Three Gorges Probe

Zhang Guangdou speaks his mind on Three Gorges

(February 4, 2004) A key figure in China’s dam-building program who helped design the Three Gorges project calls the quality of construction work on the dam ‘far from excellent’ and ‘not first-class.’

Renowned water engineer Zhang Guangdou, a key figure in China’s dam-building program of the past 50 years, has openly called the quality of construction work on the Three Gorges dam “far from excellent” and “not first-class.”

In a frank interview last week with Beijing Television, Prof. Zhang, now in his early 90s, said: “As for the quality of the Three Gorges dam, I have to say that it’s far from excellent. Overall, it’s okay, but not first-class.”

When pressed to elaborate, Prof. Zhang said: “We didn’t do a good job on the construction, though generally speaking it’s not too bad. So, overall, we gave it a ‘generally satisfactory’ mark when we did our assessment of it [before the filling of the reservoir last year]. In other words, it’s not so good.”

He said that while he did not foresee significant trouble ahead (“I don’t think it will collapse or run into major problems”), the Three Gorges dam had earned only a lacklustre pass mark because China’s technology, management and quality control are “not as good as in foreign countries.”

Prof. Zhang, who has been involved in the design of many of China’s major dams, began working on the Three Gorges project half a century ago. “I was responsible for working out solutions to some key technical problems with the construction of the Three Gorges dam,” he told interviewer Zeng Tao.

He said that despite the achievements of China’s dam-building program, his biggest regret was that ordinary people “have benefited little” and that “many still live in poverty and misery.”

During the interview, broadcast on Jan. 29, Prof. Zhang also spoke publicly for the first time about fellow water engineer Huang Wanli, his colleague at Beijing’s prestigious Qinghua University who died in 2001 at age 90.

“I have a great deal of respect for him, because he dared to tell the truth, which is a lofty achievement,” Prof. Zhang said.

Both men had been involved in the disastrous Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River, completed in 1960. Prof. Huang, who had vigorously opposed the project, warned against sealing outlets at the base of the dam that were designed to allow sediment to flow out of the reservoir. Prof. Huang’s advice was ignored, he was labelled a “rightist” and sentenced to years of hard labour.

The Sanmenxia reservoir silted up quickly after the outlets were sealed and, far from being useful for flood control, the dam became a serious hazard. Prof. Zhang recently told China Central Television that Sanmenxia was “a mistake” that should be shut down before it causes yet more flooding.

Prof. Zhang, who helped to close off the silt-discharging outlets at Sanmenxia, told Beijing Television that he had been unwilling to do so, but was just following orders.

He then spoke of his enormous regard for his courageous colleague, who had spoken out and suffered greatly as a result: “One thing is certain about Huang: He never ever lied. He just spoke his mind. … One of his principles was to speak the truth openly; he wasn’t just out to make trouble.”

Prof. Zhang added: “It’s not so easy for all of us to speak out the way he did, is it?”

Kelly Haggart, February 4, 2004

See also: A tale of two scientists

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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