Three Gorges Probe

Confidential documents: Correspondence between Three Gorges officials and Chinese government

January 31, 2001

Three Gorges Probe has obtained leaked correspondence between China’s top leadership revealing growing official alarm over the threat of unmitigated water pollution in the Three Gorges reservoir.


Confidential Correspondence
Between Three Gorges Officials and Chinese Government
Regarding Environmental Crisis at the Three Gorges Dam

Editor’s Note: Three Gorges Probe has learned that between March 16-18, 2000, Qian Zhengying, the former Minister of Water Resources and currently head of the Quality Inspection Group for the Three Gorges Project (and vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), and Zhang Guangduo, eminent professor at Qinghua University, head of the first plan in 1944 to build the Three Gorges dam, and principal examiner of the Three Gorges Project’s feasibility report in the 1980s on the dam’s environmental impacts, travelled to Chongqing to investigate the treatment of industrial and domestic wastewater entering the Yangtze. They met with officials from the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing, during which time an argument ensued over polluted water emptying into the Three Gorges reservoir, the amount of money needed to treat the water, and where the money should come from. After he returned to Beijing, on April 1, 2000 Professor Zhang wrote Guo Shuyan, Director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee (the project’s most senior official), and his vice-director Li Jinzhong, to express his concerns about the matter. In May 2000, Guo, who is in charge of the entire Three Gorges project and reports to Premier Zhu Rongji, visited Zhang to discuss his concerns in more detail. Guo Shuyan subsequently relayed Zhang’s concerns in a secret document to China’s top leaders.

Three Gorges Probe has obtained copies of this correspondence and transcript. These behind-the-scenes internal documents – reproduced below, in their entirety — reveal that Chinese officials, at the highest levels, are aware of and anxious about impending environmental, economic, and flood control problems with the Three Gorges dam:

Document 1
Professor Zhang Guangduo’s letter to the director and vice-director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee

April 1, 2000

Director Guo Shuyan and vice-director Li Jinzhong,
How are you?

Vice-chairman Qian Zhengying and I went to Chongqing on an inspection tour for the utilization of water resources between March 16-18, 2000. I have been extremely concerned about the Three Gorges Project’s environmental protection and management. After a meeting and discussion with officials at the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing, I learned that the wastewater of urban Chongqing has reached 1.18 billion m3, of which 240 million m3 is domestic sewage. With a loan from the World Bank, Chongqing plans to build water treatment plants. The first phase of the project is under way, but the contract for the second phase has not been awarded yet. On completion of the project, the treated water would reach the national standard for second-class water regulated by the State Environmental Protection Administration. Without the contract for the second phase of the project, 940 million m3 of industrial wastewater will remain untreated. I was told that 70 per cent of large-scale enterprises in Chongqing would be treated, but this is just a theoretical equipment capacity for polluted water treatment. As we know, the average rate for polluted water treatment among large-scale enterprises in China’s big cities is only around 20 per cent. Officials at the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing know little about wastewater treatment among medium and small-scale enterprises. Nor do they have any idea about the state of treatment for industrial wastewater in Changshou, Fuling and Wanzhou, along the Three Gorges reservoir. The head of the bureau said that he did not know anything about the volume of industrial wastewater and its treatment in the reservoir area. He told me that they would like to do a survey and conduct research on this but they needed more money, at least US$3 billion. Also he complained that he did not understand why substantial funds for wastewater treatment were given to Shanghai, while Chongqing received a much smaller package. We asked them how they could demand so much money since they knew so little about the condition of the wastewater? They had no answer. We said that the Three Gorges Project’s reservoir would reach 135 metres by 2003, 156m by 2006 and 175m by 2009 so time is pressing. Despite the fact that it is a tough task to address the wastewater problem, we said they should focus their attention on gathering more information through surveys and research, and organizing a plan to build more facilities to treat polluted water. The first priority should be to conduct surveys and do research to obtain a better understanding of the situation. But they still insisted that they had insufficient funds to do surveys and research. They had no reply when we asked why. It seemed as if they were concerned only about the pollution in the section of the Yangtze river near urban Chongqing, and did not care about the Three Gorges reservoir area, as a whole. Resettlement operations in the reservoir area has given insufficient attention to preservation of the environment and has even harmed the ecology of the reservoir because local people are busy building houses and developing the uphill areas and local officials pay more attention to the construction of new towns, roads and so on. Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing officials said they had little knowledge of this. We asked them why they failed to perform their duties to supervise and control this situation properly: they repeated that they had no funding to do this. It appeared that they had not prepared adequately for our discussion. Our discussion with them caused me to worry tremendously about the conservation and management of the reservoir environment. A number of people at home and abroad have been opposing the Three Gorges Project, using destruction of the environment as an excuse. Since we have promised to maintain the environment of the Three Gorges reservoir, we should take every effort to do our job better.

