Dams and Landslides

Chinese Academy of Engineering says Three Gorges project’s feasibility study was “completely correct”

(December 20, 2010) On December 17, 2010, the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) issued an assessment of the Three Gorges project’s feasibility study and affirmed that the plan and conclusions of the study are correct.

Translation adapted from article posted on the Science Times (Kexue shibao) on Dec 20, 2010. Translated by Probe International.

By Ji Hongmei

On December 17, 2010, the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) issued an assessment of the Three Gorges project’s feasibility study and affirmed that the plan and conclusions of the study are correct.

Shen Guofang, former vice-president of the CAE and head of the expert group responsible for the assessment, said, “as the construction of the Three Gorges dam shows, the overall conclusions of the ‘original feasibility study’ and construction plan are completely correct.”

The report endorsed the original conclusions that  “to build the dam is better than not to build it” and “the earlier-the-better.” The  dam should be built all at once, the CAE confirmed, as a “one-stage development.” The CAE also endorsed the original recommendations that the reservoir should be impounded in stages while resettlement should be continuous. These original recommendations, the CAE said, provided a scientific basis for decision making for the Party’s Central Committee, State Council and National People’s Congress to proceed with the dam.

However, the expert group also pointed out that, “the Three Gorges dam is a major project, so it may take years before its full benefits and impacts are realized.”

“Therefore, this assesment considers only a certain period of time.”

The CAE report made clear that there are three major issues surrounding the dam that should be monitored.

Water quality: a hidden problem

According to the CAE expert group, recent problems with pollution and the effect the dam has had on the surrounding environment match predictions by the original feasibility study. Despite the fact that there are slight differences from the quatitative predictions made in the study, no major consequences have surfaced at the dam.

Problems that were not sufficiently considered in the study include: particular types of water pollution that have appeared in the reservoir; higher-than-expected waste discharge; pollution from upstream sources and the effect this would have on the reservoir’s water quality; and surface pollution.

“The water quality in the main channel of the Three Gorges is generally good, but the tributaries of the Yangtze and some regions in the reservoir area have significantly deteriorated,” says Shen Guofang. “If no attention is paid and no measures are taken to solve this, it will be likely become more pronouncd in the future.”

The water quality in Three Gorges reservoir area depends not only on the discharge of pollutants and the number of treatment facilities in the reservoir, but also on the quality of water flowing into the reservoir from upstream. The size of the area upstream that flows into the reservoir carries sewage from cities and pollutants—with the two biggest pollutants being nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture sites.

Meanwhile, Lu Youmei, former general manager of the Three Gorges Corporation (now the Three Gorges Group) and member of the CAE, says there has been a drastic increase in the number of migrants who were resettled, but are now returning to the Three Gorges region. This, he says, explains the suggestion by the CAE expert group that in order to protect the Three Gorges reservoir, the area surrounding it should be a “population-controlled” and an “environmental protection” zone.

In order to reduce water pollution in the reservoir, officials should aim for a “zero growth” or “negative growth” policy in regards to the area’s population.

Chen Fei, general manager of Three Gorges Group, told a reporter from the Science Times that while a large number of sewage treatment plants and garbage disposal systems have been built in the reservoir area and in cities along the reservoir, many of them are not operating. He stressed that water quality in the Three Gorges resevoir not only affects the reservoir itself, but also the Yangtze valley as a whole—which is home to hundreds of million of people in an area that stretches 1.8 million square kilometers.

Full attention should be paid to geological disasters within the next three to five years

The CAE experts in the assessment report also addressed a number of common criticisms facing Three Gorges. They said it is not in danger of becoming a “second Sanmenxia,”[1] with its severe sedimentation problems and that the recent extreme drought and heavy rains in both Sichuan and Chongqing were not necessarily linked with the project. Three Gorges will also not lead to salt water intrusion into the the Yangtze estuary at Shanghai, the CAE report says.

Of the major concerns facing the dam’s operators today, the threat of geological disasters is the hottest. But the CAE group concluded that the Wenchuan Earthquake which struck on May 12, 2008, in Sichuan Province was not triggered [emphasis added] by the Three Gorges reservoir; geological disasters in the reservoir area can be controlled; no dramatic changes in the river have occurred in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze after the filling of the dam’s reservoir; and, despite an increase of  “bank collapse” or landslides along the reservoir after it was filled, the safety of dykes along the river can be ensured if the necessary steps are taken. The group also noted the evolutionary development of the Three Gorges valley is one of a geological hazard-prone area, with an environment that is relatively weak and fragile, and in which geological disasters, such as bank collapses, landslides and so forth, are inevitable.

The CAE group noted that when reviewing domestic and international experience with dam reservoirs, the threat of landslides and the giant waves that result, are likely to occur within three to five years of the rise of the Three Gorges rservoir to its peak level of 175 meters. As a result, the report says attention should focus on the reservoir. The prevention and management of geological disasters is a long-term and arduous task, it concludes, so monitoring and treatment work should continue even after this five-year time frame.

There is still a long way to go until the Three Gorges migrants are rich and settled

The resettlement of a large number of migrants,  and the complexity of the resettlement programs, has been the project’s most difficult and public task.  Shen Guofang says the resettlement programs at Three Gorges have been successful in their initial goal of “moving the affected people,”which is nearly complete. But, he says, there is much work to ensure that the migrants are settled and able to increase their standard of living.

According to the CAE report, problems with the resettlement programs at Three Gorges remain. In particular, there is a shortage of farmland for the migrants. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for migrants to find employment due to the slow development of industry. This is leading to high unemployment and problems with the migrants’ welfare.

The CAE expert group believes these problems have affected the economic development and social stability of the regions surrounding the reservoir. They, therefore, suggest that officials relocate migrants from the Three Gorges region to other economically developed provinces and regions. This, they say, will help to curb population growth and improve the environment around the reservoir.

Ji Hongmei, Science Times (Kexue shibao), Dec 20, 2010

Translated by Probe International


[1] The Yellow River’s Sanmenxia dam—celebrated at the time as a symbol of the new revolutionary China, with its image printed on the country’s banknotes— is a textbook example of infrastructure building gone wrong. When officials were making plans for its construction, only one hydrological engineer, Huang Wanli, had the nerve to oppose the project, which he said would result in a major build-up of sedimentation behind the dam due to the high silt load of the Yellow River. But Huang was proven right just four years after the dam’s completion, as massive sedimentation clogged its turbines and resulted in a 40 per cent reduction of its water storage capacity. Even though the dam was quickly rebuilt after its initial construction, the sedimentation problems continued and spread up the river. The dam was eventually blamed for causing the very floods it was built to prevent—with Mao himself saying that if the dam did not work then it should be blown up. Today, according to the Financial Times, the dam supplies electricity only sporadically and in tiny quantities, despite claims at the time of its construction that it would provide one-third of the nation’s power needs.

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