China Energy Industry

Return of the dambusters

The latest controversy over the Three Gorges Dam puts the lie to the notion that the advantages of a one-party autocracy trump political gridlock.

Published by The Week In China, June 3, 2011

The idea of a ‘benign dictator’ can be seductive one. If you have the right person at the top, it is claimed, you avoid the messiness of collective decision-making, as well as the short-termist horse-trading common between fractious political parties. That’s similar to the reasoning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has used to argue that China’s authoritarian governance has advantages in economic terms.

As Friedman put it in a column last December: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”

In particular, Friedman has praised China’s ability to make “big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments”.

But news in the past few weeks may have highlighted a flaw in that argument: that when the wrong mega-projects are being pushed through the consequences can be as devastating as political gridlock, and perhaps worse.

That may be a lesson learned from the latest controversy over the Three Gorges Dam.

Last month, the State Council (China’s cabinet) issued an unusually frank statement warning of “urgent problems” with the Three Gorges scheme, probably the most prestigious of all of Beijing’s mega projects to date.

Among the concerns: the resettlement process for the 1.3 million displaced people; the dam’s contribution towards pollution, siltage and landslides; and even the dam’s relationship with earthquakes in the region.

Those concerns aren’t anything new. Most were predicted decades ago. But such high-level criticism of a prestige project by Beijing itself is almost unprecedented.

Why now?

The timing of the statement is a factor, with the country’s most important river, the Yangtze, enduring its worst drought in at least fifty years. Ships are stranded, industries are idle and farmers complain of water shortages. “It rings a big alarm bell when the Yangtze itself is facing drought,” environmentalist Ma Jun told the Financial Times. “The total population supported by this river basin is around 400 million people.”

For some, the State Council’s decision to admit publicly to problems with the dam is seen as evidence of a rift at the top over the wisdom of mega-projects in general (and dams in particular).

After all, the $28 billion Three Gorges programme is closely associated with the previous generation of leaders (Jiang Zemin and Li Peng). Reportedly, neither President Hu Jintao nor Premier Wen Jiabao (both trained engineers) attended its opening ceremony in 2008.

In another intriguing development, some of the dispute is also being played out in the state-media. After a slew of less-than-complimentary headlines like “Big Dam enhances risks of natural disasters” (China Daily), rival editorials were then published insisting “No evidence connects Three Gorges to droughts” (People’s Daily).

So what may have gone wrong?

So far, more than 7 million hectares (5% of the country’s farmland) have been hit by a lack of irrigation from the Yangtze, and more than 4 million people are without drinking water. Salt tides have already encroached up the lower reaches of the river, spoiling fresh water reservoirs in Shanghai, and the country’s largest freshwater lakes (Poyang and Dongting) are drying out.

A lack of rainfall is the primary culprit for the wider drought, down 60% on normal levels in some regions. Media reports say that some stretches of the Yangtze haven’t seen significant rain since November.

The river was already under heavy pressure before the rains failed. The increase in demand for water for industry, agriculture and urban settlement along the Yangtze’s length – as well as thousands of hydropower stations – has combined to put the river’s flow into a precarious situation.

But plenty of Chinese are also prepared to blame the Three Gorges for making matters worse. They say that the 600km-long reservoir behind the dam distorts the regional climate by reflecting heat and reducing rainfall. Last week, the China Daily also pointed to arguments that the reservoir’s large surface area “speeds up water evaporation, decreasing the water volume downstream.”

What is being done?

First step: to release much more water from behind the dam – more than they ever have before, in fact. Last week state media reported that 5 billion cubic metres of water was to be released over the folllowing 20 days.

That’s despite worries that a rapid outflow could cause landslides. “The sudden increase of water discharges from the dam will crash the banks [along the reservoir],” Guan Fengjun, geologist for the Ministry of Land and Resources warned on China National Radio.

But that hasn’t halted the process. Enough water has already been released that the reservoir is now five metres below the 156-metre limit needed for optimal power generation.

There is also a limit to what the emergency measures can accomplish. While they may help improve the situation along the Yangtze’s middle reaches, the far lower reaches of the river will get very limited benefits, flood control official Wang Jingquan told the China Daily. Officials are also faced with a challenge for which they are poorly prepared. “The dam was not designed to relieve the drought,” one of its architects acknowledged to the Shanghai Daily. “It was built to generate electricity, control flooding and adjust [the river’s] water level for navigation.”