It is hereby reported what we know about the environmental protection and management of the Three Gorges reservoir. We have also reported this to the leaders of the Government of Chongqing Municipality.
My best regards,

Zhang Guangdou

Editor’s Note: A copy of Professor Zhang’s letter, with comments from Three Gorges Project Director Guo Shuyan and vice-director Li Jinzhong written on it, was sent to Government of Chongqing Municipality officials, who passed it on to the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing on May 9, 2000. After reading the letter and comments, Yu Dengrong, the vice-director of the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing defended his Bureau in the following written response:

Document 2
Written response from Yu Dengrong, the vice-director of the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing, to Professor Zhang Guangdou’s letter

According to an arrangement, I participated in the discussion with Zhang Guangdou. I gave a general introduction on the state of pollution and water treatment and planning in Chongqing and expressed the wish that we could get more support from the government and project authority. It’s hard to say more about this because Mr. Zhang is an authoritative person in the country. Building the Three Gorges dam has led to an increase in pollution and a deterioration in the quality of water in Chongqing: the project authority should pay us more money as compensation for this. However, we have never seen any specific support from them. We do not understand why Zhang doubted the rates of the wastewater treatment in Chongqing that we reported to him. Zhang was certainly right when he said that we should have studied more about the impact of the Three Gorges Project, and we should have suggested a solution to this matter before now. But, I would like to say that it was the Changjiang Water Resources Commission and the Government of Chongqing Municipality that have not solved this problem to date. Because of the lack of financial resources, Chongqing has been unable to do more work on this matter. It is true that we do not have enough knowledge of the reservoir area, and of Wanxian and Fuling in particular, because Chongqing became a municipality directly under the State Council just three years ago. But we can start doing this right now.

Editor’s Note: Three Gorges Project Director Guo went, in person, to Qinghua University to see Professor Zhang, who had just been discharged from hospital, to discuss the professor’s concerns about the Three Gorges Project. Professor Zhang made a long statement to Director Guo. A transcript of his statement to Director Guo is reproduced here:

Document 3
Transcript of Professor Zhang Guangduo’s statement to Three Gorges Project Construction Committee Director, Guo Shuyan at their May 17, 2000 meeting

