Dams and Landslides

Dai Qing: The expensive Three Gorges flood control project

(August 3, 2010) Noted journalist and dissident Dai Qing discusses the failure of the Three Gorges dam to live up to its “official” flood control capacity.

Dai Qing’s piece was originally published by Radio Free Asia on August 2, 2010

As the Chinese people fret these days about our unusual weather, and about floods in the north and south, and in the Yangtze valley in particular, a Web posting attracted widespread attention. Using material from the official media, such as Xinhua and CCTV, and highlighting their headlines in particular, the authors accused the Three Gorges project authority of “boasting.”

In 2003, a news headline read “The Three Gorges dam can withstand a 10,000-year frequency flood.”

In 2007, a news headline read “The Three Gorges dam can fight against a 1,000-year frequency flood.”

Then in 2008, a news headline read “The Three Gorges dam can deal with a 100-year frequency flood.”

By 2010, news reports were quoting Three Gorges officials saying that the dam’s flood control capacity is limited and the Chinese people should not put all their hopes in the Three Gorges dam to do everything.

Netizens 1 burst into an uproar after the posting appeared on the Internet. So the officials in charge of the project hastened to explain: No one was telling lies, they insisted. The public, they said, don’t understand how hydro dams work and have misunderstood the meaning of the news titles.

In other words, readers may have thought the media headlines in 2003 and 2007 were referring to the great flood control benefits that the Three Gorges project would provide. But, actually, the officials were saying, ‘we professionals were referring to the foundation of the dam site and the quality of the cement used to build the dam.’ Specifically, they meant that the dam was built on a granite foundation and the top grade cement was used, so the dam would not collapse if a severe flood (a once in 10,000 year flood) occurred!

Now Professor Huang Wanli 2 did point out that the site chosen to build the Three Gorges dam had characteristics that were opposite to those of the ideal spot. 3 “This is unprecedented,” he said. “The rationale for this design, which the YVPO (now CWRC – Changjiang Water Resources Commission) does not want to address openly, is that there is actually no other alternative, because the only spot in the entire river bed that has granite, is at Sandouping.”

Of course there is nothing wrong with having a very strong dam structure. Lu Youmei, the former boss of the Three Gorges Corporation, mentioned this especially in his 2003 Beijing University speech, provoking a warm applause from the patriotic students. But Mr. Lu failed to mention that when the big floods come, the strong dam would block the flood waters from flooding Wuhan downstream, but they would flood Chongqing upstream.

So, if the proud officials were referring to a strong dam in 2003 and 2007, what did they mean when the Chinese media declared in 2008 that “the Three Gorges dam can deal with a 100-year frequency flood”? According to officials in charge of the Three Gorges project, it means that with the 22.15 billion cubic metres of flood control capacity provided by the Three Gorges dam project, the flood control capacity in the downstream Jingjiang River section of the Yangtze will be improved from a once in 10 year, to a once in 100 year flood control capacity.

True, there is also nothing wrong with this statement, even if the public suspects officials were “unwilling to be clear” with the people. Given that it was 2008, when different opinions of the Three Gorges project were finally being expressed, ordinary people’s pockets were being picked (in the name of the “Three Gorges Project Construction Fund”)4 and the dam builder was enjoying collecting revenue from the project and even raising more funds from the stock market to build more hydro dams on the Yangtze River, it was remarkable that dam officials made such an honest statement.

In contrast, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the proponents of the dam project were not so honest and instead declared in big words that “The flood control function of the Three Gorges project is irreplaceable;” the dam “will be able to effectively control the major floods in the middle and lower Yangtze”, and “only by building the Three Gorges project can we effectively address the problem of floods in the Yangtze River.”

On this issue, Professor Lu Qinkan, 5 former deputy chief engineer at the Ministry of Water Resources and a flood control and sedimentation expert, who had refused to sign the feasibility report as an expert in flood control, was very clear:

“There are three types of floods that have occurred since 1949 along the Yangtze River:

1) Big floods throughout the entire river, such as in 1954;

2) Floods that are serious only at the upper reaches, 6 such as the floods in 1981; and

3) Floods that have occurred due to local storms only at the lower and middle reaches, such as the floods in 1991…

The Three Gorges dam project can only control floods from the Chuanjiang River in the upper reaches, and cannot control the floods from many of the large tributaries in the lower and middle reaches such as the Xiang, Zishui, Yuanshui, Lishui, Han and Gan rivers. The second type of flood, represented by the 1981 flood, was very serious in the upper reaches. The peak discharge at Chongqing of 85,700 m3 per second was already reduced to 70,800 m3 per second at Yichang further down river as a result of channel storage. The lower and middle reaches were not affected at all. Therefore, the Three Gorges project is hardly necessary for this type of flood. As for the third type of flood, it need not be said the project would be totally useless.”

