Three Gorges Probe

Three Gorges dam will turn the fast-flowing Yangtze into stagnant, polluted reservoir

by Wei Ming

November 29, 1999
Wei Ming, writing under a pseudonym, is a Chinese sociologist who recently visited five of the 22 Yangtze river counties that are slated for flooding by the Three Gorges dam.

Billions of tons of industrial wastewater and sewage could contaminate the Three Gorges reservoir, turning it into what one Chinese scientist from Chongqing calls “a huge, stagnant, stinking pond.” Yet the Three Gorges Project has no funding for treating the area’s wastewater or mitigating the environmental problems it will cause.

If completed as planned, the massive Three Gorges dam will transform a fast-flowing river into a 600-kilometre reservoir of polluted, stagnant water, with Chongqing – a highly industrialized municipality of 30 million – at its upstream end. Because there is very little treatment of industrial wastewater and sewage from Chongqing and other cities along the Yangtze, everyone relies on the river’s flow to flush pollutants out to sea. The Three Gorges dam will make an already serious pollution problem worse by backing water up, slowing the Yangtze’s flow, and concentrating pollutants in its reservoir.

According to the Chongqing scientist, who asked to remain anonymous, the Three Gorges reservoir is finally forcing Chongqing residents to address the pollution they create. “For thousands of years, Chongqing has dumped its waste into the river, with little concern for people living downstream, in the belief that the fast-moving Yangtze cleans itself,” he explains. “When the reservoir is created, Chongqing residents – not the people downstream – will have to deal with the waste.”

“Nowhere in the world has a dam reservoir been built in such a densely populated and industrially polluted area,” says the scientist. “If we don’t have any wastewater treatment in place, before long, the large reservoir’s stagnant water will become heavily contaminated. The worst part is that once a reservoir of this size is polluted, it is very, very difficult to clean up.”

Chongqing alone produces about 1.2 billion tons of wastewater a year – 900 million tons of industrial wastewater and 300 million tons of sewage. Paper, steel, silk, and chemical factories line the river, often covering the swirling waters with white foam or effluents. Garbage piles up along the river banks and is washed away during flood season or gets trapped in the Gezhouba dam reservoir downstream of the Three Gorges.

In 1996, the municipality treated only 27% of its industrial wastewater before flushing it into the Yangtze and discharged almost all of its sewage, untreated, directly into the river. In that same year, an environmental survey showed that the water near Chongqing was one of the river’s most polluted sections. Downstream, Fuling produces about 94.9 million tons of industrial wastewater and treats only 1% before releasing it into the Yangtze.

Water pollution has worsened with the rapid industrialization and urban development stimulated by the Three Gorges Project. In a study of pollution in Wanxian, another city on the Yangtze, Chen Guojie, a professor at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, part of China’s Academy of Sciences, found that the average chemical oxygen demand level (used to measure oxygen depletion) had increased by 58%, and the nitrate level by 54%, since the 1980s.**

Chen’s 1997 study indicated that seven pollutants, including petroleum, mercury, lead, volatile phenol, non-ionic ammonia, phosphorus, and colon bacillus exceeded permissible standards in the river sections flowing past Chongqing, Fuling, Fengdu, Wanxian, and Wushan. The giant plume of greasy, polluted water will spread into stagnant bays off the main reservoir after the dam’s construction.

Feasibility studies for the Three Gorges Project failed to evaluate the dam’s effect on the reservoir’s water quality nor was the cost of wastewater treatment included in the project’s budget. After Chongqing lobbied the central government, it allocated US$100 million in World Bank loans to the city for wastewater treatment. Chongqing has plans to build 23 sewage treatment plants in the next three years, before the dam starts operating, to treat some of the municipalities’ sewage before it flows into the reservoir. But the World Bank funds will not cover all the costs of sewage treatment, and, the plants won’t treat any industrial sewage at all. Although Chinese regulations require factories to preliminarily treat their wastewater before putting it into the city sewage system, most of Chongqing’s large state corporations are heavily in debt, with not enough money to pay their employees, let alone treat their wastewater.

The scale of the environmental clean-up needed is so large that the municipality is seeking overseas partners to study water pollution in the Three Gorges reservoir; monitor Chongqing wastewater; treat urban sewage; study heavy metal pollution; and treat wastewater from the pesticide, printing, pulp and paper, coal, salt, oil, and shipping industries.

Yet a recent effort to elicit foreign help ended in failure. Last year, the Chinese government gave Chongqing US$1million to encourage overseas environmental specialists to participate in the city’s environmental projects and studies. Named “Spring Light Project” and coordinated by Chongqing University, the program invited 30 academics and specialists, mostly from the United States, to the city last fall to assess the area’s environmental problems. In an effort to show the Chinese public that the government was addressing their environmental concerns, national and local media gave prominent coverage to the event.

However, an inside source told Three Gorges Probe that the city has had almost no contact with the specialists since they left. “The money was just wasted on hosting banquets and covering airfares and hotels,” the official said. “We’ve heard almost nothing from them after they said good-bye. The money we had was too little to attract overseas collaborators.”

The World Bank, which stated in 1988 that the Three Gorges dam is not economically viable, is now considering a $250-million loan to Chongqing municipality for wastewater treatment and solid waste management – the first phase of a long-term program – and similar loans to other Yangtze cities. ______________________________________


** Chemical oxygen demand is a measure of oxygen depletion. When chemical wastes, including nitrates from nitrogen-based fertilizers, are discharged into a river, oxygen is depleted from the water, killing fish and other organisms. Three Gorges Probe welcomes submissions. However, it is not a forum for political debate. Rather,

Three Gorges Probe is dedicated to covering the scientific, technical, economic, social, and environmental ramifications of completing the Three Gorges Project, as well as the alternatives to the dam.

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

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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