(April 6, 1999) New premier Zhu Rongji seems poised to topple the giant Three Gorges dam, a Canadian-backed megaproject, write Dai Qing and Patricia Adams.
By all accounts, China’s Three Gorges dam, now under construction on the Yangtze River, will start producing power in just four years. Dam officials say they have already ordered the turbines, resettled 160,000 people, and diverted the river. Most deem the dam a fait accompli. Even Li Rui, a party elder and noted dam opponent, told the New York Times that the project — China’s largest public work since the Great Wall — was too far along to cancel.
In fact, at no time since the first shovel hit the ground five years ago has the dam’s completion been in greater doubt, government propaganda notwithstanding.
The resettlement numbers are inflated: The China Daily estimates that only 49,000 people have been moved — less than a third of official estimates. Of those, many returned after discovering that their new homes and farms — far from being superior, as promised — resembled “pigsties” perched on barren hillsides.
While concrete has been poured, most has gone into preparatory work, such as the temporary dams needed to divert the Yangtze during construction. Almost no concrete has been poured for the main part of the dam. The construction has negligibly affected the river so far, says Dr. Philip Williams, a hydraulics engineer and president of the International Rivers Network. “Restoring the site would cost comparatively little.”
Technical problems — some potentially insurmountable — are slowing construction, and the Three Gorges Project Development Corp. still hasn’t secured its financing. With the economic case for pulling the plug on this megaproject becoming overwhelming, political support at the top is cracking.
Unlike his predecessors, China’s new premier, Zhu Rongji, has never publicly endorsed the Three Gorges dam. Now this hard-nosed money man seems to be deliberately distancing himself from it. He visited the site for the first time only last December — and then on a detour to inspect nearby flood relief work. At the dam site, he criticized the dam’s safety and proposed that “foreign engineering-monitoring companies with good reputations” audit the construction. Soon after, he fired more than 100 officials and hired 200 extra inspectors to crack down on corruption and shoddy construction standards. Last month, his failure to so much as mention the dam in his report to the National People’s Congress was deafening.
Because of China’s financial difficulties, Mr. Zhu is limiting the Three Gorges Project Development Corp.’s access to state funds, telling it to issue bonds instead. That may have been a kiss of death. According to the Financial Times, foreign banks are increasingly nervous about financing Three Gorges, partly to avoid backing a loser and partly to minimize China risks in the aftermath of the Asian crisis. The recent surprise bankruptcy of a leading Chinese investment company with substantial foreign borrowings also soured foreign investors.
As a result, financing is already $3-billion behind schedule (all figures in U.S. dollars). Even corporation officials, who normally exude confidence about their ability to finance the world’s largest civil works project, now admit to “certain difficulties in raising funds for the second-phase construction.”
Until February, the government required the Chinese press to praise — and forbade it to criticize — the Three Gorges project. Then Strategy and Management, the mainstream journal of a prominent think tank read by thousands of officials and scholars, published a searing expose of dam-spawned social problems . The article describes the obstacles to resettling people, mostly to virgin land which is often uncultivable and mountainous.
Initial efforts to transplant farmers onto steep hillsides fared poorly, industries in the resettled areas more often failed than boomed, and lack of funds, widespread corruption, and deceptive reports by officials plagued resettlement efforts. If current trends continue, warns the journal, which has close ties to both government and the military, the plight of these people — 1.3 million to 1.9 million must be moved — “may become an explosive social problem, and the dam region will become a hotbed of sustained upheaval.”
With Tiananmen still an open wound, the government does not relish dealing with social unrest. Already, it has cause to worry. After Three Gorges oustees were relocated to Kashgar last October, eight policemen were killed and the city placed under curfew. In Chongqing just last month, people rioted over losing their land to a Three Gorges-related infrastructure project. And in Yunyang county, two thirds of some 15,000 people being forced to leave their homes have filed petitions with the central government warning of unrest and complaining that officials have fooled relocatees about resettlement funds.
Even normally passive peasants now speak out, accusing local officials of pocketing compensation payments and registering relatives as relocatees. According to the Economic Daily, the National Audit Office found officials had embezzled 232 million yuan (about $30-million) from funds earmarked for resettlement. “Corruption is now the greatest problem. We receive letters from people protesting all the time,” said one inspector in Fengdu, one of the 20 cities and counties to be inundated.
Futile attempts by dam officials to find land for relocatees on Hainan Island, Hubei, and Inner Mongolia, says Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, show why “promises to resettle between 500,000 and a million peasants and improve their living standards, so freely given when the project was approved in 1992, cannot be fulfilled.
“Everywhere the problems are turning out to be much bigger than predicted. There are more people, more corruption, less land and fewer jobs than anyone, even the pessimists, ever imagined.”
The population’s failure to be pliant worries many in government — and it has moved only 2% to 5% of the ultimate total. To move 500,000 people in 2003 — the peak resettlement year — the central government “will have to rely on the military or a man-made flood to force people out of their homes,” concluded a study by a Chinese sociologist.
