Three Gorges Probe

Expert who refused to sign off on Three Gorges

Guo Laixi and Dai Qing
January 9, 2004

Journalist Dai Qing interviews Guo Laixi, an eminent geographer who took part in the Chinese feasibility study for the Three Gorges dam but became so alarmed about the project’s potential impacts that he refused to sign the study team’s final report.

Guo Laixi, a senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of
Sciences and director of the Yunnan Institute of Geography, was one of
412 experts chosen to participate in the Chinese feasibility study
undertaken in the late 1980s for the Three Gorges dam.


Mr. Guo, who has published extensively in China on human
geography, poverty reduction and environmental issues, grew so
concerned about the potential impacts of the dam that he was one of
nine experts who refused to sign the study team’s final report.


Here, for the first time in English, Three Gorges Probe is
publishing an interview with Mr. Guo conducted by crusading
environmental journalist Dai Qing several years after the geographer
took his courageous stand. Mr. Guo recounts the evolution of his
thinking on the dam, and touches on some of the reasons he became
alarmed about the project, including its overstated flood-control
benefits, and the danger of sedimentation.


Dai Qing: You are one of the nine experts who
refused to sign the Three Gorges feasibility report, after 412 experts
from various fields were invited to take part in the study on the dam.
When did you, as a geographer, first become interested in Three Gorges?


Guo Laixi: I had been interested in the project
since my youth, and sincerely hoped at the time that Chairman Mao’s
dream of "turning deep gorges into a smooth lake" would some day come


I became involved in the feasibility study for the dam in early
1986. At that time, 100 experts from 50 Chinese professional societies
were asked to take part in the study. I was one of the two members
chosen from the Geographical Society of China. I joined the
Comprehensive Economic Evaluation Group, while my colleague
participated in the Resettlement Group.


To be honest, at the beginning I wanted the Three Gorges project to
go ahead. But after working on the feasibility study for five years
(1986-90), the more I came to know about the dam project, the more I
doubted its feasibility.


Dai: When did you first voice your opinion on this issue?


Guo: The Comprehensive Economic Evaluation Group
held an expert panel on Oct. 16, 1988, and it was then, for the first
time, that I put forward the proposal that "the Three Gorges dam should
go ahead, but not so fast."


My argument was that the Three Gorges, located in the heart of the
country, was a perfect site to build a big hydro dam that would provide
electricity to both central and eastern China. No other dam can boast
such a wonderful location from a geographer’s point of view. So,
basically, I felt the Three Gorges project would eventually go ahead.


At the same time, I didn’t really feel comfortable about the dam in
terms of its scale and complexity. There were too many "world No. 1’s"
involved: 130 million cubic metres of earth and rock excavation and
backfill; 27 million cubic metres of poured concrete; 26 huge
generators, each with an installation capacity of 700 MW; a five-step
shiplock, plus a giant shiplift that can hoist more than 10,000 tonnes
up 113 metres; and as many as 1.2 million people having to move to make
way for the project.


The problem with the project is not just its size; it also involves
a very high degree of technical difficulty. I kept reminding the
leadership group in charge of the feasibility activities: "Don’t be too
optimistic during the feasibility study, because we still face the
challenge of many unforeseen technical problems." I thought we should
be very cautious and very careful in undertaking the feasibility study.
Everyone will be happy if nothing untoward happens to the dam after its
completion. But if anything should happen to the dam, nobody would care
about its benefits any more, and there would be no end of trouble ahead.


Dai: It appears that you and the eight other
experts who refused to sign the feasibility report were in a tiny
minority. What interests me is, why did most of the experts, more than
400 in all, sign the reports even though they were aware of the


Guo: Having attended many seminars, panels and
meetings, and listened to numerous speeches and lectures by water
experts who took part in the feasibility study, I had a strong feeling
that the experts, particularly those in favour of the dam, spoke out
just to promote the interests of their own departments and work units
rather than to look at the issues from a wider perspective and in a
broader context. They always attached more importance to the benefits
of the project, while belittling the costs and problems with the dam,
and even ignoring its downsides. I believe that doing so is far from a
scientific approach to such a huge project as Three Gorges.


As we know, dams have collapsed many times since the founding of the
People’s Republic. I am a native of Henan province, where the collapse
of the Banqiao and Shimantan dams in August 1975 claimed the lives of
thousands of people. Banqiao had only a tiny reservoir, with a storage
capacity of 600 million cubic metres, compared with the Three Gorges’
22 billion cubic metres! If something goes wrong with that, it will not
be a matter of hundreds or thousands of lives, but many more than that.


Moreover, I feel that construction of the Three Gorges project
involves issues that are just too complicated. From a global
perspective, there is a basic principle in harnessing the water
resources of great rivers: develop the upstream before the downstream,
and tributaries before the main channel. The Lena and Obi rivers in
Russia, and the Tennessee and Colorado rivers in the United States are
cases in point. On many occasions, I have insisted on the principle of
"upstream first and downstream second, tributary first and main channel
second, and proceed with the best project first."


