China Energy Industry

Misery along the Yangtze provokes frank discussions about the “monstrous” Three Gorges dam

(June 12, 2011) A consensus is building that the Three Gorges dam, which the Shanghai Daily calls “that “monstrous damming project,” dried downstream lakes. Predictions to this end made by renowned hydraulic engineer Huang Wanli, nearly 20 years ago, prove to be eerily accurate.  

Three Gorges Dam

This year so far Shanghai has received the least precipitation in 138 years, or ever since record-keeping started.

During the May Day holiday, we experienced one of the worst dust storms in memory. Not to spoil our festive mood, the weathermen kept the bad news to themselves.

And since May 31 the city has been shrouded in a persistent haze that creates a shimmering, mirage-like view of distant buildings.

For your information, haze is an aggregation in the atmosphere of very fine, widely dispersed, solid particles giving the air an opalescent appearance.

For months my wife has been complaining of the thick layer of dust that gathers on our floors and furniture every few days.

Meteorologists have now admitted this dust has something to do with the historical drought affecting many parts of China. The devastating drought has already reduced some of the largest lakes in Jiangxi and Hubei provinces into puddles.

The misery provokes some unusually frank discussions in the media about that monstrous damming project.

On May 31 the Oriental Morning Post dedicated a full 12 pages to explicate the links between that dam and some worsening woes.

Frequent droughts and flooding, deteriorating geological conditions within the dammed area, and aggravations in environment are just some of them.

The front page was dominated by a photo of Huang Wanli (1911-2001), a renowned hydraulic engineer, giving a lecture to teachers and postgraduates at Tsinghua University on April 1981.

In 1957, Huang voiced his opposition to the Sanmenxia dam project on the Yellow River, and was then labeled a rightist. But he lived to see his dire predictions about the dam prove true.

Since the 1980s Huang had been agitating against the Three Gorges project. He maintained that any engineering project must involve a comprehensive understanding not only of the technology involved, but also of other issues and consequences of the project. And he deemed the grasping of the other issues more important than mastering the technology.

Mounting evidence

According to the Oriental Morning Post, Professor Wang Xiaohong believes “the impact of the Three Gorges project on Poyang Lake (in Jiangxi Province) is enormous.”

Wang is director of the Jiangxi’s office of the Mountain, River, and Lake Development Committee.

In January 2008, the lake’s Duchang hydraulic survey station registered a record low water level of 8.15 meters, as the lake surface dwindled to 1/73 of its high in 1998. Corresponding water storage capacity was reduced to 1/215 of its high in 1998.

On June 1 the Xinmin Evening News also reported on its front page the need to undertake ecological rehabilitation and prevent drought.

In an interview with the newspaper, Wang Jingquan, a drought and flood prevention official at the Changjiang Water Resources Commission, admitted that the Three Gorges project does have impact on drought prevention efforts and on the environment in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

But as Professor Huang correctly foresaw, “The people who have devoted so much work to the project and have spent so much money will try anything to defend their project.”

The Beijing Times reported on June 2 that Liu Xuefeng, inspector of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarter, flatly rejected any connection between the dam and the drought.

He even asserted that “without the Three Gorges project, this year’s drought could have been worse.”

In our confusion as to whose expertise we should trust, a commentary in People’s Daily‘s rings out loud and clear.

The Party’s mouthpiece opined on June 2 that “in the mind of the people, [a government that is] always ready to correct its mistake once it is aware of it is much more credible and respectable than [a government that is] forever infallible.”

Rush to dam

But at the policy level, environmental concerns naturally pale into insignificance.

The Jiangxi Provincial Government has submitted a blueprint for a 2.8-km long dam to be built across the Yangtze River near Poyang Lake, in an effort to boost the lake’s capacity for irrigation, shipping, tourism, power generation, and farming of aquatic products.

The State Council approved the plan in December 2009.

Li Jianhua, a professor of environmental engineering from Tongji University, summed up this blueprint as an effort to offset the adverse impacts of damming the Three Gorges by building yet another dam.

Driven by dazzling GDP figures on China’s east coast, governments in the “underdeveloped” middle and west have been in a race to dam their rivers.

Energy is crucial for economic takeoff.

On December 2007, China Three Gorges Co had already decided to build four hydropower plants further upstream on the Yangtze River (the lower reaches of the Jinsha River, in Yunnan Province), with a generating capacity twice that of the Three Gorges.

In June 2009, construction of two power plants on Jinsha River were suspended due to ecological damages, but according to report from the Southern Weekend newspaper, the construction of the two plants had been going on at full speed even while they were “suspended” and awaiting blessing from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Further upstream in the upper reaches of the Jinsha River (in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province), there are plans to exploit this section of river at eight levels, promising power generating capacity of 9 million kw at an investment of hundreds of billions of yuan. The energy is set to fuel “the leaps and bounds in the development of the Tibet Autonomous Region.”

Nationwide there are around 5,200 dams with a height of over 30 meters that have been completed or are being built; around 140 of them are more than 100 meters high.

The ongoing debate about great dams does seem incongruous, even pedantic, before the hubris and mandate of growth.

Wan Lixin, Shanghai Daily, June 7, 2011

Read the original article here.

More about Huang Wanli:

What price the Three Gorges Project?

The expensive Three Gorges flood control project

A tale of two scientists

Longtime dam opponent dies at 90

Three Gorges: Lessons from Sanmenxia

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