(October 17, 2011) To most observers, Chinese officialdom has supported the Three Gorges Dam without fail – whether convinced of its merits or afraid to question a project that was dear to revered figures like Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. But a closer look reveals growing worries about the dam which has become a symbol for all that is wrong with China’s rise. Here we present Chinese officials’ admissions of problems at Three Gorges, from the sensational mea culpas of senior officials to the subtly expressed worries of eminent scientists.
Compiled by Probe International
March 3, 2000 – 53 senior Chinese engineers and academics (organized by Lu Qinkan (contributor to Yangtze! Yangtze!, consultant to the flood control group of the Three Gorges project feasibility study, CPPCC member) write a petition to Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji, warning that raising the reservoir’s level to 175 metres could cause problems including silt deposition in the port of Chongqing, submerging Chongqing’s sewage drain outlets, increased landslides and soil erosion.
July 12, 2003 – One month after the reservoir is filled to 135m, a massive landslide occurs at Qianjiangping on the Qing’ganhe River, a tributary of the Yangtze. The collapse destroys factories, homes and farmland, kills ten people and displaces 1300. At first, geologists from the Ministry of Land and Resources state that the landslide was due to “unstable geological conditions at the site, induced by 10 days of sustained heavy rain.” But two years later, other MLR scientists publish a paper stating that the increased reservoir level was the main cause of the disaster.
September 5, 2003 – Lu Qinkan and 42 other experts write a third petition to Hu Jintao, again arguing that the Three Gorges reservoir level ought to remain at 156m, noting unresolved problems with “the discharge of silt by the outlets at the base of the dam,” and that the area affected by the dam was greatly underestimated.
May 9, 2007 – A large crack appears in the Yemaomian landslide 17km upstream of Three Gorges Dam. Cheng Chongjun, director of the Three Gorges Area administration of the Yangtze and Three Gorges Navigation Administrative Bureau, says, “Our preliminary investigations reveal that the deformation of the slide is most likely related to these reservoir fluctuations.”
September 27, 2007 – Chinese officials at a forum in Wuhan on the Three Gorges Dam acknowledge “hidden dangers” at the dam: “If no preventive measures are taken, the project could lead to catastrophe.” Worries include increased landslides and erosion of downstream riverbanks. The participants agree that the dam has had a “notably adverse” effect on the environment around the reservoir and along the Yangtze. Tan Qiwei (vice-mayor of Chongqing) and Li Chunming (vice-governor of Hubei) state that water quality has deteriorated in Yangtze tributaries. Tan notes that the reservoir’s shore has collapsed in 91 places.
Huang Xuebin, head of Headquarters for Prevention and Control of Geological Disasters in the Three Gorges Reservoir, adds that the landslides have led to waves as high as 50m, causing more damage.
Wang Xiaofeng, director of the office of the Three Gorges Project Committee of the State Council, states: “We can by no means relax our vigilance against ecological and environmental security problems or profit from a fleeting economic boom at the cost of sacrificing the environment.” Wang also reveals that Wen Jiabao, at a State Council meeting earlier that year, said “the environmental cost is the most pressing of the serious problems facing the Three Gorges project”.
October 15, 2007 – Wang Hongju, mayor of Chongqing, denies the above claims, saying that “the water quality [in Chongqing] is the best in Chinese cities at present” and that the claim that Three Gorges Dam has caused environmental disasters cannot withstand scrutiny.
October 23, 2007 – An article in ChinaDialogue quotes Li Changjun, deputy head of the planning section of Chongqing Transport Department, saying that silt accumulation is “slowly becoming a reality” in Chongqing port.
January 21, 2008 – Xu Kaixiang, chief engineer at Three Gorges Reservoir Area Disaster Control Headquarters, says that newspapers in Hubei and Chongqing recorded 4,688 landslides or collapses around the reservoir between January and November 2003, compared to only 2490 in 2001.
January 21, 2010 – Chongqing government announces that 300,000 more people will have to be relocated away from the dam area – partly “to avoid geographic hazards, like landslides, caused by the dam.” A report from the Chongqing committee of the CPPCC finds that 53,025 people have so far been relocated to avoid geographic hazards, and that (according to a 2007 report) 3812 new hazards have developed since 2003. It also states that bank slumps and landslides are likely to occur for the next 20 years.
May 24, 2010 – Heavy rains at the beginning of flood season lead to increased risk of landslides in the Three Gorges Dam area. Wang Min, vice-minister of Land and Resources, calls the situation “grim”.
July 23, 2010 – Zhao Yunfa, deputy director of China Three Gorges Corporation’s cascade dispatch centre, says that “the dam’s flood-control capacity is not unlimited […] any flood with water flow exceeding 122,000 cubic metres per second would put the dam’s own safety at risk.”
May 1, 2011 – China’s State Council releases a statement: “At the same time that the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and geological disaster prevention.” Council also says that there are problems regarding downriver transport, irrigation and water supplies, and emphasizes the need to curb water pollution downstream.
May 26, 2011 – Guan Fengjun, director of the Department of Geological Environment under the Ministry of Land and Resources, says on radio that the plan to increase water discharges from Three Gorges Dam (due to drought) enhances the risk of landslides and bank collapses: “The sudden increase of water discharges from the dam will crash the bank, making the shores unstable.” China Daily acknowledges that 4,719 bank collapses and landslides have been detected from 2003 to 2007.
June 1, 2011 – A study by seismologists at the China Earthquake Administration (a government agency) reveals that Three Gorges Dam has “significantly increased” seismic activity along the reservoir. 3429 earthquakes occurred between June 2003 and Dec. 31, 2009 – a 30-fold increase in earthquake frequency from before the dam.
June 12, 2011 – Severe drought downstream of Three Gorges Dam is causing Poyang Lake to shrink. Wang Xiaohong – director of Mountain, River and Lake Development Committee (Jiangxi Office) – says that “the impact of the Three Gorges project on Poyang Lake is enormous”, as “it prevented the Yangtze River water from pouring into the lake”. Wang Jingquan, official at Changjiang Water Resource Commission, admits that the dam does affect drought prevention efforts downstream.
The Jiangxi provincial government considers building a new dam between the Yangtze and Poyang Lake to restore the lake’s water level. However, Liu Shukun, a professor from the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, says: “Obviously, the Three Gorges Dam has had a negative effect on the ecology, but it’s unwise to build an almost identical dam.”
June 29, 2011 – Clear, silt-free water released from the Three Gorges dam is causing riverbanks downstream to collapse, says Liu Shukun of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. “The water generates stronger scouring force against the river banks, making them more vulnerable to collapse,“ says Liu.
Statistics from 2002-2006 suggest that erosion on the Jingjiang River (a section of the Yangtze downstream of the dam) has increased tenfold since the dam began storing water. “The erosion is much more serious than we had predicted”, says Cai Qihua, director of the Changjiang Water Resources Commission.