Dai Qing and Three Gorges

Quick cleanup sparks fears of an environmental time bomb

Kelly Haggart
January 23, 2002

As China races against the clock to clean up the bottom of the future Three Gorges reservoir this year, experts fear the colossal undertaking could be too little, too late to avert an environmental catastrophe.

The reservoir-bed cleanup was launched Sunday with the demolition of a thermal power plant and the local government headquarters in the Fengjie county seat of Yongan in Chongqing municipality, 160 kilometres upstream of the Three Gorges dam.

An estimated 10 million people watched the demolitions, broadcast live with much fanfare on national television. China Central Television called the explosions “a wonderful scene” – as well as a wake-up call to residents, reminding them they must leave the town by the end of this year.

Beijing-based writer and environmentalist Dai Qing says the Three Gorges dam feasibility study, completed 10 years ago, did not adequately address the problem of the cleanup and decontamination of the reservoir bed.

Now, she says, having left this immense task to the last minute, the authorities are trying to solve the problem by throwing money at it – and by dazzling a national television audience with dramatic displays of pyrotechnics.

“It really is ridiculous that such a hasty and reckless operation is being depicted – or whitewashed – as ‘a wonderful first bang,'” she said.

Army demolition experts drilled 3,200 holes into the buildings destroyed Sunday, and then packed them with explosives, Xinhua news agency reported. Xue Fengsong, the man in charge of the operation, was quoted as saying the buildings collapsed in a matter of seconds, and caused no casualties.

Xinhua said the power plant and office buildings in Yongan, an ancient town on the Yangtze River founded 2,300 years ago, were demolished “to remove possible pollution sources and ensure navigation safety in the reservoir of the Three Gorges project.”

Water in the reservoir is due to rise to 135 metres above sea level when the dam begins holding back water next year, and to rise a further 40 metres when the project is completed in 2009.

But according to the project schedule, the reservoir bed must be fully prepared three months before the water begins rising in June 2003 – leaving just 13 months for one of the biggest cleaning jobs in history.

Calling this “an urgent task,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted a Chinese water expert as saying the reservoir will become an “ecological bomb” if the land is not cleaned up properly beforehand.

“Water in the reservoir would be polluted by the garbage and discarded objects from industrial enterprises and homes in the region; navigation and aquatic production would be affected by the building structures; and the reservoir area would become a huge ‘ecological bomb,'” the agency quoted the unnamed expert as saying.

Mr. Xue, the Fengjie demolition team leader, told Xinhua that soldiers would disinfect the area to ensure the explosives being used caused no pollution. And as for debris from the buildings, this would be buried and have little environmental impact, he said.

But critics contend it will be impossible to clear away so much in so little time. The Three Gorges reservoir will flood 632 square kilometres of land, inundating 22 cities and counties, 115 towns, 1,100 villages, 1,300 factories, 4,000 hospitals and clinics, and 40,000 tombs, Xinhua said.

Ms. Dai believes authorities at the highest levels have sought to conceal the serious environmental problems related to the Three Gorges project, fearing the information would provide opponents of the dam with ammunition. And officials at the local level have lacked awareness of how to protect the river, she says.

“Not only are towns and cities along the banks of the reservoir – including Chongqing [China’s largest metropolis] – spewing wastewater day and night into the river, but also factories, mines, hospitals, graves, garbage dumps and so forth below the 135-metre level will be covered by the rising water.

“What Three Gorges project officials dare not say is that all this debris is likely to be blocked by the dam and to collect behind it in the slow-flowing reservoir,” Ms. Dai warned.

She cites research conducted a few years ago by a Chongqing University professor and respected environmental expert, Lei Henshun. Prof. Lei, who is now retired, is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee. After travelling throughout the Three Gorges region, he concluded that not one city or county in the area intends to draw its drinking water from the Yangtze after the dam is built.

He found that officials everywhere were planning to build their own reservoirs to provide future water sources for their communities. “Everybody knows the Yangtze will become undrinkable after construction of the big dam is finished,” he wrote.

Ms. Dai argues that a thorough effort to scrub clean contaminated land, and rid the reservoir bed of hazardous materials such as industrial chemicals and heavy metals, untreated sewage and other pollutants, should have started long ago, and the costs and feasibility of such an enormous task should have been assessed in the original feasibility study.

“Unfortunately, the Ministry of Water Resources was so focused on pushing ahead with the project that it never took into account the drinking-water issue, which affects millions of people,” she said.

“So now project authorities are in a big hurry to blast buildings down to the ground, under which poisonous materials will be buried. They should be held accountable for the consequences of this, and apologize to the Chinese people, who have contributed their money to building this huge dam, and to the uprooted migrants, who have suffered so much.”

Xinhua has reported that the reservoir water will inundate at least 178 garbage dumps containing “2.87 million tons of garbage, [as well as] 15 million tons of discarded solid objects.”

Two days before the celebrated opening “bang” of the cleanup campaign, Xinhua reported an exposé published in the Chongqing Morning Post (Chongqing chenbao) about one such garbage mountain. It has been growing for years on the banks of the Yangtze in Yongan, about 100 metres away from one of the buildings blown up Sunday.

A reporter from the newspaper was overwhelmed by the stench as he approached the fly-infested mound, which he estimated to be 80 metres long, 60 metres wide and 50 metres high.

The reporter, who saw garbage-pickers working and children playing on the heap, encountered an elderly man who has worked for years as a refuse collector. He told the reporter the rubbish mountain has been building for more than a decade, with about six tonnes of new garbage thrown onto it every day.

Based on this estimate, about 2,200 tonnes of refuse are added to this one dump every year. Residents have long complained about it, and CCTV reported the story. But no action has ever been taken, and none is promised, the newspaper said.

As Chinese authorities and state-controlled media cheer the big “bangs” of the cleanup campaign, residents now fear that nothing will be done about this fetid garbage mountain, and that it will simply be left to become part of a dangerously polluted water body on their doorstep.

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