Dams and Landslides

The Three Gorges reservoir has become a danger

Translated by Probe International
From the South Urban Daily (Nanfang dushi bao), posted March 3, 2009

(March 11, 2010) The large-scale construction that accompanied the building of the Three Gorges dam and its reservoir has increased the number of landslides—both new and reactivated—in the surrounding area. County seats recently built on land near the reservoir are now particularly prone to landslides. Local schools and residential buildings are already suffering cracked foundations and walls.

And although the Three Gorges project is not completely finished, a new battle is emerging. The state has pledged tens of billions of dollars in an effort to control geological disasters in the reservoir vicinity, but the frequency of landslides and concerns regarding dam safety have added to the mounting fears over stability.

It appears the Three Gorges dam will never truly be complete.

Statistics provided by the Seismic Office of Fengjie County in Chongqing Municipality show that seismic activity has increased since 2003—when the Three Gorges reservoir was filled for the first time. In 2008, when officials attempted to fill the reservoir to 175 metres, at least 14 earthquakes were reported in the Fengjie area—five of which were felt at a maximum magnitude of 2.9.

Statistics for the Chongqing area of the reservoir report show that as of March 18, 2009, a total of 166 geological disasters have occurred in 14 counties and districts, including: Fengjie, Kaixian, Wanzhou, Wushan, Wuxi, Yunyang, Wanzhou, among others. It’s worth noting that among the 166 geological disasters, 121 are sites of recent deformations…e.g. landslips, mud-rock flows and mountain collapses.

With a total volume of about 60.24 million cubic meters, the new or recently activated landslides have affected a population of 11,535 and as much as 2,380 mu (1 mu=1/15 ha) of farmland has been lost.

The anxious woman

For decades, Wang Zuxiu has lived on the banks of the Yangtze, peacefully tending her orange trees. But, in recent years, her world has been overtaken by fear: fear for her own safety and fear for the safety of her home, which she believes is sinking. One night in 2009, she was startled from sleep by what sounded like a giant rock rolling into the river near her house. The next morning she saw that, although her house remained intact, a giant rock had indeed made its way into the water.

As a result, Wang has developed the habit of checking her small bungalow regularly and has since discovered that cracks have formed around her house. The cracks, she says, expand as the water levels in the reservoir fluctuate. She also describes sounds like a rumbling underground through the night.

This is not entirely an illusion. According to the card “How to deal with collapse, landslides and debris flows” sent to Wang by the Land Resources Bureau of Badong County in Hubei Province, her house is located in the lower edge of a 1.28 square-kilometre plot of land deemed at risk from landslides. The card instructs Wang Zuxiu and her family how to react in case of an emergency. Accordingly, in the event of a landslide, officials at an emergency response centre will use a broadcast system to warn residents to evacuate.

Nearly every villager has seen the official evacuation maps, displayed at prominent locations around the village–including the village entrance and at all major intersections.

Wang Zuxiu believes that the cracks around her house are most likely associated with reservoir fluctuations, which are part of the dam’s operating process. The biggest cracks occur in late spring and early winter when the reservoir is lowered and raised. What Wang Zuxiu really wants is to move but, she says, “nobody (from the resettlement bureau) has come to register my home.” With disappointment, she says other villagers have already been registered—pointing to nearby houses.

3,000 students, studying on top of a potential landslide

The First High School of Badong County stands nearby on the same disaster-prone land as Wang Zuxiu’s small house. From a distance, the school does not appear to be under threat, as it was built more than 100 metres above the reservoir’s water level—even at peak ‘tide’. But a closer inspection would shock people: cracks affect almost every building in the school.

One of the biggest is an east-west crack formed in recent years that runs across the ground from the school gate. The school filled this crack with asphalt last winter, but it reopened in the spring when the reservoir was lowered.

Nobody is sure how many cracks are in the school’s classrooms and dormitories. Some cracks appear on classroom walls, while others have cut off an entire staircase in the teaching building. In the heavily populated dormitory for female students, a major fissure on the floor meets up with cracks that connect to the teaching building. These splits were also filled with asphalt.

Pencil marks indicating expanding crack width can be found everywhere around the school. In an examination room, for example, markings show that the gap of one crack has grown from 22 mm to 24 mm in the last two years.