Three Gorges is so big that almost everything about it is experimental and risky. Two kilometres wide and rising 185 metres above the river bottom, the dam will create a reservoir stretching 600 kilometres to the port city of Chongqing, turning a fast-flowing river into a stagnant pool of industrial and human waste. The submerged spillway bays — 27 in all, each with the average flow of the Missouri River — are well beyond proven world experience.
Because the dam reservoir’s weight could induce an earthquake, triggering landslides and tidal waves in the reservoir — the dam sits on several seismic fault lines — the dam could collapse, flooding millions downstream. And for the dam to deliver its promised power, flood control, and navigation services, the engineers will somehow have to flush out the silt accumulating behind it. The 14-year-old Gezhouba dam, the Three Gorges protege just 40 kilometres downstream, has already lost 40% of its capacity to silt accumulation. The Sanmenxia dam, which silted up within four years of completion, was dynamited to save the city of Xi’an from flooding. Chinese scientists believe Three Gorges would similarly threaten upstream Chongqing, a city of 13 million.
Three Gorges’ official price tag of $24.5-billion is also uncertain. An internal estimate approved by the State Council in 1993 put the cost at $34.4-billion. A Chinese banker familiar with the project told the Wall Street Journal in 1994 that inflation, interest rates, and hidden construction costs could push the total to $77-billion.
Even if the dam comes in on time and on budget, no economic or environmental calculation justifies the project. It would produce electricity at two to three times the cost of its competition, raising the spectre that Three Gorges will become China’s most notorious stranded asset. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one 10th as much as the same investment in cogeneration — the technology of choice in market-oriented economies. It would also be ineffective — and likely counterproductive — in flood control.
More than 2,000 years ago, the corruption and taxation required to complete the Great Wall brought down the First Empire of Qin. Corruption and taxation over government plans to nationalize railroads precipitated the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Manchu dynasty. Some Chinese academics — knowing that 90% of the Chinese public oppose the dam — warn that pushing it through could bring down the Communist Party and the People’s Republic.
Mr. Zhu is working hard to head off such an outcome. He has repeatedly chastised the Three Gorges project both for the corruption and the taxation it brings — the entire country suffers an electricity tax that he has criticized as a burden on “ordinary people.” Rather than losing face, a matter of paramount importance in China, Mr. Zhu has positioned himself to save face when the day comes — as in all likelihood it soon will — that he steps in to stop the dam for the good of the country.
TALE OF A TROUBLED PROJECT
1986: After six decades of false starts, China asks a consortium of Canadian engineering companies and state utilities — SNC, Lavalin, Acres International, Hydro-Quebec International, B.C. Hydro International — to conduct a feasibility study of the Three Gorges dam. The Canadian International Development Agency pays its $14-million cost, declaring that “a number of our leading consultants and utilities have good prospects of winning hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business for Canada.”
1989: Canada’s feasibility study concludes that a 185-metre-high dam with a reservoir level of 160 metres is technically, environmentally, and economically feasible, and recommends it proceed at an early date. A World Bank statement in the study states that a higher reservoir level would not be economically viable. The Chinese then release another feasibility study that recommends a higher, 175-metre high reservoir dam.
1989: The Three Gorges dam is opposed by Dai Qing, whose lineage and history allow her to speak out. The daughter of a revolutionary martyr, adopted by one of China’s great marshalls, engineer at a top-secret laboratory specializing in guidance and propulsion systems for intercontinental missiles, agent for military intelligence and a columnist with a devoted following, she publishes Yangtze! Yangtze!, a collection of interviews, essays, and statements by Chinese scientists, journalists, and intellectuals opposed to the dam. Yangtze! Yangtze! pressures the State Council to postpone the dam, and inspires the democracy movement.
1989: Following the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, at which an estimated 1,000 people are killed, Dai Qing is arrested for her work on Three Gorges, incarcerated in Qincheng, a top-security jail for political prisoners, and told she was on a list of six people to be executed. Yangtze! Yangtze! is banned.
1992: The National People’s Congress is expected to vote, uncontested, in favour of building the dam. Some delegates attempt to voice opposition, but the chairman turns off the microphone. Mayhem ensues. One third of the delegates vote no or abstain.
1994: On the eve of Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s Team Canada mission to China, the Export Development Corp. announces that it will lend money to help build the Three Gorges dam.
1994: To manage construction and resettlement, EDC lends $12.5-million to the Chinese government to finance the sale of a super computer from engineering giant Monenco AGRA.
1997: EDC lends $153-million to the Chinese State Development Bank to finance the sale of turbines and generators from Canadian General Electric for the dam.
Dai Qing, an engineer and author of Yangtze! Yangtze!, is China’s leading critic of the Three Gorges dam.
Patricia Adams, an economist and Yangtze! Yangtze!’s English-language editor, is executive director of Probe International, a Toronto-based environmental group.
Dai Qing and Patricia Adams, April 6, 1999,