February 14, 2001
Leaked correspondence between China’s top leadership reveals growing official alarm over the threat of unmitigated water pollution in the Three Gorges dam reservoir.
Chinese officials alarmed at looming environmental crisis at Three Gorges dam, internal documents reveal
Dam will not provide reliable power or control Yangtze floods. “Never, ever let the public know this,” warns eminent Chinese scientist
The leaked documents include an April 1, 2000 letter from Zhang Guangduo, the eminent Qinghua University professor and principal examiner of the Three Gorges Project’s feasibility study in the 1980s on the dam’s environmental impacts.
In the documents, Professor Zhang pleads to the man in charge of building the Three Gorges dam, Guo Shuyan, to find money to address a looming environmental crisis in the reservoir area of the dam. He estimates $37 billion is needed.
Professor Zhang wrote his urgent request after meeting with officials from the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing, which is now responsible for 75 percent of the reservoir area and 85 percent of the people to be resettled by the dam. Professor Zhang discovered in his meetings Chongqing’s Environmental Protection Bureau knows very little about the state of industrial wastewater and domestic sewage flowing into the Three Gorges dam reservoir, and has insufficient money to build the necessary treatment plants.
Professor Zhang also expressed alarm at the Bureau’s inattention to the harm caused by local people who are busy building new homes on the slopes of the 600 kilometre-long reservoir. “Our discussion with them caused me to worry tremendously about the conservation and management of the reservoir environment,” his letter states.
The new super-municipality of Chongqing — which was created in 1997 to appease dam-affected Chongqing — is estimated to annually discharge more than one billion tonnes of industrial wastewater and 300 million tonnes of sewage into the site of the future reservoir, of which only 28 percent and 8 percent respectively is treated. In addition, each year, about 21.7 million tonnes of garbage are dumped around the reservoir area, which is flushed into the Yangtze during the rainy season.
In a rare exposure of internal bureaucratic tension over the Three Gorges dam, the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing’s vice-director defends his agency, saying that the Changjiang Water Resources Commission (formerly the Yangtze Valley Planning Office), should have worked out a deal with the new municipality of Chongqing to address this problem. The vice-director implies that the old city of Chongqing, which was chronically starved of funds while China’s leaders debated the decision to build the Three Gorges dam for decades, should not be blamed for being unprepared to address the environmental crisis.
One month after receiving Professor Zhang’s letter, Three Gorges Project Construction Committee Director Guo Shuyan, obviously disturbed by the scale and pressing nature of this problem, visited the professor, who had just been released from hospital. During their meeting, Professor Zhang elaborated on his concerns. His comments were transcribed and circulated to vice-premier Wu Bangguo, Premier Zhu Rongji, and to dam proponents, including former premier Li Peng and Lu Youmei, general manager of the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corporation and the vice-director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee.
Professor Zhang expressed his frustration at not feeling “free to speak” about his concerns about the Three Gorges dam. “Perhaps you know that the flood control capacity of the Three Gorges Project is smaller than declared by us,” he said to Director Guo. “The research [showing that the dam’s flood control benefits are inadequate] has been done by the Qinghua University,” and the “Changjiang Water Resources Commission has also admitted this is true.”
Professor Zhang proposed that the threat of floods be addressed by lowering the water level in the Three Gorges reservoir to 135 metres, which would adversely affect shipping on the river. “But keep in mind,” he said, “never, ever let the public know this.”
Lowering the reservoir level to provide flood control would also compromise electricity output in summer, he explained, arguing that Three Gorges power would need to be supplemented by thermal — oil, gas, and coal — plants.
Professor Zhang then lamented the situation at the US$3.43 billion Ertan dam, built upstream of Three Gorges on a tributary of the Yangtze with $1.8 billion in loans from the World Bank and completed in 1998. “The price for hydropower electricity generated by the Ertan Power Station is so expensive that nobody is willing to buy it,” he stated, adding that “customers in China would rather die than buy Ertan’s electricity.”
Professor Zhang’s statement also provided rare insight into international tensions over the dam. In 1944, the eminent U.S. engineer, John Savage, visited the Three Gorges site. He recommended that a dam be built at Three Gorges and suggested the American government assist the construction of it with a US$1 billion loan. Zhang, who was a friend of Savage’s and called him “a great engineer and a wonderful person,” nevertheless disagreed with Savage and urged the then-Guomingdang government not to build the dam. “I felt it was impossible to do this because there were no customers for the hydro electricity,” he said.
His concerns were ignored, the Guomingdang government decided to proceed with the dam and asked Zhang to return from the U.S., where he was living, to head up the project. “I went back and devoted myself to it,” he explained to Guo. Because of the war with the Japanese, the project was shelved.
