Projects Beneficial or Harmful?

Dam construction, especially during and after the Great Leap Forward, has had disastrous consequences.

By 1973, 40 per cent or 4,501 of the 10,000 Chinese reservoirs with capacities between 10,000 and one million cubic metres were found to have been built below project specifications and were unable to control floods effectively. Even more dams had problems relating to the geology of the dam site, and to sedimentation. Most serious, however, were the numerous dam collapses.

By 1980, 2,976 dams had collapsed, including two large-scale dams: the Shimantan and Banqiao dams. One hundred and seventeen medium-sized, and 2,857 small dams had also collapsed. On average, China witnessed 110 collapses per year, with the worst year being 1973, when 554 dams collapsed.

The official death toll (not including the Banqiao and Shimantan collapses) resulting from dam failures came to 9,937. Some people say that among the more than 2,000 dam collapses, only 181 involved fatalities but this hardly seems accurate. According to the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, over 20,000 people lost their lives as a result of the Banqiao and Shimantan collapses. However, the National Storm Flood Investigation Group of the Ministry of Electric Power and the Water Data Research Group of Nanjing put the figure at 85,000. Other dam critics estimated that the true death toll was 230,000.

By 1981, the number of formally recognized dam collapses had risen to 3,200, or roughly 3.7 per cent of all dams. According to Ma Shoulong, the chief engineer of the Water Resources Bureau of Henan Province, “The crap from that era [the Great Leap Forward] has not yet been cleaned up.” In 1958, more than 110 dams were built in Henan; by 1966 half of them had collapsed. Of four key dams on the Yellow River — the Huayuankou, Wei Mountain, Luokou, and Wangwang Village dams, two were dismantled and two were postponed.

Many of the dams which remain are unsafe and in need of repair. A 1985 study claimed that one quarter of all dams fell into this category, and by 1986 the government had singled out 43 especially dangerous dams because they threatened major towns, industries and mines, major transportation routes, and military facilities. Among them 35 dams were large-scale, and eight were medium-sized. By the end of 1992, 30 had been repaired or reinforced. In 1992, 38 more dams were added to the list of reinforcement during the “Eighth Five-Year Plan” (1991-95) or later.

According to experts, if the riskiest of these dams were to fail, hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. But current levels of funding are woefully inadequate to repair or reinforce the dams. At least ¬•5 billion would be required for the large- and medium-sized reservoirs alone. Where will the money come from? The Ministry of Water Resources just shrugs its shoulders. Everyone knows the task is impossible. It would appear that the “crap” left by the Great and Small Leaps Forward will linger for some time to come.

It is difficult to predict the disasters that these dams might produce should they fail, because most information regarding dam collapses in China is confidential. During a 1991 conference on dam collapses in Vienna, participating countries exchanged information, as is the general practice, on collapses in their respective countries. Only China indicated that it had no dam collapses to report. Foreign experts attending the conference commented to China’s representative, Pan Jiazheng, that it was miraculous for a country as big as China, a country with more than 80,000 reservoirs, to have had no dam collapses. Either our representative knew nothing about the dam collapses or, owing to Party discipline, he could not say. All in all, he must have been very embarrassed.

Publisher: Patricia Adams Executive Editor: Mu Lan ISSN 1481-0913

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s