Three Gorges Probe

An engineer-activist who battles megadevelopment

September 27, 1999

From Time’s special report A New Generation of Leaders, "…highlighting 25 youthful achievers who have already made important marks in their disparate fields–marks just as likely to be recognized abroad as at home. We consider them to be intriguing, illuminating and sometimes provocative representatives of the talent that is being unleashed by change. These are particularly extraordinary individuals…"



Environmental activist Grainne Ryder has helped change the way international aid and development agencies do business. Through her work critiquing China’s huge Three Gorges project, the biggest dam in the world, she opened to public scrutiny the early planning stages of megaconstruction efforts in developing countries and changed a tradition of governments and funding agencies policing themselves.

When Three Gorges was proposed back in 1988, it was hailed as an engineering miracle. And it is indeed a titanic feat, creating a 600-km-long reservoir along the Yangtze River that would, said the official feasibility study funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, generate 17,000 megawatts of electricity, with minimal disruption along the river valley.

But Ryder, a hydraulic engineer, wasn’t buying the official line. After wrangling more than a year with CIDA, she received the study and sent it out for review. Critiques that came back from engineers, scientists, environmentalists and economists charged the proiect would displace up to 2 million people, but be unable to pay for itself. Ryder, then an activist with Toronto-based Probe International, bundled this information into a book titled Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam Builders Don’t Want You to Know. It was sent out to investment analysts and others whose support might be sought by the builders. To date, neither the World Bank nor the U.S. government has backed the project, and even CIDA pulled back. "Usually, official environmental assessments were not questioned by civil society," says World Bank environmental adviser Robert Goodland. "Grainne and her Three Gorges study put an end to that."

"Engineers often don’t have the right tools to solve problems," opines Ryder. "Often the issues are really about who owns what, who decides what, and those are political questions." Since her Three Gorges fight, Ryder has been focusing her attention on Thailand, where she worked as a volunteer in the early 1980s, after graduating from Guelph University. She co-founded the Bangkok-based environmental group TERRA and became a founding editor of the region’s only environmental journal. Currently founder and director of Probe’s Mekong River program in Toronto, she says she misses her Thai peers, "but our foreign policy is so linked to what is going wrong in countries overseas, I believe there is a lot of work to be done at this end." And Ryder, no doubt, plans to do it.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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