Odious Debts

Experts scramble to tackle a colossal trouble zone

Kelly Haggart
May 20, 2005
Chinese environmental scientists are worried that the future operation of the Three Gorges dam could cause a wide strip of land stretching for thousands of kilometres to become geologically unstable, seriously polluted and a dangerous source of epidemic disease.

Over the years, the repeated annual rise and fall of the water level in the dam reservoir could also leave unsightly marks on the scenic Three Gorges, they say. After the Three Gorges project is completed in 2009, the water in the reservoir is to be kept at 175 metres above sea level during the dry winter months to maximize hydropower generation. According to the operating model for the dam, this “normal pool level” is to be lowered to 145 metres for the summer, to allow room in the reservoir for floodwater. It is this 30-metre-high swath of land between 145 metres and 175 metres that is causing the concern. Stretching for 2,600 kilometres in all – around the edge of the Three Gorges reservoir and along the banks of upstream tributaries – this massive belt of land will be covered with water in winter and exposed in summer. When the reservoir level is lowered before the flood season, the receding water will leave a variety of problems in its wake. Left behind on the land will be garbage and other waste, and small pools of dirty water, containing parasites and germs, that could become disease breeding grounds in the extreme summer heat. Furthermore, after being submerged for half the year, the hillsides and riverbanks in this geologically fragile area could become more unstable than they already are, and even more prone to collapse. Most of the people who have been moved to make way for the Three Gorges dam have been resettled just above this danger zone.

Sounding the alarm

Lei Henshun, a retired Chongqing University professor and respected environmental expert, says he has been trying to raise awareness about these problems for the past decade. “I have been concerned about this issue since the dam project started, and have voiced my concerns on many different occasions, both in Chongqing and by going to Beijing,” Prof. Lei told Oriental Outlook Weekly (Liaowang dongfang zhoukan). “If this problem is not solved, it will affect the environment in the Three Gorges reservoir area, and threaten the safety of the people who live there,” he warned. Prof. Lei is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top legislative advisory body. During the last conference season, when sessions of the CPPCC and China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, were held in Beijing in March, delegates from Chongqing municipality submitted 99 proposals related to the Three Gorges dam. Of all the issues raised in those proposals, the one that delegates found most alarming was the prospect of this gargantuan trouble zone threatening to bring serious environmental and public health problems on a massive scale. Now, after 10 years of lobbying, Prof. Lei says he sees “a glimmer of hope” in the form of a research program that is finally getting under way. He and other experts welcome the initiative, which is being directed and funded by the Development and Reform Commission of Chongqing municipality. They are also aware that the work is long overdue. Wang Liao, director of Chongqing University’s Environmental Design Institute, told Oriental Outlook Weekly: “We have to speed up the process because the reservoir will be filled to 156 metres next year. The problem is about to materialize, so we’re racing against time.”

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Categories: Odious Debts

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