Dai: Building this multibillion-dollar project can
still appear attractive when its benefits are touted – such as being
the world’s No. 1 hydropower generator, and flood control and
navigation improvements.


Guo: The feasibility study tried to minimize the
problems with the dam. The budget for Three Gorges, for instance, is a
good example: As time went on, the budget increased at an astonishing
rate: just US$2.5 billion in the early stages, $4.5 billion in 1986, $7
billion in 1989, $9.3 billion in 1992, and $12 billion in 1994. Nobody
knew the exact figure. Even taking inflation in this period into
account, the actual cost of the project greatly exceeded the budget.


Many of the costs associated with building the dam have never been
included in the project budget. For example, under a campaign launched
by the State Council to promote the region, provinces and large
enterprises around the country are required to provide economic support
to the reservoir area through various means. Shanghai, Beijing and
other municipalities and provinces have contributed a great deal of
money to the area. Yunnan’s Yuxi Tobacco Corp. spent millions of
dollars on the construction of Wanzhou. The Wahaha Group from Zhejiang
province also provided financial resources and technology for Fuling
and Yichang, in a bid to set up soft-drink factories there. All this
money was excluded from the total budget. Obviously, Three Gorges has
been treated as a special project.


Dai: Chinese leaders, including Sun Yat-sen, Mao
Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, supported the project, and wanted to build
the dam to show that "the Chinese people have stood up."


Guo: I feel that the Three Gorges dam is a
political project, not an economic one. As a political project, it can
be used to inspire the Chinese people, to boost morale. However, we
still do not have the right to belittle or ignore problems with the
scheme. Somebody said that it was a pity the decision to build the dam
had been delayed for 30 years. Others expressed regret that we had
failed to go ahead with the project 70 years ago.


Arguments such as these seem unrealistic. How could we have built
such a huge dam in the 1950s, when we lacked the financial resources?
And how could we have built the dam 70 years ago, when we faced so many
problems, such as civil war and famine? Even today, we still face a
number of challenges in building the dam.


Dai: According to my research in recent years, the
decision to build the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River was influenced
by political factors. But, although they faced great political
pressure, there were still scientists and engineers who dared to oppose
the project by telling the truth.


Guo: In the final session of the [Three Gorges]
feasibility study conference conducted by the State Council, I made
three speeches. I think that, as a scientist, I have to say what I want
to say. In dealing with scientific issues, I don’t care about personal
loss or gain, and do not fear the consequences. A real scientist tells
the truth, and it is a great shame for a scientist to lie. My speeches
got me into trouble. I was criticized by name by Li Boning at
Zhongnanhai [the leaders’ compound in Beijing]. Mr. Li not only
criticized me, but also many others.


Dai: Is Li an expert himself? Did he criticize you by name at the feasibility study conference?


Guo: I later learned that the so-called feasibility
conference was all prearranged. While attending the conference held by
the State Council in July 1990, I was approached by several delegates
who tried to persuade me to sign my name in support of the feasibility
report. I was aware that tens of thousands of engineering workers, plus
their dependants – hundreds of thousands of people in all – desperately
needed jobs after the completion of the Gezhouba dam [40 km downstream
of the Three Gorges project]. If the Three Gorges dam went ahead, they
would remain employed, and all the machinery and equipment that had
been purchased to build Gezhouba could be used to construct Three


I was sympathetic to their plight. But from a national perspective,
these soon-to-be-unemployed engineering workers and their families were
just a small part of the unemployment picture. And it was not
appropriate for us to justify the feasibility of the Three Gorges dam
based on such grounds. And so I made up my mind to voice my views, and
submitted a draft of my speech to the conference committee. According
to the agenda, I was supposed to make my speech on July 6, 1990.
Instead, I was told to do it five days later. I learned later that the
conference committee needed some time to prepare a rebuttal to my


Dai: Were you refuted down to the last point on this occasion?


Guo: No, not at all. On July 11, I was given an
opportunity to speak. I said I wouldn’t read my prepared text because
everyone could read that themselves. I couldn’t sleep a wink the night
before my presentation, my mind going over and over the many issues
related to the dam project. So today, I said, I’m going to talk about
something new that occurred to me during my sleepless night.


Dai: Some people who were all ready to attack your speech may have been wrong-footed by your action.


Guo: It was interesting to note that, just as
planned, three delegates criticized the ideas contained in my written
draft speech, rather than the new thoughts I was presenting that day.
After the three scientists spoke, Li Boning made his speech in which he
praised supporters of the dam as patriots, implying that critics of the
project were not.


