Three Gorges Probe

Rivers in chaos and Shanghai at risk

Chen Guojie
September 20, 2005

In a wide-ranging interview, prominent scientist Chen Guojie says he is ‘extremely worried’ about the impacts on Shanghai of a number of colossal projects on the Yangtze River, including the Three Gorges dam.

‘I am extremely worried about Shanghai, situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River. In my view, Shanghai is the place that will be most affected by the Three Gorges project, the cascade of dams being built on the upper Yangtze and the south-north water diversion project. All these colossal schemes will affect Shanghai in some way, and we really should be looking into that. Few people are taking seriously the potential combined impact on the city of all these projects.’ Below, an interview with Professor Chen Guojie, senior researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences. (Interview conducted by social scientist Yang Chongqing.)


Yang Chongqing: Your research has focused on the Yangtze and other rivers in southwest China, and so I wanted to ask you about the recent Chinese media reports that say the Min River in Sichuan province has run dry in places.
Chen Guojie: Most of the problem stems from the construction of dams on the river. In fact, the Min is not the only river in this situation. Almost every river in southwest China, even in western China as a whole, faces the same problem. Cascades of hydropower stations are being built not only on the main channels, but also on the tributaries and even sub-tributaries of rivers. In some extreme cases, cascades of dams have been built in river sections that are just a kilometre in length. I find it frustrating to think that we will no longer have free-flowing rivers in China.
Yang: How did this happen?
Chen: Local governments are keen to attract investors from outside to come in and develop the region’s hydropower potential. Many wealthy businessmen in coastal provinces have started pouring money into the construction of dams in southwest China. Local governments are also good at coming up with “fishing projects,” whereby they use an existing project as an excuse to request further funding from higher authorities. They will usually claim that the anticipated goals and benefits of an existing project cannot be achieved unless a further proposed scheme is also built. In this way, local governments are able to extract additional funds to build more dams. The higher level of government is cool-headed and has paid attention to good governance and development planning, but the situation has largely spun out of control at the provincial and local levels. And so it’s not just power companies, but local governments too that view dam-building as a great opportunity to make money.
Yang: Local governments and power companies say they have good reason to push ahead with these projects. For example, we are repeatedly told by project proponents that their aim is to help lift the poor out of poverty, and this has become one of the strongest arguments advanced in support of all these hydropower schemes.
Chen: Yes, they do say that. Local governments and power companies alike have engaged in making money under the banner of “lifting the poor out of poverty and helping them get rich.” Looking at both past and current experience, local governments (let alone power companies) have difficulty ensuring that the affected groups do actually benefit from the projects. I discuss this issue in more detail in an article first published in Science Times, Don’t build dams everywhere. Things have changed, however, especially in recent years. Ordinary people in China now have a growing awareness of democracy and have started to learn how to protect their interests. You know why more and more people displaced by dams are now seeking redress from higher authorities? People affected by these projects have come to realize that their rights, to survival and development, have been attacked and harmed. And you know how local governments have chosen to re

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