Three Gorges Probe

Floating Garbage Chokes Major Chinese Dam

(August 2, 2010) Floating garbage washed into the Yangtze River by torrential rains is threatening to clog part of the giant Three Gorges Dam, Chinese state media reported, the latest problem caused by devastating floods that have killed nearly 1,000 people and triggered several major industrial accidents.

The large volumes of waste could jam a key floodgate on the world’s biggest dam, the government-owned China Daily newspaper reported Monday, citing an official with the China Three Gorges Corp.

The official, Chen Lei, was quoted as saying that the unusually large amount of debris near the dam also could damage boats nearby and hurt water quality. Mr. Chen couldn’t be reached Monday to comment.

Deadly floods are an annual affair in China, but this year’s floods have caused the most damage and loss of life since 1998. Some 968 people had been killed as of Thursday and an additional 507 were missing, and economic losses totaled more than $26 billion, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported last week, citing the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters.

On Monday, Xinhua said rains in the country’s northeast—far from the Three Gorges site in central China—had damaged water pipelines in the city of Tonghua, leaving some 300,000 people without tap water for two days. More than 300 workers had been mobilized to restore the water supply, but it wasn’t clear when the supply would be resumed, Xinhua said.

Last week, floods in two chemical-plant warehouses in the same province, Jilin, washed 3,662 barrels filled with colorless and highly explosive chemicals, and an additional 3,476 empty barrels, into the tributary of a major river.

As of Sunday night, workers had recovered 6,387 of the barrels, and officials said water tests showed the Songhua River, a major drinking source for millions of residents in the region, hadn’t been contaminated, Xinhua said. That incident followed a major chemical spill into a river in southern China by a copper plant hit by flooding.

Also on Monday, authorities raised the death toll from a bridge collapse in Henan province to 51 and said 15 remained missing. Witnesses said a crowd had gathered on the two-decade-old bridge July 24 to watch the surging river below when the bridge collapsed, according to state media.

Photos of the garbage near Three Gorges show cranes lifting grayish lumps of tree branches, plastic bags and bottles, and other household trash spreading across the reservoir above the dam.

Garbage is a chronic problem for Three Gorges operators, but the levels have surged during the recent flooding, China Daily quoted Mr. Chen as saying.

Trash pollutes many of China’s waterways. Garbage output during the country’s economic boom has grown faster than its ability to dispose of it. Landfills are small and are typically filled up within five years, compared with the average 30-year-life span of a landfill in Europe or the U.S., Western executives said.

While Chinese on average produce 130 kilograms (286 pounds) of garbage a year per person, compared with 750 kilograms in the U.S., the figure is closer to 400 kilograms in richer cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Chinese researchers in 2005 said trash volume was growing 10% a year—faster in China than the world-wide rate, which was growing 8%. They estimated that China accounted for 150 million tons of the 490 million tons of trash produced globally each year.

Shai Oster, The Wall Street Journal,  August 2, 2010

—Juliet Ye contributed to this article.

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