Mr. Li paid no attention to whether the experts who supported the
dam had made convincing arguments. For example, one of the delegates
argued that building the Three Gorges was an attempt "to eliminate
natural disasters." I asked him: "How can you eliminate natural
disasters? Can you prevent earthquakes or typhoons? What we can do is
mitigate natural disasters, but we cannot prevent them." Obviously,
such comments are not scientific, but people make them to show their
support for the project.


Another expert claimed that building Three Gorges was necessary in
order to provide electricity to east China, which has little in the way
of coal and oil resources. I said, it’s true there is a shortage of
coal in east China, but oil is a different story. Exciting discoveries
in several major oilfields in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea
have been reported. Actually, these experts had difficulty refuting my
arguments or convincing me of theirs. But most delegates attending the
feasibility-study conference were from water-related departments,
agencies and institutes that were long-time proponents of the big dam.


After Li Boning’s speech, I wrote a new report overnight. But
unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to speak openly this time. So I
submitted the report to the conference secretariat, requesting that
they print it out. And I left a note for Mr. Li: "Though you were a
revolutionary veteran, let us have a contest to see who is really a


Dai: Did you make any comments on the National People’s Congress decision in 1992 to build the dam?


Guo: It was March 25, 1992. After listening to a
radio broadcast of Vice-Premier Zou Jiahua’s report on the Three Gorges
delivered to the National People’s Congress, I wrote a letter to the
NPC. First of all, from a legislative point of view, it was problematic
that the decision to build the Three Gorges dam needed to be approved
by the NPC. Why should the NPC hold a discussion about a certain water
project? And if it did do so, why didn’t it do the same in regard to
other big projects such as the Jing-Jiu (Beijing-Jiujiang) and Lan-Kun
(Lanzhou-Kunming) railways, which, like Three Gorges, also cost
billions of dollars?


I really don’t think it was appropriate that this legislative body
made this important decision on a particular water project. Who is
going to be held accountable for the project, since many NPC delegates
are chosen for just one session of the NPC? How can these delegates
approve or veto an engineering project about which they know little,
given that they come from all walks of life? Another problem is that
the NPC delegates were bombarded with positive propaganda about the dam
project, and were given no chance to hear anything different. How could
they make a reasonable judgment about the dam under such circumstances?


Dai: Did you send the letter to the NPC directly? I am wondering if the delegates had an opportunity to read your letter.


Guo: I sent my letter, titled "Ten issues on the
construction of the Three Gorges," to Wan Li, who was then chairman of
the NPC. And I asked him to convey it to the conference. Later, I
photocopied the letter and sent dozens of copies to delegates by
express mail. I began my letter this way: "As a scientific worker who
took part for many years in the feasibility study, I sincerely appeal
to all delegates to take great care in examining the world’s biggest


It was a pity that only a few delegates had a chance to see the
letter. One of the delegates who did read it is a member of the Chinese
Academy of Sciences, and he commented that "Guo Laixi is a real
scientist because he dared to tell the truth." The 10 issues I
highlighted in my letter have been proven to be real problems, and some
of them are getting worse.


Dai: In the Three Gorges feasibility study, as with
the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River, the most importance was attached
to flood control. Did you mention that in your letter?


Guo: That was the first of the 10 issues I
addressed in my letter: how to accurately assess the flood-control
benefits of the Three Gorges. With a flood-control capacity of 22.1
billion cubic metres, the Three Gorges could do little to mitigate a
flood like the one in 1870 [of a severity that occurs once in 1,000
years]. If big storms occur simultaneously in the upper and
middle/lower valleys, the degree of threat posed by the Yangtze floods
will still be very dangerous even after the Three Gorges dam is


And as far as the floods that occurred in east China in 1991 are
concerned, the Three Gorges dam would have been useless because
floodwater surging down from the upper and middle reaches was not
involved in that disaster. [The floods were caused by heavy rain in the
lower reaches.] We should not overestimate the flood-control benefits
of the Three Gorges project.


Dai: Does the flood-control capacity of 22.1
billion cubic metres make sense? With a total storage capacity of 36
billion cubic metres, the Sanmenxia reservoir was designed to have a
flood-control capacity of eight billion cubic metres. But
unfortunately, before the floodwater arrived and even before the
project was finished, a rapid and severe buildup of silt at the tail
end rendered the reservoir incapable of fulfilling its flood-control
function. Will it be the same story with the Three Gorges dam? Or will
it be able to "discharge turbid and impound clean water," as planned?


Guo: It’s common sense that the peak period of
sedimentation and of floodwater occurs simultaneously on the Yangtze.
How can you balance the conflicting need to impound floodwater behind
the dam to control floods, and yet discharge floodwater to flush silt
out of the reservoir? Since the Three Gorges project has a
600-kilometre, river-like reservoir, how can you discharge the silt
deposited at the tail and in the middle sections of the river?


