Dai Qing and Three Gorges

China’s giant dam faces huge problems

(January 7, 2001) When China started building the giant Three Gorges Dam here in 1993, its leadership sought to use the undertaking — the country’s most ambitious engineering project since the Great Wall — to highlight the superiority of its socialist system. But now, halfway into the construction, some Chinese officials, engineers and activists say the project has instead become a testimony to malfeasance, incompetence and systemic weakness.

Dai Qing, a leading Chinese journalist, has called the project “a black hole of corruption.” Several Chinese engineers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed concern that construction flaws could trigger a disaster. Economists said low electricity prices could mean the $24.5 billion project will operate at a deficit. Some environmentalists have predicted the dam will not really improve flood control on the Yangtze River. And political analysts have fretted in public that the way local officials are handling resettlement of 1.3 million people to make way for the project could lay the foundation for instability and unrest.

“From all angles this project has enormous problems,” said one senior Chinese engineer, who has worked on the project since its inception. “But China’s system, being what it is, doesn’t seem to be able to correct such a massive mistake. Our leaders are worried that if it did, the regime could fall.”

Since winning power in 1949, China’s Communist government has used gigantic projects as a key element of nation-building. Partly because of China’s tradition of using irrigation programs to control its population, water management and hydroelectric projects have been a natural choice for a party captivated by political mobilization and penetration into rural society. By the end of the 1980s, China had built more than 80,000 reservoirs and hydroelectric plants.

But the Three Gorges Dam towers over them all, so massive it is difficult to fathom. A visit to the dam site at Yichang, 600 miles southwest of Beijing in central China, shows a huge concrete wall that will be 600 feet high and 1.2 miles long when completed. From the top of a small mountain, thousands of workers laboring on the project look like ants. Massive tower cranes resemble Tonka toys. A dull roar emerges from the region, and at night floodlights illuminating the work can be seen from Yichang’s hills for miles.

When completed in 2009, the government says, the Three Gorges Dam will qualify as one of the biggest construction projects in history. It will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, five times wider than the Hoover Dam. It will take 26 million tons of concrete to build.

With an estimated capacity of 18.2 million kilowatts, the project is expected to supply as much as 11 percent of China’s energy needs. But now there is doubt whether Three Gorges’ power will turn a profit in a country enjoying a glut of electricity and falling power prices.

The government has said the dam will improve flood protection along the Yangtze River. But recently experts have noted that the dam would have done little to soften the deadly floods of 1998, which occurred mostly along the tributaries and lower reaches of the Yangtze’s proud run.

Because of the project’s close association with the leadership – Li Peng, No. 2 in the Communist Party, has been the main cheerleader — criticism has been muted in the Chinese media. Prime Minister Zhu Rongji has spoken on numerous occasions about improving quality control, but he also has been tough on critics. Chinese sources said he told Li Rui, a former water resources minister, to stop criticizing the dam.

Nevertheless, newspapers have reported that more than $57 million has been stolen from a fund that is supposed to help relocate the people who live in areas to be flooded by the dam. Another $24 million, the reports have alleged, was filched by a contractor who imported hundreds of used trucks, bulldozers, excavators and loading vehicles but charged his buyers as if they were new. Hundreds of officials have been investigated for corruption in connection with the project, 97 because of misuse of resettlement funds, the reports say.

Reports about construction quality problems have been less frequent and far less detailed. But in November, the official New China News Agency said “a number of quality problems have been laid bare in the course of . . . construction.” Concrete blocks at one part of the dam site were found to be hollow, it said. An accident involving a U.S.-built tower crane killed three workers in September and halted concrete pouring in some areas for a month.

“Such accidents have further intensified the existing contradiction between construction pace and quality control,” the news agency said. The report implied that the China Three Gorges Project Corp., responsible for the construction, came late to quality control. It established a general quality inspection office in August, seven years after the project began. China’s cabinet, the State Council, also set up an expert group that has “of late relentlessly pointed out some problems in construction quality,” it said, adding that Western engineers, including an American company, are reviewing the work.

