November 1, 2007
Skeptics about the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam are being vindicated as Chinese officials are becoming more worried about landslides and pollution in the Three Gorges reservoir and its tributaries. The Economist reviews the recent shift in official reporting and commentary on the Three Gorges dam.
Asia: One dam thing after another; The Three Gorges
Sceptics about the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam are being vindicated
PEASANTS in the village of Miaohe on the north bank of the Yangzi River say nothing like it had occurred in their lifetimes, nor those of their parents and grandparents. One afternoon in April, for a few grim seconds, the ground shook beneath them. The Wild Cat landslide, long at rest beneath the terraced maize fields, orange-tree groves and earth-brick houses perched on the steep slope, was stirring.
Experts had long worried about the Wild Cat, 17km (10 miles) upstream from the Three Gorges dam in a narrow stretch of reservoir, in the first of the soaring gorges. Last year a coffer-dam built to protect the main dam during construction was blown up. Monitoring of the landslide zone intensified, for fear that the blast might destabilise it. If the Wild Cat’s earth and boulders tumbled down the slope, they could wipe out Miaohe and slam tour boats and barges with giant waves.
Officials have long stressed the dam’s benefits: a reduction (some say exaggerated) in flooding downstream; the generation of (very expensive) carbon-free power; and the creation of a 660km-long, navigation-friendly reservoir. The official press has largely ignored the many criticisms of the dam. The authorities have rapidly and sometimes brutally crushed protests by some of the more than 1.2m people moved from the reservoir area, and have often poorly compensated them. Allegations abound of resettlement funds lining officials’ pockets.
But in the past few months signs have emerged that, in parts of the government at least, the resolute optimism is wavering. China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, was a few days late in reporting Miaohe’s problem. When it did, it dutifully cited the official reassurance that there was little imminent risk of the slope’s collapse. But it later quoted an official as saying the rise and fall of the reservoir’s water level (it was lowered by 11 metres before the flood season began in the summer) had probably caused the tremble–just as experts had forewarned. Xinhua failed to report, however, that the risks will mount. The plan is to raise the reservoir next year to its maximum of 175 metres above sea level, and the seasonal variation will increase to 30 metres. This will pose an even greater threat to landslide-prone sites along the reservoir’s main stream, of which scholars at South China Normal University wrote in 2003 that there were 283.
In September Xinhua got punchier. The news agency quoted “officials and experts” as saying that the dam had caused “an array of ecological ills” and that if preventive measures were not taken there could be a “catastrophe”. They said that the reservoir had started to erode the Yangzi’s banks in many places and that frequent landslides had been triggered by changes in the water level. A deputy mayor of Chongqing, the municipality to which most of the reservoir belongs, reportedly said that banks had collapsed in 91 places. Another official said frequent geological disasters were putting lives at risk. Water discharged from the dam was threatening the safety of anti-flood embankments downstream, according to a deputy governor of Hubei province (of which Miaohe is part).
Xinhua caused even more of a stir last month by reporting that 4m more people would be “relocated” by 2020 because of environmental concerns. This was misleading: Chongqing has long had ambitious plans for encouraging urban migration, but they do not envisage forced relocation and are not related to the dam.
Officials have also started to sound more worried about pollution in the reservoir and its tributaries. The ferry across to Miaohe passes through polystyrene fragments and other scattered detritus accumulating behind the dam. In May Xinhua quoted a report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences saying that the reservoir was seriously polluted by pesticides, fertilisers and sewage from passenger boats.
The press’s greater openness could reflect political change in Beijing. The dam’s construction began in 1993 with strong backing from the country’s retired supremo, Deng Xiaoping, and the two top leaders of the time, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng. A museum by the dam displays calligraphy by Mr Jiang and Mr Li and photographs of visits by them. But the current party leader and president, Hu Jintao, and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, are less in evidence. Mr Wen, who is head of the project’s construction committee, came in 2003. There is no photograph of Mr Hu at the site during his five years as party chief.
Some officials are still in denial. On October 15th Xinhua quoted Chongqing’s mayor as saying that reports of environmental disasters caused by the dam could not stand scrutiny. In Miaohe vigilance appears to have slackened. Last month nearly 100 peasants, who after the tremble had been ordered for safety to shelter in a dark and damp road-tunnel, returned to their homes. Construction of new housing on safer ground, due to be finished in October, will take at least another month.
The peasants expect to keep farming the landslide zone. In an orange grove where a long fissure appeared after the scare in April (no longer visible now), a farmer drops his voice as he grumbles that villagers are not being given enough money to build their new homes. “I don’t want officials saying I’m giving away secrets,” he says nervously. Change is slow to reach the villages.
Categories: Dams and Landslides