Song Fagang, the school’s principal, said that no construction inspectors have been invited to assess the school because, if an inspector did come and witnessed how dangerous the situation is, he explained, classes would have to be cancelled and teachers and students living in the dormitory would have to leave. Because of the school’s high standing, officials have taken note of problems. But a solution to the real dilemma—moving as many as 3,000 teachers, students and other staff—has yet to be forthcoming, even though it is common knowledge that the buildings are dangerous.

After two major landslides in 1995, the Huangtupo (yellow earth slope) was identified as a “reactivated” ancient landslide by the geological agency. It is now one of the most dangerous landslide areas in the Three Gorges reservoir. In 2008, the central government came up with a plan to relocate ten-thousand people from the Huangtupo over the next three years. A number of major buildings such as the county government office and hospital have already been relocated.

According to the plan, the resettlement of the 3,000 staff and students at First High School of Badong County is listed as a priority, and should take place in the next two years. But now, it appears that this project is considered too big to undertake.

“There is a big hole of funding”, the principal says. The new site for the school is on the hillside on the opposite side of the Yangtze River—where the geological conditions are safer. But the budget for building the new school is as much as 200 million to 300 million yuan RMB—the bulk of which is slated for the construction of a ‘complicated’ underground foundation. That amount of money would build two or three schools of the same size on land beyond the reservoir area.

“Normal” earthquakes

Fengjie, in Chongqing Municipality, about 100 km upstream from Badong County in Hubei Province, and 180 km upstream from the Three Gorges dam, has experienced at least four earthquakes since the filling of the reservoir—including one when the epicentre of the earthquake was located at the Xingfu (Happiness) High School. Local media reported that because the earthquake was caused by the filling of the reservoir, it was normal.

Gong Zhengda, a retired teacher at the school remembers the incident well. It occurred at 9:50 A.M. on November 11, 2008, after the Three Gorges reservoir had been filled to 173 metres. The shock knocked him to the floor of his house while he was watching TV with his family. Without hesitation, he dragged his wife and daughter out of the house and ran.

Gong recalls as many as 2,000 students pouring out of the school buildings and running to the highway, where they gathered, frozen with fear. One student was injured.

After the earthquake, Gong used a piece of chalk and wrote the date on a cupboard in the kitchen. Since then, he has started carrying his ID card, bank cards and large sums of cash inside his coat pocket in case of another emergency.

In the wake of the incident, local media quickly confirmed the relationship between the earthquake and the filling of the reservoir, attributing the cause to the latter but describing the event as ‘normal’ because its magnitude registered only around 2.0.

This ‘normal’ seismic activity brought about dramatic changes to the school grounds, however. The bridge linking teaching buildings has become twisted, leaving cracks visible. In spite of deterioration, thousands of people continue to use the bridges every day. One student said he has grown accustomed to the damage but felt afraid, nevertheless. All female students were moved to the office building because of damages to their dormitory, and the principals and party secretary were forced to relocate to a temporary shelter in an open space. Various seismic monitoring instruments have since been installed near the ground and on the roofs of the school buildings. As a safety precaution, the playground facing the Yangtze was locked.

The school’s principal said students are put through two exercises per year that reinforce evacuation procedures and how to deal with an earthquake emergency. A plan is also in place to relocate the school but no time frame has been set and, again, resettlement of the school population is considered too large to handle.

Tens of billions to be spent on dealing with geological disasters

This reporter has heard from multiple sources that there will be 10 billion RMB in funds available for post-project plans in the Three Gorges area. Pan Jiazheng, member of both of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, says that the builder of the Three Gorges project should be held responsible for the geological disasters that are a result of the dam’s reservoir.

“Now the question is, when should the money be spent,” says Chen Jin, director of the Changjiang River Scientific Research Institute. Mr Chen insists that the money should not be spent now, as the reservoir has yet to be filled to its maximum height of 175 metres. Until it reaches this height, there is no way to know the full impact of the reservoir on the area. This means that any money spent on projects might go to waste or be spent ineffectively. Chen thinks money should be used to monitor the vicinity area over the next four to five years.

In the meantime, students at the Badang High School and Xingfu High School continue to study in dangerous buildings, connected by broken bridges.

Yang Chuanmin, South Urban Daily, March 11, 2010

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