As early as 1998, an official from the dam authority stressed, “If the project is completed (it was still under construction at that time), the Three Gorges dam will play an important role in ensuring the safety of the middle and lower Yangtze by impounding the flood water in the reservoir and reducing the volume discharged from the reservoir.”

But now, the CWRC (Changjiang Water Resources Committee), which is in charge of the whole Yangtze River, is saying something different through the official media:  “The Three Gorges project’s flood storage capacity is limited, so don’t put all your hopes on the Three Gorges dam that it can do everything.”

Officials in charge no longer use the basic words “flood control.” They have changed their language to “The Three Gorges project is calmly playing a role in blocking flood waters, reducing and shifting the peaks of the floods.” That is to say, with a flood control capacity of 22.15 billion cubic metres, the Three Gorges project has a great flood control function, but only if it passes the water through, because if it stores the water, the reservoir will be challenged.

Here we should consider several factors that will determine if a flood becomes a disaster. They are: 1) The velocity of water flow at a fixed hydrological observation station (for example. 70,000 cubic metres on July 20 in this year’s flood); 2) Water levels on the same day at fixed hydrological observation stations, such as the water level at Jianli (a County, below the dam) and Chenglingji (a city below the dam) in order to determine the volume of water flow discharged from the Three Gorges reservoir and whether the Jingjiang flood diversion areas should be used to contain a critical or emergency flood circumstance; and 3) The total flood volume of water in a period of time.

Therefore, whether a reservoir can play an effective role in flood control depends on its storage capacity and the total flood volume of water in the river section in a certain period of time. For instance, the Three Gorges project could do that if its reservoir storage capacity were as large as 200 or even 300 billion cubic metres, but unfortunately, the flood control capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir is only a little more than 20 billion cubic metres.

Thus the question is: how did the dam project, under construction for 20 years, forcing 1.4 million civilians to be relocated, flooding 470,000 mu (1 mu = 1/15 ha) of farmland and spending hundreds of billions of yuan (RMB), perform in controlling floods this year?

Actually, heavy rains began early in the summer in the middle Yangtze valley in general, and in Jiangxi and Hunan provinces, in particular. They then started further west in Hubei, the Three Gorges area, and then in Chongqing and Sichuan. To generate more electricity, the Three Gorges Corporation took advantage of the high water head caused by the flood season (normally from June to August) by holding flood waters in the reservoir until late June and early July. But when the big floods began occurring in the Yangtze tributaries in Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi downstream of the dam, and began flowing into the main Yangtze channel from July 10 to July 15, the dam authority discharged flood waters from the reservoir at the same time.7

According to Professor Jiang Gaoming8, chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Botany, “When the recent drought was getting worse and worse downstream of the dam, the Three Gorges reservoir held the water tightly in order to generate more electricity—making the drought situation downstream much worse. Then, just as the water below the dam began to be too much, the Three Gorges authority lifted the sluice gates and began discharging water from the reservoir to ensure the safety of the dam structure—exaggerating flood disasters downstream as a result.” So as the local media downstream reported, “in the early morning of July 26, the flood waters discharged from the Three Gorges reservoir arrived in the river section of the city of Jiujiang9 of Jiangxi Province as expected. With tens of thousands of troops and civilian working hard all day and night, the dyke along urban Jiujiang10 is still safe.”

Moreover, when the reporter from CCTV asked, “Can the existing storage capacity deal with the upcoming peak?” an official from the Three Gorges Corp answered: “The Three Gorges project has a 22.15 billion of flood control capacity, so as long as the dam structure is concerned, it should be safe itself.” Ha, just when the Chinese people are expecting the dam to play a role in controlling floods, the Three Gorges authorities can only guarantee that “the dam structure should be fine”!

