(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 true.
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 problems?
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 Gorges.
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 opinion.
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 patriot.”
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 dam.”
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 complete.
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 navigable.
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 losses?
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 meaningless.
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 region.”
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.”
Guo Laixi and Dai Qing, January 9, 2004
Translated by Three Gorges Probe (Chinese) editor Mu Lan.
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