About 400 million people live along the 4,000-mile-long Yangtze River, most of them downstream from the dam. Any accident could have disastrous consequences, threatening millions of lives.

Chinese officials contend the dam’s environmental impact will be minimal. But in October, a major state-run daily newspaper alleged that the dam could turn the Yangtze and a 366-mile-long lake to be created by the dam into a cesspool.

Behind the dam a vast reservoir, 50 miles longer than Lake Michigan and up to 580 feet deep, will submerge two cities, 11 county seats and 114 towns. Chongqing, a large urban area with 30 million people, pours 940 million tons of industrial waste water and 245 million tons of domestic sewage annually into the future site of the reservoir. Only 28 percent of industrial and 8 percent of urban domestic waste water is treated.

But no issue has been more politically troublesome than resettlement. That is because, while construction problems can be covered up for a while or corrected later, the relocation problems have been exposed to public scrutiny as China’s society opens up and people with grievances go to the courts or seek support in public opinion.

During a recent news conference in Beijing, Three Gorges officials said that despite widespread reports of corruption in resettlement areas, the process is moving smoothly. As of July, 248,000 people who lived on the banks of the Yangtze have been resettled, they said, some as far away as Shanghai and Xinjiang province in China’s vast northwest.

But Strategy and Management, an influential Beijing-based periodical, warned last year that if resettlement funds are not increased and more care is not taken in moving people, “the relocation issue . . . will likely become an explosive social problem, a source of constant social instability in our country for the first half of the next century.”

Groups of angry resettled farmers routinely demonstrate against the treatment they receive. Thousands have journeyed to Beijing and provincial capitals seeking support within the higher reaches of government.

About 500 resettled families have banded together and are asking for help in Tongliang, 400 miles west of Yichang.

Yan Shugao is one of them. The 63-year-old former orange farmer was part of a government delegation last March when he first saw the rice paddies and onion fields of Tongliang, 40 miles northwest of Chongqing. Yan had an important job to do back then. As a local leader for the past 30 years in a village on the Yangtze River, Yan had credibility with the people back home. Yan’s task, after seeing Tongliang’s sights, was to tell his neighbors that life in Tongliang was going to be good, that the soil was fertile, that prospects looked bright.

Good Communist that he is, Yan followed instructions. He and hund reds of other local leaders returned home after similar expeditions and convinced their followers that the Chinese government was offering them a square deal. Move away from their homes in Yunyang county along the Yangtze to make way for the project, the word went out, and life could actually improve.

Yan’s group dutifully left homes along the cliffs next to the Yangtze in August. But now they are sorry.

“I was tricked,” the father of three said recently. “I feel like I have let these people down. They trusted me and I let them down. . . . We are fruit farmers, not rice farmers. We are boatmen and small-businessmen. There is nothing for us here.”

When Yan was brought here in March, he said, he was promised good land for his group, in complete fields. When they arrived in August, he and his followers received isolated, small patches set along steep inclines and at the side of the road, so that one family might be forced to till as many as four or five plots. It was land none of the local farmers wanted.

Yan said average income ranged from $250 to $500 a year back home. “Now it’s not clear to me how we are going to make half of that,” he said.

Yan and five other families have moved into a rundown, abandoned home for the elderly that they bought for more than $4,000, an imposing sum in rural China. When Yan asked whether he could move his small noodle factory to Tongliang, he was told he would have to pay $600 to hook up the electricity, ironic for someone resettled to make way for the world’s biggest hydroelectric generator.

Other members of the group said they worried that they would not have enough money next year to send their children to school. Government moving subsidies have run out, they said. Most of the villagers are in debt. Many have sneaked back to Yunyang, where they continue to work in the deserted orchards and ply boats along the river. A demonstration that they attempted to hold on Nov. 25 was blocked by the police.

“The central policies on resettlement are generally good,” said Huang Weixiang, a 30-year-old farmer and father of three girls as he showed a visitor the six small plots of land that made up his allotment. “But on the local level, things get messed up. We’re the weakest link, so everybody is squeezing us. Really, we want to go home.”

John Pomfret, Washington Post Foreign Service, January 7, 2001

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