Three Gorges Probe


by Gráinne Ryder

Just weeks before the massacre at Tiananmen Square, China’s growing environmental movement had scored a momentous victory by successfully opposing the government’s plans to build the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Vice Premier Yao Yilin had announced that the highly contentious project would be postponed for at least five years, saying that: “people do not need to spend too much energy debating this issue for the time being.”1 The unprecedented public repudiation of the proposed Three Gorges Dam was short-lived, however. It ended at Tiananmen Square, when the critics of the Three Gorges Dam were jailed and silenced along with other members of the pro-democracy movement.

For nearly a decade, citizens’ groups outside China had been fighting plans for building the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Situated on a spectacular stretch of canyon known as the Three Gorges, this was to be the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Dam builders – the governments, engineering industry, and international aid agencies – believed the Three Gorges Dam would do what no other dam on earth has been designed to do: protect millions of people living along the middle and lower reaches of the river from disastrous floods; generate up to 20,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity for China’s energy-hungry industrial centres; and transform a 600-kilometre stretch of the fast-flowing river into a smooth navigable waterway for ocean-going vessels.

To do this would require forcibly relocating up to 1.2 million people, permanently sullying the legendary Three Gorges, drowning up to 32,000 hectares of precious farmland, and disrupting the world’s third-largest river – the lifeblood of China’s industrial and agricultural heartland.

The wisdom of attempting such a mammoth experiment is apparent primarily to those in the business of building large dams and to those in the business of foreign aid. It certainly is not apparent to the people who bear witness to the destruction dams have brought to their land and rivers. From the Canadian Arctic to the Amazonian rainforest to the vast flood plains of Asia, big dams have flooded fertile river valleys, spread waterborne diseases, destroyed productive fisheries, flooded people’s homes and ancestral graves, and stripped whole communities of their cultural heritage and their traditional economies. To compound these indignities, big dams have failed to be the cheap source of renewable energy and boon to economic development that dam builders have promised. U.S. dam fighter Brent Blackwelder writes:

Big dams and water projects have not only failed to achieve those basic objectives but are also leaving a legacy of unsurpassed cultural destruction, disease, and environmental damage.2

But despite the evidence, dam builders steadfastly refuse to grasp that human suffering and environmental destruction is inevitable with large dams. They claim more planning, better management, and more money will ensure better luck next time. Now, in this era of ever larger, ever more risky manipulations of the world’s great rivers, the “next time” is the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The numbers, the people, and the river may differ from the last, but the creed of the dam builders does not: they claim that the benefits of providing electricity, flood control, and improved navigation on the Yangtze River far outweigh the social and environmental costs; and besides, there is no practical alternative.

Probe International, using Canada’s Access to Information Act, obtained the official exposition of this creed as applied to the Three Gorges Dam: a feasibility study, completed in 1989, which recommended that the Three Gorges Dam be built. The $14 million study was financed by the Canadian International Development Agency, supervised by the World Bank, and conducted, in secret, by a Canadian consortium of state-owned utilities and private engineering consulting firms. Upon the study’s release, the Canadian government praised the consortium’s work as a world-class effort which would help the Chinese government make an informed decision on whether or not to build the dam. Not only would the dam provide flood control, hydro power, and improved navigation, according to the Canadian government, but the project was an opportunity for employment in the impoverished Three Gorges region of China and an opportunity for sustainable development. The plans for relocating up to 1.2 million people were touted as among the best in the world and as for the environment, the study concludes: “The impacts which may occur [would] not affect the overall environmental feasibility [of the project] and may indeed enhance the environment.”3

Public access to the Canadian feasibility study marks an important precedent for foreign-aid-financed projects. To our knowledge, for the first time anywhere, the general public whose tax dollars have gone to financing the study are able to see the proponents’ assessment before a final decision was made and before billions of dollars were committed. To test the validity of the proponents’ claims about the Three Gorges Dam, Probe International set about reviewing the 13-volume feasibility study with the help of nine experts from around the world. One of our reviewers, Vaclav Smil, an expert on China’s energy and environment, expressed outrage upon seeing the feasibility study, saying, “This is not engineering and science, merely an expert prostitution, paid for by Canadian taxpayers.”4

The Canadian consortium conducted its feasibility study in cooperation with the same government responsible for the Tiananmen massacre; the Canadian study and a similar Chinese study were carried out simultaneously, in secret. The rest of the world must not forget that the protestors in Tiananmen Square, now silenced, were calling for a more open and democratic process – the very process denied them by the Canadian and Chinese dam builders.

One year after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Premier Li Peng revived discussions about building the Three Gorges Dam. Under the current regime, someone would be imprisoned for producing a critique of a government feasibility study: because they cannot produce such a critique, we must.

Continue to Chapter 1

Back to Editors’ Note to 2nd Edition

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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