China's Dams

Don’t get bogged down in dam ‘details,’ Lu Youmei urges

Zhong Weizhi

August 6, 2004

A commentator who takes issue with views expressed by the former manager of the Three Gorges Corp. praises environmental groups opposed to big dams for their ‘respectful, constructive and effective’ campaigns.

This editorial ran in the Beijing-based Economic Observer (Jingji guancha bao) on July 17, 2004.

Lu Youmei, former general manager of the Three Gorges Corporation and current member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, spoke to the New Beijing Daily (Xin jing bao) a few days ago about the Three Gorges project. Mr. Lu said the Three Gorges dam is not being built by a few people in a few days, but is a major project that was the subject of feasibility studies for almost a century. The Three Gorges dam is no ordinary project, but is the result of the combined efforts of several generations of Chinese experts. Mr. Lu argues that focusing on a few minor issues related to the project is not a scientific approach, and that the Three Gorges scheme should be evaluated in a more comprehensive, all-around way. His comments have stirred heated debate in China.

According to Lu Youmei, many issues related to the project, such as sedimentation, soil erosion, flood-control benefits and environmental impacts, should be considered in the context of the many great benefits of building the Three Gorges dam. He argues that it is neither responsible nor rational to criticize or even oppose the project by concentrating on one or two negative aspects. Mr. Lu goes on to point out that while debates are bound to occur around specific dams, outright opposition to all dams is an ideological stance.

In my opinion, the opponents of big dams are environmentalists who are greatly concerned about the environmental impacts of dam-building. Usually, these groups advocate that humanity should use water resources wisely, and that building dams and reservoirs is not the only solution to the world’s water problems. Replacing traditional approaches with new ideas and innovative water-management strategies would benefit people and the environment, and promote a healthier river ecosystem. These groups’ efforts and campaigns are respectful, constructive and effective. It was thanks to their great work that the dams proposed for the Nu River have been suspended, albeit temporarily.

In China’s current context, everybody knows it’s just a matter of time before the proponents of the Nu River dams push the scheme forward. But without a doubt, environmentalists’ efforts will put pressure on the project authorities and force them to take a more rational approach.

Lu Youmei observed that a number of dam opponents were invited to join the World Commission on Dams. He said he was also unhappy that the WCD had decided to put forward global recommendations on dams. He told members of the WCD face-to-face that he didn’t think this was a good idea, because the situation in each country is different.

As a matter of fact, the WCD was convened by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and by the World Bank, which has funded the construction of many dams worldwide. And so it’s fair to say that the WCD was not opposed to dam-building per se. Rather, it viewed dams and reservoirs as major players in controlling floods, generating electricity and providing water resources, though it did call for great care to be taken in building big dams. The WCD has insisted that hydro dams have brought obvious benefits, while at the same time creating a number of problems, such as degradation of ecosystems, depletion of fishery resources, population displacement and impoverishment, and so forth.

We should listen to the WCD, a neutral body, and then make our own judgments about the costs and benefits of dams, a process that can help us enhance their positive aspects and reduce the harm. It is, therefore, not a very good idea to place us in opposition to the WCD just because it invited dam opponents to take part in its work.

From a purely technical point of view, a variety of problems are bound to arise as more turbines are put into operation at the Three Gorges dam. We need to put the project under long-term observation, in a scientific spirit, and do our best to keep it running safely and efficiently. …

Mr. Lu has reportedly admitted that the Three Gorges dam is not a perfect project, but that these imperfections should not be used as an excuse to reject the entire project. In our view, however, focusing on “minor issues” related to the project is by no means an attempt to deny the importance of building the dam. But for such an unprecedented and huge project, every minor issue should be treated as a major one.

We interviewed Wang Shucheng, minister of water resources, during the National People’s Congress held in March of this year. Mr. Wang observed to us that developed and developing countries have a completely different attitude toward dam-building. “There is no doubt that China will build more dams in the future because of its uneven distribution of water resources in time and space, and because of its need for power as its develops,” he said. “Frankly, however, our country has not done a good job of dealing with the social and environmental problems that have been caused by dam-building in the past. In any case, paying more attention now to environmental issues can be seen as progress.”

We think Minister Wang’s way of thinking represents a comprehensive perspective based on the core values of science and rationality.

Responding to reports in the New Beijing Daily, Lu Youmei expressed disagreement with the statement that there is a serious dearth of industry in the Three Gorges reservoir area. “Why is there a dearth of industry in the reservoir area? This is because the new towns were planned and built too big. Many new towns in the reservoir area were built several times larger than the old ones. The towns are too big and the people are few. This is why the so-called ‘dearth of industry’ problem has been created. Recently, several counties have complained that the number of people affected by the dam was underestimated. They have even claimed that the real resettlement figure should be more than two million, rather than the 1.13 million we estimated. Obviously, what they really want from us is more money. But that won’t happen until we have thoroughly investigated this issue.”

Based on our own interviews and investigations, we don’t think Mr. Lu’s charge – “that what they really want from us is more money” – reflects what’s really going on in the reservoir area. We believe that moving the affected people out of the reservoir area no longer presents a problem, but the fact remains that there is too little funding of industrial development, and the lack of job opportunities can be seen throughout the region.

More importantly, sooner or later the resettlement funds will run out. According to Huang Shiyan, head of Fuling district in Chongqing municipality, there is a big gap between the compensation policy worked out in 1992 and the compensation money actually being offered [because of a decline in buying power of the yuan in the intervening years]. And without stable incomes, social problems are bound to arise some day.

For local governments and affected people, these problems really are central issues. And so these issues should not be ignored just because of the benefits of building the Three Gorges project.

Influenced by a low level of economic development and by traditional culture, the management of water resources in China has for a long time been a political issue rather than a purely technical one. Ironically, even today, we still can’t have an open discussion on the technical aspects. In future, we have to explore how to make the institutions that undertake the feasibility studies, decision-making and supervision of big projects more democratic.

Translated by Three Gorges Probe (Chinese) editor Mu Lan.

Categories: China's Dams

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