So, does the Three Gorges really have a”22.15 billion flood control capacity” to ensure “the safety of its own structure”? Since the dam authorities repeated that again and again, let’s have a closer look at this figure.

In the original design, “22.15 billion flood control capacity” is a figure based on the calculation of the difference between the “normal pool level” of 175 metres and the “flood control level” of 145 metres. Now, 20 years after that calculation was made, the dam was completed and the project was officially started, and after so many incidents such as garbage congestion, sediment deposition, riverbank collapses, landslides, rock mud flows and so forth, the first question that comes to my mind is, has the real flood control capacity been affected?

Second, as the dam authority has admitted several times, they have not yet been able to raise the reservoir level to 175 metres. Therefore, the simple calculation on which the flood control capacity is based, is compromised.

Third, as early as 2000, Zhang Guangduo 11, chief expert of the Three Gorges project and double-member of both the Chinese Science Academy and the Chinese Engineering Academy, said to Guo Shuyan, vice-director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee:

“Perhaps you know that the flood control capacity of the Three Gorges project is smaller than declared by us. The research was done by Qinghua University. After learning this, Vice-chairman Qian Zhengying questioned the Changjiang Water Resources Commission. The Changjiang Water Resources Commission has also admitted this is true. However, we can sort this problem out by lowering the flood control level to 135 metres, even though this would affect shipping on the river. But keep in mind, never, ever let the public know this…”

Even now, a decade later, the dam authority has never made this fact public, and in order to generate more electricity, the water level has also never dropped to 135 metres. This is why the real flood control capacity of the Three Gorges dam is smaller than the dam authority claimed and why so many Chinese citizens have questioned it, especially on the Web.

In fact, the limited flood control capacity is far from the Three Gorges project’s biggest problem. Throughout the floods this year, we have wanted to ask more questions: how high can the water level at the dam site be raised? If the water levels are raised to 160 metres, 170 metres and even higher at the dam site, how high would the water level be at Chongqing, 660 kilometres upstream the dam?

As we already know, in August 2009, the water level reached 183 metres at Chongqing’s Chaotianmen port when the water level at the dam was at 145 metres. Bai Yansong, a well-known host of the CCTV, also said on TV last month that nearly 30,000 people, who are living below the official red line of 175 metres marking the official maximum height of the reservoir, have not yet been moved. So my question is: why are so many affected people still there, given that the resettlement officially started 20 years ago? Where, or precisely at what elevations, are they right now? Will those people, along with their houses, be flooded if the water level at the dam is raised to 175 metres?

Second, when officials in charge of the Three Gorges project were blowing the trumpet saying “the Three Gorges dam has displayed the power to control the biggest flood since 1998,” why didn’t they mention the more serious problem of the silt buildup? Because of this vexing problem, Lu Qinkan and Fang Zongdai 12 refused to sign their names approving the feasibility report, and Sun Yueqi13 repeatedly pleaded with the central government not to build the big dam project.

As early as 1988, together with other nine members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Sun Yueqi submitted a plea to the central government:

“As it stores flood waters, the Three Gorges reservoir will block the moving sediment and cause it to pile up on the river bed. Ever-growing heaps of sediment around the end of the reservoir might affect the navigability of the waterways, raise the water level and increase flooding at Chongqing, and worsen flood disasters in Sichuan Province.”

But the proponents of the dam project confidently promised that the siltation would never occur because they would use the “storing clear water and releasing muddy water” operational method. Unfortunately, when the reservoir started performing its flood control function this year, all we saw was that the “muddy water was stored and the large equipment was used to clean the silt at the port of Chongqing.”

As early as 1980, the Ministry of Water Resources submitted a “Report on How to Control Floods in the Middle and Lower Yangtze Valley” to the State Council. It was straightforward and simple, without any “world firsts” and without a huge budget, like the Three Gorges project. But such a sound plan 14 was never properly carried out, with many delays due to a so-called “lack of funding,” leading to the decision to build the expensive “limited flood control” Three Gorges project, which is now not only problematic but troubled by hidden disasters.

