Dams and Landslides

Three Gorges dam fails to provide during winter storm

Brady Yauch
Probe International
January 6, 2010

The much-promised electricity from the Three Gorges dam is failing China’s citizens when they need it most—during one of the most intense winter storms the country has experienced in decades. According to recent reports, the Chinese government is now urging the country’s factory operators to scale back operations to ensure sufficient power to heat homes, as demand has surged with the below-freezing temperatures.

While no major power outages have been reported, coal supplies are said to be running low at power plants in central China, said Liu Xinfang, a spokesman for State Grid Corp., which operates most of China’s power-distribution network.

“Power demand is greatly increased because people need to stay warm,” Liu said. “Our facilities are in excellent shape, but we lack coal. It’s like cooking without rice.”

Yet, this is not the first time the country’s electricity supply has been held hostage to low coal supplies and frigid temperatures. Last winter, parts of the country suffered blackouts after power companies allowed coal supplies to run low due to high costs and snowstorms that disrupted supply chains.

And two years ago, more than half of the country’s provinces suffered blackouts for a number of weeks—from late January to the Lunar New Year holiday—after snowstorms toppled power lines just as a number of power plants were running low on coal supplies.

More importantly, the current situation has highlighted the inability of the Chinese government’s massive vanity project, the Three Gorges dam, to pick up the slack during times of distress. Because China has experienced a major drought over the past year, officials in charge of the dam have been forced to release more water to downstream residents—and as a result, have failed to raise the dam to 175 metres, the maximum height at which the dam can operate and produce maximum power. This is limiting the dam’s ability to provide much-needed electricity during times of peak demand.

But this year’s drought is just one of the reasons for the dam’s inability to produce maximum power. Because life-threatening landslides are triggered by the rising reservoir, dam officials have forced to keep the reservoir low. A lower reservoir level results in the dam producing less power. According the BBC, the last time the reservoir was stopped at 171 meters only 11 of the dam’s 26 hydropower generators were operating.

The inability to raise the reservoir to its maximum height has caused some officials to speak out and question how the dam is operated. Zheng Shouren, chief engineer of the Three Gorges Group and member of the China Academy of Engineering says officials should consider raising the dam’s reservoir earlier in the year, or, he predicts, “there will be no way to fill the reservoir to 175 m in most years.”

But doing so, say some critics, would produce have two consequences: an increased chance of upstream flooding, and competition for water among upstream reservoirs. If officials start to store water earlier in the year and during the flood season (May through August) —when they should be passing it downstream—they increase the risk of flooding upstream. And deeming the early-filling of the Three Gorges reservoir a priority might come at the expense of upstream dams, which could be forced to release more water than they had planned or anticipated.

The result is a state vanity project that has never—and likely never will—produce its much-promised benefits. The continually escalating costs of the dam itself and the myriad environmental and social problems it creates simply add to the dam’s most basic flaw: it doesn’t meet the country’s electricity needs when they need it most.

Further Reading:

More Three Gorges migrants returning home

Filmmaker says problems from the Three Gorges dam are here to stay

A Damned Dam

More landslides likely as Three Gorges reservoir rises

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