Three Gorges Probe

Murky practices mar bidding for Three Gorges cleanup contracts

Kelly Haggart and Xiao Meihong
October 31, 2001

Hundreds of factories, hospitals and other buildings containing hazardous materials are to be dismantled and their sites scrubbed clean before the Three Gorges dam reservoir is filled to the 135-metre level in 2003. But as the deadline looms, concern is mounting that time is too short for an environmental cleanup of this magnitude.

Beijing has earmarked US$25 million a year over the next five years to clean up the low-lying land that will become the bottom of the future reservoir. When the reservoir is filled to the 175-metre mark in 2009, a lake stretching 600 km upstream will form behind the dam. The prospect of a hasty and haphazard cleanup operation is heightening fears that the reservoir will become a stagnant pool of industrial chemicals, heavy metals, untreated sewage and other pollutants.

Now, sources in China report that the bidding process for the reservoir cleanup contracts is also murky, and that corrupt local officials risk sabotaging the whole operation. They say companies submitting tenders for the contracts have been asked to include promises of luxury cars, computers and other expensive items in their applications.

Formal bidding for the cleanup contracts was due to be held Nov. 1 at the Three Gorges dam site. On Oct. 25, one prospective bidder publicly stated his concerns about the tendering process at a meeting in Beijing.

Wen Yibo, general manager of Sound Group, a Beijing-based environmental engineering company, told a conference on international environmental governance held at the U.S. embassy: “What has shocked me is that local officials have insisted that we list in our bids two, four or even eight luxury vehicles, the most advanced digital cameras and the trendiest notebook computers. Even more ridiculously, we are required to list ‘sufficient and high-quality toilet paper’ in the bids.

“Without including these sorts of items, we have no chance of winning a contract,” Mr. Wen said. “Premier Zhu Rongji would be exasperated if he knew about all this.”

Mr. Zhu has called for corrupt officials involved in the Three Gorges project to be called to account. During one inspection tour to the area, he is reported to have told officials at a meeting in Wuhan: “Illegal subcontracting and hierarchical subcontracting by localities in their tender processes have caused draining of funds and have resulted in shoddy work using inferior materials, thereby creating hidden potential dangers.”

Official concern about Yangtze water quality is also growing. The National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, recently dispatched three teams of water inspectors to the Three Gorges area to investigate whether environmental laws are being enforced.

When the hazardous sites are submerged and the world’s biggest dam slows the flow of the Yangtze – whose current has been relied on to flush some of the pollution problem out to sea – an already degraded river looks set to become further contaminated.

The huge municipality of Chongqing, meanwhile, is estimated to discharge more than a billion tonnes of industrial wastewater and 300 million tonnes of sewage every year into the site of the future reservoir, of which only 28 per cent and 8 per cent respectively is treated.

The consequences may be felt far beyond the Yangtze River valley. With the north China water shortage worsening rapidly, Beijing is expected to proceed with an immense south-north water diversion project. Under the scheme, water is to be drawn from the Yangtze at three points and moved to the parched north along thousands of kilometres of canals and aqueducts.

But officials acknowledge that pollution could sink the controversial scheme. Suo Lisheng, China’s vice-minister of water resources, told Xinhua news agency in September that there will be little point to the project if the Yangtze water-quality problem is not tackled first.

Mr. Suo said constructing just one of the three routes along which water would be moved north could cost 20 billion yuan RMB (US$2.4 billion). Then he revealed that the government might have to spend even more – as much as 25 billion yuan RMB (US$3 billion) – on treating industrial and domestic wastewater along the route.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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