Dams and Landslides

Is “keeping in step with the Party” good for the environment?

Dai Qing

March 13, 2002

Acclaimed environmental journalist Dai Qing looks back at some key moments in the political history of the Three Gorges dam – and sees a glimmer of hope ahead.


Ever since the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, Party members and the Chinese people as a whole have been endlessly admonished to “keep in step with the Party.” The debate over building the Three Gorges Dam provides a good example of this.

In the early 1950s, very few people dared voice opposition to Chairman Mao Zedong’s romantic idea of “surprising the goddess of Wu Gorge by creating a huge man-made lake between the deep canyons.” Li Rui was an exception, but unfortunately he and his followers paid an extremely high price for their actions, which had failed to keep in step with the Party or with Chairman Mao himself.1

At that time, few people realized that building the Three Gorges dam would have such a harmful impact on the environment. Little was known in the 1950s about dam and reservoir-induced environmental effects such as landslides, riverbank collapses, pollution, species extinction and so forth. But since the 1980s, we have been far more environmentally aware and now recognize that the environmental impacts of building the dam are too serious to be ignored.

China’s three powerful authorities – the State Economic Commission, State Planning Commission and Chinese Academy of Sciences – conducted separate feasibility studies but all reached the same conclusion: that building the Three Gorges dam would be harmful to the environment.

In the feasibility study on the environmental impact of the Three Gorges project, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences concluded that “in terms of the environmental effects, the costs of building the Three Gorges project will greatly outweigh the potential benefits, and a high cost will be paid if the dam is built.”

In these circumstances, and in the face of growing opposition, the State Council announced in the spring of 1989 that the idea of building the Three Gorges dam would be put on hold for at least five years.

Unfortunately, after People’s Liberation Army tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, nobody inside China dared challenge the Party or the central government, and the different voices that had spoken out about the Three Gorges project were relentlessly silenced.

June 4 provided a golden opportunity for project proponents to put the dam back on the agenda and push it through as fast as they could – since the original decision had failed to keep in step with the Party. This climate handed the Ministry of Water Resources the opportunity to organize a new feasibility study, and it arrived at a conclusion completely opposite to the one drawn by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (albeit in the name of the CAS): “In terms of environmental impact, the benefits of building the Three Gorges project will greatly outweigh any costs.”

Since then, non-government environmental groups [in China] have raised no criticisms of the dam, while government environmental protection departments have remained silent for years. Even several long-standing opponents of the project no longer spoke out. For instance, Lin Hua, former vice-director of the State Economic Commission and a well-known critic of the dam, said nothing, for “the Party has made its decision.”

It was not until 1997 that a news report published by China Environment Daily (Zhongguo huanjing bao) prompted a strong reaction outside China. According to the report, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) admitted that building the Three Gorges dam would have a highly adverse impact on the environment. But soon, SEPA strenuously denied the report, and the reporter was said to have been severely punished – for being out of step with the Party.

However, not all government officials have been doing nothing while holding on to their taxpayer-supported positions; some are trying to help protect the environment. And so, even as the dam construction is at its peak, SEPA has published its “Environmental monitoring bulletin of the Three Gorges Project 2000,” which includes some things that are not in step with the Party:

  • “Due to human activities, some rare birds in the Three Gorges reservoir area have been turned into visitors rather than residents.”
  • “The area providing wood fuel is declining, and erosion has become a serious concern in the reservoir area because of the shortage of rural energy sources.”
  • “Geological disasters, such as riverbank collapses and landslides, are increasing in the reservoir area, leading to growing economic losses.”
  • “Pollution incidents are on the rise, caused by boats and by the garbage dumped directly into the river, seriously compromising water quality.”
  • “No urgent and effective measures have been taken to deal with wastewater. Almost all polluted water is discharged untreated into the main channel of the Yangtze and its tributaries. Most garbage is washed into the river or heaped along its banks, creating a potential problem after the reservoir is filled.”

Actually, none of this is new. Many scientists and engineers never stopped expressing similar or even stronger opinions in a variety of ways. It is also fair to say that government environmental protection authorities have held a more or less similar stance on these issues.

So while there is nothing new in this environmental bulletin, the fact of its publication indicates that these ideas are being allowed to be made public at this time.

One question remains: What is the reaction of the dam project’s highest authority – the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee – to SEPA’s bulletin on the environment? Does it still turn a blind eye to this issue? While only one-sixth of the Three Gorges resettlement task has been completed, problems with landslides, riverbank collapses and water pollution have become increasingly urgent.

Since taking office in 1998, Premier Zhu Rongji has pressed home a variety of issues related to the dam, such as the quality of its construction (inviting international experts to inspect it), the preservation of archeological relics, resettlement, corruption and so on. But the people who are intent on achieving personal gain from the project by whatever means have always resisted his efforts.

Still, the bulletin published by the State Environmental Protection Administration holds out the promise of a fresh start with the world’s biggest dam. Hopefully its publication signals that more innovative thinking and more effective measures to address the environmental problems will be allowed to come to the fore.

1Li Rui, a former secretary to Mao and longtime opponent of the Three Gorges dam, was a vice-minister in the Ministry of Water Resources before being purged in 1959. He was rehabilitated in 1979.

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