We should learn some of the lessons from Lake Mead on the Colorado
River in the United States. With a length of 177 km (28 per cent of the
Three Gorges) and an annual silt discharge of 190 million cubic metres
(about 35 per cent of that of the Three Gorges), the Mead reservoir
developed a serious sedimentation problem. This was because the silt
didn’t collect in the part of the reservoir designated as the dead
storage area, but went rather to the part designated as the effective
storage area of the reservoir, resulting in a severe buildup of silt at
the tail of the reservoir. People have never paid enough attention to
the seriousness of this, because that section of the Colorado is not


Dai: Sediment also built up at the tail end of the
Sanmenxia reservoir. The mouth of the Wei River [100 km upstream of the
Sanmenxia dam] silted up less than two years after the dam went into
operation. The floods that occurred in Sichuan in 1981 remain fresh in
our memory. Would the buildup of sediment at the tail of the Three
Gorges reservoir affect floods in the upper reaches of the Yangtze?


Guo: Yes, it would. After the Three Gorges dam is
completed, the reservoir will be filled to 175 metres above sea level,
leading to a slow-flowing river, floods of longer duration and more
severe floods in the upper Yangtze. Moreover, after years of operation,
the reservoir water level at urban Chongqing’s Chaotianmen harbour will
reach 202 metres, 7.7 metres higher than the current level, if a
100-year frequency flood occurs. How many more people will be affected
in the populous areas along both banks of the river at the tail of the
reservoir? And who is going to be responsible for the unanticipated


The feasibility study put it this way: "With respect to the
sedimentation issue at the dam site and in the backwater area, some
experimental results have been derived from modelling. But as to how to
deal with the problem – in particular, the buildup of silt in the
Chongqing harbour – we have yet to achieve satisfactory results."


This gives an indication that the feasibility study left unresolved
the problem of navigation being obstructed by the buildup of silt at
the tail of the reservoir. It was at about 4 p.m. on July 6, 1990, in
the Three Gorges Project Exhibition Room in the State Council’s No.1
conference hall, that Mr. Ha, chief engineer of the Three Gorges
Project Preparatory Group, made this same admission in talking with a
close friend. He also pointed out that Qian Zhengying, who was water
resources minister at the time, would not allow it to be discussed, for
fear of its negative impact on the feasibility study.


Dai: But the public, including the NPC delegates
who voted for the dam project, were given the impression – as
vice-premier Zou Jiahua stated in his report – that "building the Three
Gorges will improve shipping conditions on the Yangtze, and provide
opportunities for the shipping business on the river to prosper." Did
Mr. Zou not know anything about the [sedimentation] problem?


Guo: Not really. Actually, the feasibility study
made it clear that "the regulation of the Three Gorges reservoir
involves a variety of aspects, such as flood control, hydropower
generation and navigation, which have different purposes and
requirements. These purposes are in some ways consistent, but
conflicting in other respects. A number of navigation experts have
stressed that if the Three Gorges reservoir is employed too often to
fulfill its flood-control function, the navigation benefits will be
reduced and the shipping industry will suffer." Importantly, these
conclusions came from the expert group, not just from a certain person.
It is not a practical and realistic approach to attach too much
importance to the positive aspects of the project, while ignoring its
inherent contradictions.


Dai: But Zou Jiahua placed great emphasis on "the
huge benefits from hydropower generation," equivalent to the
construction of 14 thermal power stations, saving 50 million tonnes of
coal annually.


Guo: If building the Three Gorges could save coal,
why couldn’t building any other hydropower station do likewise? Saying
this just to promote the benefits of the Three Gorges seemed


Another issue that must never be ignored is the population
resettlement associated with the dam project. There is a particularly
tight relationship between land and people in the Three Gorges area. If
all the people being displaced are resettled in nearby areas, where the
slopes are steep, soil is poor and water is scarce, the environment
will deteriorate, and water and soil erosion will worsen.


Based on a systematic study conducted by Beijing Normal University
of the population-carrying capacity in Kaixian County, building the
Three Gorges dam "would submerge much farmland, and flood towns and
villages in Kaixian, making the already tight relationship between land
and people even more intense and the environment much worse in the


The reservoir area is a poverty-stricken region with a dearth of
farmland. The best-quality land along the river will be lost to the
reservoir. Does anyone really believe the assertion that the reservoir
area can support more residents, and the environment can be protected,
after as many as 2,800 hectares of farmland have disappeared?


Dai: It seems to me that the benefits claimed for
Three Gorges are just too great, too captivating, too fabulous. But
these claims are the reason that almost all top Chinese leaders, apart
from Zhu De, who did not support the plan, have fantasized about going
ahead with the big project – until 1963, that is, when Chairman Mao
himself abandoned the idea of building the Three Gorges dam, saying: "I
don’t want to do it any more."


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


Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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