Three Gorges Probe

The Yangtze Dam: Feat or Folly?

(November 9, 1997) SANDOUPING, China — Here at what was once a scenic but treacherous bend in the first of the Yangtze River’s legendary three gorges, the Chinese government inched closer today to realizing a vision that combines ambition worthy of pyramid-building Pharaohs with the destructiveness of open-pit coal mining.

Trucks dumping rocks/AP photo 

Trucks dump rocks into the Yangtze to close a final section of the dike designed to reroute the river. (AP photo)

As China’s President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng watched through binoculars from a temporary reviewing stand on a gash in the ravaged shoreline, teams of drivers — most behind the wheels of giant Caterpillar dump trucks — pitched load after load of granite boulders into the voracious water to complete a man-made barrier and block the Yangtze’s main channel.

The plugging of the world’s third-longest river at its steepest and most perilous point marked a major — and some critics fear irreversible — step forward in the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam.


Chinese Premier Li Peng, right, and President Jiang Zemin congratulate workers at the Three Gorges Dam. (AP photo)

The hydropower project, which will be the world’s largest, is expected to cost at least $29 billion, tower 610 feet over the current river surface, span 6,600 feet and create a reservoir that will force more than 1.2 million people from their homes.

National television broadcast live the final stage in building the temporary barrier that will shield the dam work site from the river, a task that makes the parting of the Red Sea seem simple by comparison.

For six and a half hours, a procession of oversized earth movers — 118 per hour — dropped 45-ton and 77-ton loads of rock and gravel into a 33-foot gap in the barrier. At 3:15 p.m., when the pool of water below the barrier grew still and the river above turned to join the water flowing through a temporary diversion channel, fireworks went off, ships’ horns blared, cheers went up from thousands of spectators on the shoreline, and the brass band from the Navy’s engineering institute struck up “Song for the Motherland.”

Jiang hailed the event as “a remarkable feat in the history of mankind to reshape and exploit natural resources” and said it “embodies the great industrious and dauntless spirit of the Chinese nation.” And though Li did not make a speech, the day marked a victory for the premier, a Soviet-trained hydrologic engineer who has championed the dam project for more than a decade.

Despite today’s milestone, the wisdom of building the dam remains the subject of debate. When completed in 2009, Three Gorges will generate 18,200 megawatts of power, 50 percent more than South America’s Itaipu Dam, which currently is the largest dam in the world.

In the United States, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington state generates 6,800 megawatts of power.

The Three Gorges Dam project will form a reservoir 412 miles long and inundate an area seven times the size of the District of Columbia. The reservoir will bury 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages and about 650 factories. It will raise the water level by 577 feet, submerging hundreds of ancient archaeological sites and much of the base of the granite and limestone cliffs that line the gorges and are among China’s greatest tourist attractions.

The dam’s supporters call it a triumph of human determination and ingenuity, crucial for controlling lethal floods and generating clean, much-needed energy for China’s populous Yangtze River valley, where a third of China’s 1.2 billion people live. Whereas trackers on the river banks once strained on ropes to help boats up the river, the dam will enable ocean-going ships to travel 1,500 miles inland to the city of Chongqing.

Citing floods that have killed tens of thousands of people in the Yangtze River valley three times this century, Guo Shuyang, an official of the Three Gorges project, said, “we will spend big money to solve big problems.”

Critics, however, call the dam a mammoth folly, a triumph of human ego and political showmanship over reason, and an environmental catastrophe that will neither stop floods nor solve the region’s development problems. Moreover, some hydrologists say the Yangtze’s heavy load of sediment and its shifting floor of gravel will hamper the dam’s turbines, fill the bottom of the reservoir and cause even worse flooding.

“The Three Gorges project is not a hydro-electric engineering project. It is a political project exhibiting all the characteristics of a centrally controlled socialist economic system,” said Dai Qing, a journalist and leading critic of the dam. Charging that the government has suppressed negative information about the project, Dai said, “there is no freedom to express opposition to this project in China.”

Amid the controversy, one thing is certain: the dam is big. A mountain has been reduced to rubble to make way for ship locks. From the nearby road, workers look like ants as dump trucks rumble by, carrying rocky soil away.

The size of the dam dwarfs all ordinary human endeavor, and few have felt its impact more acutely than those already driven from their homes.

Yesterday, Qu Jiayun, 37, held in her hand a pomelo for sale as she watched the preparations for today’s event. Qu used to be one of 50 people who lived on Zhongbao island, where her husband’s family had resided for three generations, growing melons.

But in 1994, the slender island was covered with construction equipment, its fields were dug up and concrete walls erected to line the temporary ship channel. Qu’s family and nine others moved to a town of 10,000 people. Qu took a low-paying menial job in a bank, but quit and is trying to eke out a living selling fruit by the roadside.

Qu’s story is typical of the 92,000 people resettled so far. Though the government says it plans to spend about $5 billion to compensate people forced to resettle, many of those who have moved are having trouble adapting to new communities and new jobs in already densely populated areas.

“A successful resettlement of the people affected by Three Gorges project is the key to the progress and eventual success of the project,” Jiang said today.