May 17, 2000

Professor Zhang: Last month, I wrote to you about the environmental issues of the Three Gorges Project’s reservoir, all of which were true. In Chongqing, we had a discussion with persons at the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing. They asked for funding of more than US$2.5 billion for environmental protection. But the problem was that they had done little work to investigate the environmental conditions. I asked them to do this as soon as they could, but they still complained about having no money. This was what the head of the bureau said, and other officials spoke in support of him. We then had an argument about this, so I no longer asked them any more questions. After hearing what they said, I decided to write to you about this. You have to pay more attention to what they said to me. What they said to me worried me very much and I spoke to vice-Chairman Qian Zhengying. I suppose leaders in Chongqing have attached less importance to the matter. I was really concerned about this. The foreigners in the West have been trying everything possible to criticize us by saying that environmental protection at the Three Gorges Project is not good enough. From this morning’s news report, I know that a certain county used the funds earmarked for resettlement and poverty-reduction to construct office buildings. The money is like a big and delicious free meal, so everybody wants to have it. In my opinion, it is understandable that the locals are trying to build better houses for themselves since they have suffered a lot from impoverishment for a long time. However, we should take note that local officials are constructing high buildings, and that it is absolutely wrong to take the money from the affected people. I was the first person who was involved in building the Three Gorges Project in China. I knew Savage1 very well. When staying in the United States, I was invited to dinner by him every two weeks. In 1944 I invited him to visit China when he was on his way to tour in India. He agreed, but asked for a formal invitation from the Chinese government. I wrote to the Resource Commission about this, so he arrived in Chongqing through the Foreign Ministry. Then the American Embassy in Chongqing arranged for him to conduct an investigative visit of the Three Gorges area along the Yangtze by boat and downstream to near Yichang, which was occupied by the Japanese at the time. After his return to the United States, he suggested that the American government assist the construction of the Three Gorges power plant with a loan of US$1 billion. He told me this by letter, but I felt it was impossible to do this because there were no customers for the hydro electricity. For this reason, I wrote to the Resource Commission and reminded them to be careful about this. Qian Changzhao, head of the Resource Commission, replied to me. Once again, I voiced my opposition and wrote a letter to Qian, but Qian told me it was useless to continue opposing a dam at Three Gorges because the then-President of the Guomingdang government, Jiang Jieshi, had made his decision to build the dam. Qian asked me to return to China to take charge of the project. Thus I went back and devoted myself to it for a while. But very soon everything stopped and, because of the war, the American experts withdrew from China. I felt that I suffered a gross insult by the United States’ involvement. Not long ago, at the dam site, someone proposed that we have a party to celebrate the fact that we had made Savage’s dream of building the Three Gorges dam come true. They invited me to the party, but I refused and walked away. Of course Savage was a great engineer and a wonderful person. At the time of the Guomingdang’s rule, without the necessary conditions to build the dam, the Americans were eager to push the project forward. But now the U.S. government is doing its utmost to oppose the Three Gorges Project. In fact, the Aswan High Dam is very good, but the U.S. has criticized it vigorously. Obviously, all of this involves a political factor. In the process of conducting the feasibility study of the Three Gorges Project, a few experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences suspected that building the project would cause a series of environmental problems in the Three Gorges area. As the principal examiner of the Three Gorges Project’s feasibility report on the environmental effects, I made every effort to convince them of the need for the project and that the problems could be addressed. I asked them to consider what would happen without the Three Gorges Project? How could we protect the vast area below the dam without the Three Gorges Project? I reassured them that it would be feasible to resettle the population affected by the project. As a result, they departed from their original stand that the project would harm the environment, and accepted the conclusions of the feasibility report that the environmental damage wouldn’t be too serious. This is why I am feeling particularly anxious about the Three Gorges Project’s environmental protection. Pay no attention to what the Americans are saying now. We should put everything right with respect to the environment because the Americans want to see our failure. Now what I am worrying most about, is that we have not done our job very well. Director Guo, what do you think of my opinion?

Professor Zhang continues: As for people like Li Rui and Lu Qinkan, they know little about the actual situation. Why are they trying to stop the project, without recognizing that the purpose of the Three Gorges Project is to control big floods? I don’t understand what they are thinking about. After reading their letter to the central government leaders, I have realized that many of the 53 people who signed the letter are not at home in the issue of water conservancy, and most of them just gathered together to create a disturbance.