Other causes for concern?

Flood control may be part of the dam’s raison d’être, but it was actually criticised for its role in last summer’s floods along much of the Yangtze. Instead of holding water back, the dam’s operators were forced to release a record volume in July, after the reservoir rose four metres in a single night.

This is the ‘Achilles heel’ of all the big dams on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, writes the South China Morning Post, many of which are doing “exactly the opposite of what the public were told to expect.”

That’s because they need to hoard water during the dry season to generate electricity. But they can then be forced to release it in volume during monsoon season, so that dam walls aren’t breached.

Other criticisms of the Yangtze Three Gorges dam in particular: it has caused a build-up of industrial chemicals upstream of its core wall (according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection) and a major loss of habitat for marine life downstream. The 1.3 million people it displaced have also been relocated to “poor, infertile, and mountainous [terrain]”, Chongiqing University academic Lei Hengshun told the Christian Science Monitor.

But the concerns don’t end there. “The most serious threat is that of geological disasters,” respected environmentalist Dai Qing told Reuters. Geologists have already blamed several earthquakes on the constant filling and emptying of Yangtze reservoirs. “According to research, the [Three Gorges] dam rests on a seismic fault,” Fan Xiao, head of Sichuan’s Regional Geological Survey Team, told the Global Times. “Thus some scholars suggested that it was the dam’s water capacity that caused the Zigui earthquake.”

Signs of mega-project fatigue?

The current drought is also encouraging calls to scale back (or even call off) the $62 billion South-North Water Diversion project. One of the project’s goals is to divert Yangtze River water into the Yellow River. But why bother if there isn’t anything to send, critics ask? One of the intended beneficiaries of the plan, the city of Tianjin, has already signalled that it thinks Yangtze water is too polluted. It’s building desalination plants instead.

The country’s nuclear power programme could also be a mega-project casualty. In the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the State Council has already issued a moratorium on new plants, and one of the physicists involved in developing China’s atomic weapons has publicly labelled the nuclear plans as “another Great Leap Forward” (for those less familiar with Chinese history, this is not a compliment).

“What is our quake resistance level?” Professor He Zuoxiu asked in the Science Times. “Our nuclear experts have never given an answer.”

Even some of the initial enthusiasm for high-speed rail appears to be waning. In part that is due to high-profile cases of corruption (one of which saw the downfall of then railway minister Liu Zhijun). But there are also concerns about the quality of the track, and the cost of constructing it. Last week two more projects were suspended (the Tianjin–Qinhuangdao and Qingdao–Jinan lines).

So time for an about-turn?

Not yet. The battle being fought on the future of mega-projects has only recently become more apparent. There are powerful lobbies with vested interests on both sides. Last week WiC wrote about another massive investment plan, this time in a high-voltage national power grid technology (see WiC108). But an earlier-than-normal summer electricity shortage is playing into the mega-planners hands, with the State Grid Corporation predicting China’s worst ever power deficit later this summer. The power shortfall impacts directly on China’s river systems too. Hydropower already accounts for 22% of China’s electricity and planners have announced a target of raising production by half – to 300,000MW by 2015.

Those ambitions appear to have finally brought an end to the 2004 moratorium on dam building on China’s last remaining ‘free-flowing’ large river – the Nu (known as the Salween in downstream countries). Despite warnings that the river also runs along a major geological fault – and that the power generated will be distributed on still-unproven ultra-high voltage transmission – new construction plans are now being prepared.

Similar plans are being discussed for the Mekong River and the Yarlung Zangbo (which becomes the Brahmaputra downstream). That won’t be welcome news in downstream countries, which will be looking at the state of the once-mighty Yangtze with some alarm.

But many more eyes will turn to what happens next at the Yangtze’s flagship project, which has been a cherished ambition for the Chinese leadership since Sun Yat-sen first proposed the dam in 1919.

Mao Zedong later lauded the idea in a 1956 poem, which concluded: “To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain/Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges/The mountain goddess if she is still there/Will marvel at a world so changed.”

But even Mao may have underestimated the sheer extent of the transformation that the Three Gorges dam would bring.

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