In 1984, the American government resumed its support for the Three Gorges dam, providing technical assistance until 1993 — a year after the Chinese National People’s Congress approved the project amid unprecedented internal opposition — when it declared that it no longer believed the dam was economically or environmentally feasible.
Professor Zhang, it seems, was offended by the reversal of positions. The U.S. initially encouraged the Chinese government to build the dam. Zhang disagreed but was pressed to support it. Now the U.S. has backed away from the dam, leaving Zhang and others to take responsibility for it.
Professor Zhang puts this reversal of position down to “a political factor,” a veiled reference to human rights concerns, and complained bitterly in his meeting with Guo that he had “suffered a gross insult” from the United States.
Zhang also expressed worry, and perhaps guilt, at having convinced his scientific colleagues in the Chinese Academy of Sciences to endorse the project, despite their concerns that it would harm the environment. Now, he explained to Guo, foreigners in the West, are criticizing the project, especially for the environmental damage it will do. Not wanting these foreigners to be proved right and Chinese scientists wrong, he stated, “this is why I am feeling particularly anxious about the Three Gorges Project’s environmental protection,” adding that “we should put everything right with respect to the environment.”
Professor Zhang derides spending money to preserve archeological treasures while mitigation for the growing environmental calamity remains starved for funds. “In my view, it does not make any sense to put money on the preservation of the Yushiliang [the White Crane Ridge, a 1,600 metre long, 15 metre wide fish-shaped stone with 1200 year-old hydrological records carved into it]” in Fuling. “There is definitely nothing special to seeing it, or not seeing it,” he says. “How important is the Zhangfei Temple [a popular temple in honour of Zhangfei, a well- known hero from the Three Kingdoms period of 220-280 BC]?” he continues. “I feel it is a matter of little consequence.”
Professor Zhang discounted the views of 53 scientists, engineers and water management experts who, in April 2000, called on the Chinese leadership to raise the water levels in the reservoir slowly, rather than quickly as dam officials are planning to do. The 53 experts want to allow time for resettlement, time to evaluate the impact of silt deposits on navigation and ports at the reservoir’s uppermost end, and time to determine if higher water levels are viable. Zhang viewed them as ill-informed critics who wanted merely to “create a disturbance.”
As for allegations that the Three Gorges dam and its related infrastructure are being built with “tofu” — a reference to a structurally unsound bridge that collapsed at the Three Gorges site — Professor Zhang says it isn’t that bad, but it is far from “excellent.” The problem he explains, is “that we are constantly trying to quicken the pace of the project and go too fast.”
Guo sent these comments on to China’s Vice-Premier, Wu Bangguo who immediately wrote his comments and sent the transcript “for Comrade Rongji’s reading.” The next day, Premier Zhu Rongji circulated the document and asked that it be reported to former Premier and Three Gorges’ chief architect Li Peng, and to its general manager, Lu Youmei.
Chongqing officials, meanwhile, kept up pressure on these officials to address this pressing environmental problem. According to a September 18, 2000 report in Zhong Xin She (China News Service) Chongqing Deputy Mayor Chen Jiwa, together with officials from the city’s Environmental Protection Bureau, visited the Three Gorges dam project and issued serious criticism of the poor environmental protection work being carried out there. China’s environmental protection authorities had required that protection efforts be carried out simultaneously with the dam project’s design, construction, and operations.
But one-half of the relocated enterprises in the dam area had failed to implement these requirements. For example, the pollution-treatment system of a monosodium glutamate factory belonging to the Feiya Group is still being designed – – even though the factory has been operating since 1997. The plant currently discharges dense, polluted wastewater directly into the Yangtze River. In addition, none of the hospitals in 13 counties meet pollution standards. Instead they discharge their wastewater directly into the Wujiang, which then flows into the Yangtze River. While it is difficult to know if Professor Zhang’s agitation has had an effect, the impending environmental calamity at Three Gorges seems to have received increased political and press attention recently.
According to a January 3, 2001 Xinhua story, the People’s Government of Chongqing formally resolved to protect the environment around the reservoir with US$5.37 billion to be spent over the next 10 years — still a fraction of the US$37 billion budget called for by Professor Zhang. Meanwhile, while Professor Zhang has sounded the alarm internally, other government agencies are beginning to complain publicly that environmental protection at the Three Gorges dam site is grossly inadequate.
According to a February 1, 2001 story in the South China Morning Post, the powerful State Development Planning Commission has told Beijing that the US$500 million allocated to environmental protection will not prevent the Three Gorges reservoir from becoming a huge sewage lake. Qi Lin, the director of the Three Gorges Resettlement Bureau has also complained that the US$37.5 million budget for environmental protection in resettlement towns is far too low.
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