Three Gorges Probe

Radioactive debris, diseased rats, anthrax and E. coli:

Kelly Haggart

February 8, 2002

As uneasiness grows about the potential consequences of a slapdash cleanup of the Three Gorges reservoir bed, a respected newspaper has reported some of the latest concerns of Chinese environmental experts.


As uneasiness grows about the potential consequences of a slapdash cleanup of the Three Gorges reservoir bed, a respected newspaper has reported some of the latest concerns of Chinese environmental experts: waste sites containing radioactive debris, wartime graves contaminated with anthrax, deadly bacteria in drinking water and displaced hordes of rats spreading disease.

Under the headline Three Gorges Cleanup: A Race Against Time, Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) ran a lengthy article on Jan. 31 in which it highlighted a range of problems raised by three leading experts. The popular Guangzhou-based weekly newspaper — known for its bold reporting, which led to the dismissal of senior editorial staff last year [See Top editors dismissed from daring newspaper] — interviewed Lei Henshun, a well-known environmental scientist at Chongqing University, who appealed for urgent action to avert disaster in the Three Gorges area.

“In my opinion, cleaning up the bottom of the future reservoir is just as important a task as building the physical dam itself and resettling the affected groups,” Prof. Lei was quoted as saying. “There is a huge quantity of harmful garbage and toxic material in the area to be flooded, and we are likely to face serious consequences if measures are not taken right now. We must not gamble on this, or treat the matter lightly.”

The newspaper said a recent survey of the reservoir area made the startling discovery of eight graves contaminated with anthrax, dating from the 1937-45 war with Japan. To avoid inadvertently spreading the disease, the bodies of people and animals killed by anthrax are prohibited from being removed from the area, the newspaper said. Instead, such corpses are to be exhumed and cremated, and the ashes reburied deep underground on the same spot.

Most other graves, however, are to be moved from the area of the future reservoir. “It is an extremely difficult task to clear away all the graves in line with the regulations announced by the central government,” an official with Chongqing’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention was quoted as saying. “In theory, all graves up to 15 years old are to be dug up, the corpses burned and then reburied outside of the reservoir area. The earth around the graves is to be exposed to sunlight for some time, and then disinfected with chemicals until no harmful substances remain.”

According to a survey conducted in the early 1990s by the disease-control centre, the 600-km-long reservoir that will form behind the dam will inundate 41,293 graves. In addition, the water will flood 703 “toxic sites,” 178 garbage dumps heaped with 2.8 million of tonnes of rubbish, and 64 industrial sites containing 15 million tonnes of solid waste.

Southern Weekend said the survey had also found that these industrial sites contained “123 sources of radioactive debris,” but gave no further details.

The newspaper quoted Wei Siqi, a senior member of the non-Communist advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), as saying: “Those kinds of things will be disastrous for water quality in the reservoir if they cannot be completely removed. How worrisome it will be!”

As Three Gorges Probe reported earlier this week, Mr. Wei told a recent meeting of the CPPCC in Chongqing that more attention must be paid to cleaning up dangerous materials such as radioactive debris from industry. [See Reservoir cleanup ‘risks overlooking radioactive waste’]

Southern Weekend quotes Mr. Wei as repeating those concerns, and adding: “Without a doubt, the quality of the cleanup will affect many aspects of our lives, such as water quality, hydropower generation, navigation safety and the possibility of triggering the spread of deadly endemic diseases.

“Moreover, water quality in the future reservoir is likely to have a direct impact not only on the reservoir itself and on the middle and lower reaches [of the Yangtze River], but also potentially on half of China’s territory if the polluted water is channelled north via the proposed south-north water transfer project.” (Beijing recently announced plans to draw water from the Yangtze at three points and move it to the parched north along thousands of kilometres of canals and aqueducts.)

According to the timetable set by the central government for construction of the Three Gorges dam, the cleanup is to be completed three months before the reservoir begins filling with water in June 2003. Of the three main areas of work — dealing with buildings, with trees, and undertaking “a sanitation and anti-epidemic cleanup” — the latter is by far the most complicated. The difficult items to be tackled include sewage systems and pits containing human and animal excrement, garbage dumps and livestock sheds, hospitals and slaughterhouses, graves containing human and animal remains buried up to 15 years ago, and solid waste from factories and mines.

Mr. Wei also cited water-quality research undertaken in the Chongqing section of the Yangtze that found increased levels of deadly E. coli bacteria during the summer flood season, when floodwater washes hazardous refuse into the river from open toilets, garbage dumps and hospitals. “After reviewing the report, we have come to know how dangerous it will be if insufficient attention is paid to this issue,” he said.

Mr. Wei, who is vice-chairman of the Chongqing committee of the CPPCC, “is not exaggerating things to scare people or to sensationalize the situation,” the newspaper said. “Without an effective cleanup of the reservoir bed, the substances oozing from the garbage buried in the reservoir could have an impact on water quality for more than 100 years.”

Wang Liao, an environmental expert at Chongqing University, raised another concern: the danger of rats displaced by the reservoir spreading disease as they move into new areas.

“There is a huge population of rats in the reservoir area, particularly in urban districts, and an extremely high density around garbage dumps, which is really a serious problem,” Dr. Wang said. The newspaper quoted an unnamed source at Chongqing’s disease-control centre as saying: “If a substantial part of the rat population is not killed [as part of the cleanup], when the reservoir rises, the rats will be forced to climb to higher ground. A sudden influx of a large number of rats raises the possibility of disease epidemics.”

Dr. Wang said the dam feasibility study undertaken by Chinese experts had underestimated the importance of the reservoir cleanup. Only a few sample surveys were done, and many fundamental factors relevant to the cleanup were ignored. As a result, he said, little is known about the future reservoir bed, and the financial resources to address the problems are in short supply.

“It’s very tough for us to propose a sound plan to deal with the cleanup issues because of the inadequacy of the initial survey, as well as the lack of data and figures about the pollution situation,” the newspaper quoted Dr. Wang as saying.

His colleague at Chongqing University, Prof. Lei, agreed: “From the outset, tackling pollution and cleaning up the Three Gorges area has largely been ignored, which can clearly be seen from the original budget earmarked for a matter of such importance.” The money initially budgeted for the cleanup was clearly inadequate — a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of building the world’s biggest dam, Southern Weekend said. (The Resettlement Feasibility Report completed by a Chinese team in 1987 set the initial budget for the reservoir cleanup at US$1 million, compared with the original resettlement budget of US$1.4 billion.)

Though a bit more attention is now being paid to the cleanup — thanks to growing pressure (including petitions) from scientists and other experts inside and outside the Three Gorges area — Prof. Lei said the key to an effective operation is to monitor it more carefully, and to “get the job done, rather than just give the impression of doing it.” It goes without saying that many people share Prof. Lei’s fervent hope, Southern Weekend said.


Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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