China Pollution

Garbage Country

(May 14, 2011) If China has a garbage crisis, and it does, then Three Gorges is likely its biggest dump.

By Lisa Peryman, Probe International

Seasonal flooding, compounded by rising and falling Three Gorges dam reservoir levels, have created a bizarre and massive ongoing garbage problem for the world’s largest dam on the Yangtze River.

In an effort to manage the debris dilemma, teams of workers are hired by municipal governments who set them afloat as garbage collectors on vessels they rent and operate in tandem with the dam project’s Three Gorges Corporation. This mammoth undertaking occupies river ‘beauticians’ – or environmental sanitation teams, as they’re referred to by the state – for up to 12 hours a day during clean-up season, which the government is planning to extend from May to November annually. Some of these workers, perhaps many, once lived along the Yangtze and earned their livelihoods as farmers and fishermen but were forced to switch jobs after the dam project displaced them.

By the end of last year – a particularly bad year for floating garbage – more than 68,000 workers in nearly 21,000 boats had collected 78,000 tonnes of garbage from the section of the Yangtze near the Three Gorges dam. After the Three Gorges reservoir was raised to its maximum level of 175 meters in October 2010, debris was swept into the 660 kilometre-long reservoir by the rising waters, and accumulated along the upstream side of the dam, threatening the operation of the plant’s turbo-generators. Following an intense collection effort lasting six days, workers salvaged more than 3,800 tonnes of garbage from the Yangtze – 600 tons per day on average.

The government-mouthpiece China Daily quoted Chen Lei, an official with the Three Gorges Corporation, as saying, “the huge amount of floating garbage would threaten the normal operation of the dam.” He was also cited as saying that debris could damage boats nearby and hurt water quality.

The Wall Street Journal notes the economic boom in China has caused a corresponding boom in rubbish. Landfills – which often serve as disposal sites for some of the Yangtze’s unwanted outflow – are typically filled up within five years, compared with the average 30-year-life span of landfills in Europe and the US. The Journal reports China’s trash volume was already out-pacing the worldwide growth rate in 2005 by 2%, when Chinese researchers revealed the garbage volume was growing at 10% a year and accounted for 150 million tons of the 490 millions tons of trash produced globally each year.

Taiwan’s China Times newspaper estimates the Three Gorges Corporation spends around 10 million yuan a year on clearing floating garbage, and claimed the total cost for 2010 would hit 20 million yuan.

Zhu Wenfu and his wife Li Xianmei who used to fish for a living along the Yangtze, are now dedicated members of its cleanup operation. A China Daily report spotlighting their work as ‘beauticians’ places the couple’s total earnings at less than 2,000 yuan (US$308) a month, which just covers their daily expenses and no more. Although Li is now in effect working for the master of her own demise, she is grateful for the income.

“My biggest wish is that I’m able to work safely until retirement and could get my retirement pay at that time,” said Li, 47.

For his part, Zhu is “very honoured to be able to make a contribution to the safety of the Three Gorges Project, and I’m also very delighted to work here, accompanied by my wife.”

However, observes China Daily, Zhu and Li are not allowed to work on the same collection vessel together and are unable to see one another during working hours.

For an update to this story, see Rubbish Ship.

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