Three Gorges Probe

Power struggle

August 16, 1999


Inside Beijing’s Zhongnanhai Compound, where China’s top leaders work, the Three Gorges power project is known as Canada’s Dam.

After all, Canadian taxpayers funded the study that led to creation of the $45-billion hydroelectric dam on the Yangtze River-the largest ever conceived. Once complete in 2009, the village homes and town apartments of almost 1.5 million people will be submerged in a vast reservoir longer than Lake Superior. For them, the dreams envisioned by Canadian engineers have become a nightmare, and as the muddy Yangtze rises, thousands will be forced out-possibly at gunpoint. But mounting problems could slow the process. The relocation drive is hopelessly behind, construction is running over cost and even top officials are criticizing Three Gorges. All this has led its opponents to hope that plans for Canada’s Dam may be altered before it becomes, in their view, China’s Disaster.

Senior staff at Canada’s Embassy met recently with Chinese officials to discuss the dam’s troubled financing, and were told the project was “under control.” And when visiting the massive construction site, which is the size of a small city, it is hard to imagine that Three Gorges could be halted. Nearly 25,000 workers, toiling in shifts around the clock, have already completed the foundation of the 185-metre-high dam. Once complete, its 26 turbines, three of which are being built by GE Canada, will match the output of 18 nuclear power plants.

Map of the area around Three Gorges dam The two-kilometre-wide barrier will also provide critical flood control along the Yangtze. The entire Yangtze basin-home to some 400 million people-was devastated by massive floods last summer, which killed more than 4,000 people and caused nearly $40 billion in damage. Last week, 750 people died as floods again hit the Yangtze and other parts of China. Still, some analysts interpret official criticism of the project as an indication that China’s leaders may delay or down-size Three Gorges. Canada, however, remains firmly committed. “The size of the dam is awesome,” Howard Balloch, Canada’s ambassador to China, told Maclean’s. “Canadian engineers have walked all over the place and have concluded that this project is being done well.”

Taming the 6,400-km Yangtze, the world’s third-longest river after the Nile and the Amazon, has long been the goal of China’s leaders. Mao Tse-tung wanted to build the massive dam in the 1960s. But it was Canada that finally made the project possible when the Canadian International Development Agency spent $14 million to fund a Feasibility study in 1985. By 1989, engineers from Hydro Quebec and B.C. Hydro had concluded that the Three Gorges could be built.

Many Chinese remained cool towards the project, and when Premier Li Peng presented it to the National People’s Congress in Beijing for approval in 1992, nearly one-third of the delegates either abstained or voted against it. When the World Bank and other international agencies refused to fund Three Gorges, Li turned to Canada. In 1994, the Export Development Corp. agreed to back nearly $177 million in loans, allowing General Electric to land a $153-million turbine contract. Since then, says Jayne Watson, EDCs director of communications, government agencies in other countries, including Germany and Japan, have jumped in. Canadian firms are also bidding for new multimillion-dollar contracts.

Construction continued at Three Gorges without official comment until December, when Premier Zhu Rongji visited the site. Zhu is overseeing the massive. restructuring of the Chinese economy, and his comments immediately rekindled the debate over Three Gorges. He complained that corruption at the site could lead to inferior work and a terrible disaster. “The responsibility on your shoulders is heavier than a mountain,” Zhu told dam officials. “Any negligence will bring disaster to future generations.”

Zhu’s concerns were highlighted again in April when the official Workers’ Daily reported that foreign engineers would be hired to take immediate responsibility for overseeing construction. The decision came two days after a bridge near the site collapsed, killing nine people. In June, the state media also reported that several key bridges built as part of the plan to resettle the displaced Chinese would have to be rebuilt after inspectors compared them to “bean curd.”

Patricia Adams, executive director of the Toronto-based environmental group Probe International, said Zhu’s concern over corruption is a clear indication that the government may either scale down or abandon the project. But others insist that Zhu is simply reading the riot act. “The Three Gorges Dam will be an engineering feat,” one Western diplomat in Beijing told Maclean’s. “Zhu just wants it done well.” If corruption is difficult to control, the problem of relocating 1.5 million people in a country already bursting with 1.2 billion is proving even tougher. In February, a military publication sharply criticized the resettlement,saying it would become “an explosive problem.” The displaced, many of them peasant farmers, were promised modern farms and jobs in new factories. But Zhu has complained that corrupt officials embezzled funds earmarked for resettlement. He also said moving people to new farms higher up the banks of the Yangtze would be disastrous. “It will be inevitable that land will be reclaimed from steep slopes,” said Zhu, “and the environment will be damaged and untold troubles will ensue.”

So far, only 160,000 people have been moved from farms, villages and towns. “Everybody’s angry,” says a farmer in nearby Wushan county. “They haven’t given us anything.” Another 500,000 must leave over the next four years, and Adams believes that the army will eventually have to push them out. “People,” she says, “are being forced to leave their homes, their temples, their farms.”

Premier Zhu Rongji: critics hoped he might somehow scuttle the project Three Gorges is also being slowed by a $3-billion shortfall in funding. U.S. government lending agencies have long refused to get involved. While the Chinese say they can raise the extra money internally, environmentalists are now lobbying major American banks, urging them not to finance the project. Still, the dam’s opponents have suffered at least a temporary setback. Zhu came under heavy criticism inside the Communist party after NATO planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. He had also led China’s attempt to enter the World Trade Organization, only to be snubbed by the United States. “In the spring, we had some hope that Zhu could do something to stop the project,” says Dai Qing, a Beijing environmental activist who spent 10 months in jail for her opposition to the project. “However, with Zhu under attack, the situation does not look good.”

While doubts mount, Canadian business people believe the dam will proceed. “It’s so far beyond the point of no return as to be laughable,” said David Paterson, vice-president of corporate affairs for Calgary-based Agra Inc., which received a $17-million contract to computerize construction of the dam. “It is enormously important for flood control, and there is a huge demand for clean power.” Yet even as Canada’s Dam keeps rising over the Yangtze, the level of concern inside and outside China-is rising with it.

With Paul Mooney in Beijing Maclean’s/August 16,1999


Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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