Just six hours earlier, a few miles away in the village of Fangjiagang, Wang Gongying, 34, was eating breakfast. She and her husband lived above the dam and had a small plot of orange trees, from which they earned about $1,200 a year. When told their town would be flooded by the rising reservoir in the year 2000, they decided to move early and establish their two young children in school.

The government paid them $2,400 and plopped them down in Fangjiagang. The couple promptly spent more than their lump sum to build a new house, still mostly bare. In one corner of their main room leans a wooden cart; the cement floors are cold and dusty and sweet potatoes are scattered in the back room.

Their land here is only two-thirds the size of their old plot. Moreover, the land is good for vegetables instead of orange trees. The couple didn’t know anything about planting vegetables. Wang bought the wrong kind of seeds, and their crop failed. Her husband, Jiang Xueqing, took temporary work at a local fertilizer factory. Their income last year dropped to $240.

“Here we needed to start from scratch and we’ve had to learn a lot of things,” Wang says.

Despite such difficulties, work on the dam has proceeded quickly, which critics say is an attempt by Li Peng tobring the project to a point of no return before his term expires next March. Now that the river has been blocked, project managers here say they are in another race: to build up the temporary dam and beat the spring rains.

Though construction started less than three years ago, the Three Gorges Dam was proposed in 1919 by Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen. In 1944, J.L. Savage, chief design engineer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, surveyed this area and drew up a dam proposal. More than 50 Chinese engineers and technicians were then sent to the United States for training. The American involvement later inspired the 1956 John Hersey novel, “A Single Pebble,” about the voyage up the Yangtze by a young American engineer seeking a dam site.

After the Communist takeover in 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong supported the dam proposal. But economic disaster during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the tumultuous Cultural Revolution slowed plans for the dam.

During the 1980s, plans for the dam were revived. In 1992, Li Peng pushed it through the National People’s Congress, although the proposal drew a record level of abstentions and dissenting votes.

Current project supporters argue that the dam would provide a vital source of energy. Its 26 turbines would generate enough electricity to offset annual consumption of 40 million to 50 million tons of coal, or the equivalent of 10 nuclear power stations the size of the China’s Daya Bay plants or seven big coal thermal power stations.

Throughout the Communist era, the government has mooted dissenting views on the dam. In 1958, after Mao ended the brief liberal Hundred Flowers period, engineers who had criticized the Three Gorges Dam project were publicly criticized and sent to labor camps. During spring 1989, when student-led protesters rallied in Tiananmen Square, journalist Dai published “Yangtze, Yangtze,” a book of essays opposing the project. After the crackdown on protesters, Dai was jailed for 10 months and the book was banned.

Huang Wanli, 86, a professor emeritus at Qinghua University, was one of the engineers sent to a labor camp in 1958. Huang, a graduate of Cornell University in 1935 and the University of Illinois in 1937, says the project engineers have ignored the thick layers of gravel and sand on the river’s bedrock and moving slowly downstream. When combined with the 540 million tons of silt suspended in the water every year, the gravel and sand will collect at the bottom of the reservoir and overwhelm any dredging effort, Huang said.

“The deposition of 100 million tons per year of cobble and gravel will certainly block Chongqing harbor, inundate the land upstream and, because of the suddenness of a large flood that transports excessive sediment, threaten great loss of life,” said Huang, who favors the diversion of water to flood plains, the reinforcement of dikes and smaller hydropower projects on Yangtze tributaries.

Such outspokenness is unusual. “Many important people have kept silent about this highly politicized project because their positions in the Communist Party do not depend on merit, but on how much they are favored by the leaders,” said Dai.

One taboo: the floods of August 1975. The extent of the damage then remains a state secret. But Human Rights Watch/Asia discovered limited edition technical books and articles that suggest that tens of thousands of people died when 62 small and medium-sized dams collapsed in Henan Province. The collapse of the biggest, Banqiao Dam, unleashed a wall of water that sped down the surrounding valleys and obliterated communities.

Project officials here said yesterday that past experiences and critiques have been studied and taken into account. And today, the main theme was bursting pride. “This proves vividly once again that socialism is superior in being capable of concentrating resources to do big jobs,” Jiang said.

Despite Jiang’s faith in socialism, China is looking to foreign companies for help. It plans to buy most of the dam turbines, worth about $150 million each, from the West. American companies are pressing the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that makes loans at concessionary rates to promote U.S. exports, to lend money for the Three Gorges project, but the bank is waiting for a Chinese environmental impact statement. Lacking the bank’s backing, American companies did not bid for the contracts for the first 14 turbine purchases, which were awarded to European consortia.

So far, China has spent relatively modest amounts on American know-how. It has bought about $30 million of equipment from Caterpillar Inc. and $20 million from Rotec Industries Inc., and paid various consultants.

Some foreign experts were in the reviewing stand today. Alex Taylor, chairman and chief executive officer of AGRA Monenco Inc., a Canadian firm with a $35 million contract to install computer controls here, called the enormity of the project “unbelievable.” Taylor, whose firm has worked on the world’s largest dams, said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Steven Mufson, Washington Post Foreign Service, November 9, 1997

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