As Professor Huang Wanli stressed, “a government that respects democracy would never be allowed to start the Three Gorges dam project that will cause grave harm to the country and the people.” Before he died, Professor Huang’s last thoughts were devoted to finding a solution to the Yangtze River floods. Writing from his hospital bed at Qinghua University, the professor said:

“Harnessing China’s rivers is a great undertaking for the country. Among the four major strategies such as “storing,” “blocking,” “regulating,” and “resisting,” “blocking”15 should be seen as the fundamental method. For example, the dyke in the Hankou section16 of the Yangtze River should be strengthened by building the dyke on the side facing the river, with steel plates and stakes and by reinforcing the dyke with stones to ensure its absolute safety. Please bear that in mind.”

The flood season is not over yet, so let’s keep watching.


Who’s Who in the Three Gorges Debate:

Huang Wanli (1911-2001), professor in the Hydraulic Engineering Department of Qinghua University, Beijing since 1953. After obtaining his doctorate in engineering from the Engineering Institute of Illinois, he returned to China in 1937, and was famous for his opposition to the construction of the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River in the 1950s.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of China Society of Biological Conservation and board member of China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.

Sun Yueqi is from Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. He has held government positions specializing in the economic and financial sectors. He is now a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and chairman of the Economic Construction Group of the consultative conference. This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

Zhang Guangdou, professor in hydraulic engineering at Qinghua University, member both of CAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and CAE (Chinese Academy of Engineering), one of designers of the Three Gorges project.

Further Reading:

  1. Netizens is a term for Chinese citizens actively engaged in online communities where they often discuss public policy issues that are not addressed publicly.
  2. Huang Wanli (1911-2001), professor in the Hydraulic Engineering Department of Qinghua University, Beijing since 1953. After obtaining his doctorate in engineering from the Engineering Institute of Illinois, he returned to China in 1937, and was famous for his opposition to the construction of the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River in the 1950s.
  3. For example, the river was wider than is ideal.
  4. In 1992 Chinese implemented a tax on all electricity bills to raise the money for Three Gorges. In July of 1992, the State Administration for Commodity Prices issued a document which imposed an increase of .003 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed nationwide for the Three Gorges Construction Fund. At that time, the State Planning Commission, the State Department of Energy, and the State Administration for Commodity Prices stated that that .003 cents could only be used for the construction of the Three Gorges. However, by 1994 and 1996, the fee rose to .004 cents and .007 cents respectively. Currently, Shanghai, Jiangsu Province, and Zhejiang Province have the highest levy at 1.5 cents for every kilowatt-hour consumed, with Anhui, Hunan, and Hubei Provinces right behind at 1.3 cents. Although the increase seems very small, when multiplied by China’s millions of electricity consumers, the amount is sizable.
  5. Lu Qinkan was also a member and advisor to the Flood Control Group of the Three Gorges Project Feasibility Study in the 1980s.
  6. Yichang or the Three Gorges dam is the dividing line between the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River. The lower reaches are located in Hukou County in Jiangxi Province.
  7. The Ministry of Water Resources ordered the Three Gorges Corporation to release the water in order to make room for incoming flood waters.
  8. Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of China Society of Biological Conservation and board member of China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.
  9. Over 1,000 km downstream the TG dam
  10. Jiujiang is over 1,000 km below the dam. In the 1998 flood, the dyke around the city was broken. In other words, the main purpose of the Three Gorges dam was to control floods downstream. But in the July- August floods of 2010, the authorities discharged water downstream (to Jiangxi and Hunan provinces) just as these provinces were dealing with their own rains. And, thanks to tens of thousands of troops and civilians working hard all day and night, the dyke along urban Jiujiang remained safe. No thanks to the Three Gorges, though. If anything, the Three Gorges dam aggravated the flood situation for Jiangxi and Hunan provinces.
  11. Zhang Guangdou, professor in hydraulic engineering at Qinghua University, member both of CAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and CAE (Chinese Academy of Engineering), one of designers of the Three Gorges project.
  12. Fang Zongdai, former deputy director of the Institute for Sedimentation of China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, member of the Floods Control Group of the Three Gorges Project Feasibility Study in the 1980s.
  13. Sun Yueqi is from Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. He has held government positions specializing in the economic and financial sectors. He is now a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and chairman of the Economic Construction Group of the consultative conference. This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!
  14. Strengthening dykes and floodwater diversion areas.
  15. Using dykes and diversion areas, not dams.
  16. Located in one of Wuhan City’s three towns in Hubei Province.

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