(February 28, 2002) SANDOUPING, China – The success of China’s vast Three Gorges dam project is under threat from large amounts of pollution and toxic waste that could badly contaminate a reservoir due to be created for the scheme, a senior official has warned.
“If inspections find that the decontamination of the area to be flooded is not completed, we will have to delay the flooding,” said Yang Ping, vice president of the China Development Corp., which is in charge of the project.
“However, that would be more expensive for us.”
Yang said construction of the final phase of the project, due to be built from 2003 to 2009, was meant to be financed partially by electricity production, reliant on a full reservoir.
The Three Gorges dam, designed to tap the vast power of the Yangtze River, is one of the largest and most expensive, not to mention controversial, construction projects ever undertaken.
Eventually an artificial lake more than 600 kilometres (375 miles) long and around 200 metres deep will be created in central China, forming the world’s largest hydroelectric project.
First conceived decades ago, work on the Three Gorges scheme began in the early 1990s under the personal direction of then-premier Li Peng, now China’s number two leader.
Since that time it has been constantly mired in controversy, with criticisms centering on alleged corruption, the potential ecological impact and the enforced relocation of an estimated 1.13 million people.
The dam is set to be fully operational in 2009, with the flooding process due to begin in 2003. Its planners hope it will not only produce huge amounts of electricity but also stop potentially devastating floods along the Yangtze.
However the scale of pollution on the river and a far-from-completed clean-up operation of land due to be submerged has thrown the timetable into doubt.
Every year, 4.4 billion cubic metres (5.8 billion cubic yards) of waste water, 6.7 million tonnes of domestic waste and 10 million tonnes of solid industrial waste is discharged directly into the Yangtze upstream of the dam, according to statistics cited previously by state media.
Late last year a Canadian ecological group called Three Gorges Probe warned that the reservoir was in danger of becoming little more than a giant cesspool.
According to a study by local students, made public by the group, around 100 paper, chemical, and glass factories discharged untreated water into the river, some of which was 15 times more polluted than national allowable standards.
Concern has also been raised about potentially toxic contamination of land due to be flooded, which has been heavily populated for centuries.
According to a report by the Centre for Controlling Infectious Diseases in nearby Chongqing undertaken at the start of the 1990s, the affected areas contains 178 waste dumps, 300,000 square metres (375,000 square yards) of public toilets, 1,500 abattoirs and 41,000 graves.
Additionally, eight graves contain an unknown number of bodies from the war against Japan of 1937-1945, which are contaminated with the anthrax virus, according to a report by the Southern Weekly newspaper.
Pollution has been identified as one of the major problems facing the Three Gorges project, both for the millions of people who will rely on water from it and the functioning of the electricity generation.
“If waste remains inside the reservoir, that could affect the normal operation of the hydroelectric power station,” an official from the State Environmental Protection Agency warned at the end of last year.
But Yang told AFP he was hopeful the timetable could be kept to, as the initial planned water level of the reservoir was 135 metres, some way below its eventual peak, allowing more cleaning up to continue even after flooding had taken place.
However, what is also being questioned is whether the vast clean- up operation — to which the central government allocated 4 billion yuan (482 million dollars) last year — is even being conducted in the best way.
For it to work, authorities must get the cooperation of locals, the only people who know where toxic materials can be found, said Wei Siqing, an official from nearby Chongqing municipality.
Wei, quoted last month by the China News Service, criticised the approach of removing locals from their homes before decontamination began.
However, in keeping with the size of the project, Beijing has promised to think big with the clean-up operation as well.
By by 2010, there will be 146 water purification plants and 161 waste treatment centres in towns bordering the future reservoir, Beijing has pledged.
For some critics that is not enough.
According to Dai Qing, one of the best-known opponents of the dam project, the Ministry of Water Resources did not even take into consideration “the problem of drinking water quality for a million people” in a study of the project.
Agence France-Presse, February 28, 2002
Categories: Three Gorges Probe