The reason I wrote you is that the environmental protection issue of the Three Gorges Project makes me uneasy. Little compensation was budgeted for this because no facilities for environmental protection in the Three Gorges area existed in the past. We should now do something to take remedial measures since the situation is getting worse. Consider the experience of Shanghai: about US$12.5 billion are allocated by the central government and used in Shanghai’s urban construction each year. We can make a proposal for US$37 billion for the Three Gorges area for the entire 17-year period of the project. In my view, it does not make any sense to put money on the preservation of the Yushiliang in Fuling.2 There is definitely nothing special to seeing it, or not seeing it. How important is the Zhangfei Temple?3 I feel it is a matter of little consequence. But, without funding, we will be unable to do anything to protect the Three Gorges’ environment. I am old and have no power, so I can do nothing but worry about this.

On some occasions I don’t feel free to speak. They always object to what I am saying. The generating output of the Three Gorges Project is 84 billion kWh, but there will be seasonal variations in the electricity supply: in order to control floods, the water head available to generate power in the summer will be kept low, while in winter it will be high and stable. To help the Three Gorges Power hydro power plant regulate and balance electric power production among different seasons, we must build some thermal power plants. I prefer oil or gas-fired power plants to coal-fired power stations. The price for hydropower electricity generated by the Ertan Power Station is so expensive that nobody is willing to buy it. Customers in China would rather die than buy Ertan’s electricity.

Perhaps you know that the flood control capacity of the Three Gorges Project is smaller than declared by us. The research was done by Qinghua University. After learning this, Vice-chairman Qian questioned the Changjiang Water Resources Commission. The Changjiang Water Resources Commission has also admitted this is true. However, we can sort this problem out by lowering the flood control level to 135m, even though this would affect shipping on the river. But keep in mind, never, ever let the public know this.

As far as the quality of the project is concerned, our inspection report is too polite, not wanting to criticize for fear of being attacked by others. I would like to make it clear that the quality of the project is just average. The TGP is not a construction project with building materials like bean dregs, but it is far from excellent. The key to the problem lies in that we are constantly trying to quicken the pace of the project and go too fast.

Ensuing Debate Among the Chinese Leadership Over Professor Zhang’s Alarm
Editor’s Note: Three Gorges Probe learned that Guo sent this transcript of Professor Zhang’s statement to vice-premier Wu Bangguo on June 6, 2000, saying “Comrade Bangguo, the enclosed is the record of Comrade Zhang Guangdou’s talk with me. Zhang expressed his personal views and ideas to me. He said he wanted leaders to know this. Please have a look and let me know if you have any comments.” Wu immediately wrote his comments and, on the same day, June 6, 2000, sent this transcript “for Comrade Rongji’s reading.” The next day, Premier Zhu Rongji circulated the document (now document No. 2582), “Suggesting to report to Comrade Li Peng and send it to Comrade Lu Youmei, (indecipherable), and so on.”

1Editor’s footnote: John L. Savage, as Chief designer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, designed the Hoover dam, the Grand Coolee dam, among others. He also helped develop the first plan for China’s Three Gorges dam, as well as other multi-dam schemes for the Indus and Mekong rivers in the 1940s and 1950s. After 50 years’ experience as the world’s foremost dam building institution, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation changed its mission in 1993 from one of water management to environmental management and conservation. With respect to the withdrawal of Bureau support for the Three Gorges dam in 1993, Bureau spokeswoman Lisa Guide put it this way: “It is now generally known that large-scale, water retention dam projects are not environmentally or economically feasible. We wouldn’t support such a project in the U.S. now, so it would be incongruous for us to support a project like this in another country.”

2Editor’s footnote: This refers to the White Crane Ridge, a 1,600 metre long, 15 metre wide fish-shaped stone with valuable hydrological records, dating back 1200 years, carved into the rock face. This ridge will be completely submerged by the Three Gorges dam reservoir.

3Editor’s footnote: The Zhangfei Temple honours Zhangfei, a well-known hero living in the Three Kingdoms period, from 220 BC to 280 BC. Many Chinese citizens love his story. The temple is an attraction, opposite the county seat of Yunyang, that will be flooded by the Three Gorges reservoir. There is a plan to move it to higher ground.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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