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China's Three Gorges Project: Whose Dam Business Is It?


A great wall of secrecy stands around China's proposal to dam the mighty Yangtze River and build the largest hydroelectric complex in the world. The project's feasibility study, financed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), an arm of the Canadian government, is now nearing completion. The study, which is off limits to the public, will be instrumental in deciding the fate of millions of people who live in the Yangtze valley, one of the most fertile and agriculturally productive river basins on earth.

The legendary Yangtze springs from Tibetan peaks and flows 6,300 km to the Changjiang Delta and into the East China Sea. Known as the Golden Waterway, the Yangtze's silt-laden waters bring fertility to 24 million ha of farmland and prosperity to some 374 million people. The proposed dam would submerge a magnificent 200-km stretch of the river. Known as the Three Gorges Project, it would generate 13,000-18,000 megawatts (mw) of power for China's energy-hungry industrial regions. Its proponents also expect the dam to prevent life-threatening floods downstream and improve major navigation arteries, such as the Jingjiang stretch of the Yangtze and the Chuanjiang River. The gargantuan concrete structure, over 150 meters high and 1,000 meters long, would create a reservoir 500 km long and include 26 turbine generators and two 80-meter ship locks. The price tag for the 17-year project-between US$10 and $20 billion - could revive the Western dam-building industry, providing lucrative consulting contracts and boosting machinery and equipment sales.

History of the Project

Dr. Baruch Boxer of Rutgers University, a Chinese environmental policy expert, says that since the 1920s the idea of Three Gorges has intrigued "planners, engineers, ideologues, visionaries and scoundrels alike [who] have used it either to trumpet commitment to nationalistic ideals, assuage national pride, get rich and powerful, or strengthen competing government planning and energy bureaucracies when their autonomy and power were threatened." Sun Yat-sen, a founder of the Republic, first proposed the dam in the 1920s; Chinese Nationalist officials surveyed the dam site in the 1940s with the help of the Bureau of Reclamation, a US federal dam-building agency.

Since the war, hundreds of technicians, engineers and scientists from over 300 agencies, institutes and universities have contributed to research and planning for what could be China's biggest construction project since the Great Wall. In 1984, enthusiasm for the scheme culminated in the US Bureau of Reclamation signing a five-year agreement to provide technical and consulting services to the Yangtze River Valley Planning Office. A preliminary design for the project was completed in 1985.

In 1986, the Chinese accepted Canada's offer to finance a feasibility study for Three Gorges, beating out the US Three Gorges Working Group, a high-powered consortium that included the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Bureau of Reclamation, the American Consulting Engineers Council, Bechtel Civil and Minerals, Coopers and Lybrand, Merrill Lynch Capital Markets, Morgan Bank, Morrison-Knudsen and Stone & Webster Engineering.

The Canadian consortium, Canadian International Project Managers-Yangtze Joint Venture, is made up of five Canadian engineering companies: Lavalin International, SNC, Acres International, Hydro-Quebec International and B.C. Hydro International. The feasibility study will include a detailed review of 30 years' worth of Chinese studies, analysis of dam height alternatives and an evaluation of socioeconomic and environmental aspects - namely, resettlement, health and wildlife.

Although CIDA will not comment on division of tasks, sources within the industry report that Acres International and Quebec Hydro are working on the resettlement and environmental components respectively.

The Feasibility Study

The study, nearly one year overdue, has cost CIDA over $14 million and is currently circulating for review by a World Bank-funded panel of international experts. This July, the consortium is expected to hand the study over to China's Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power (MWREP). The project must then be approved by the State Council, the highest policy-making body, and the National People's Congress. If approved, the Chinese government will use the document to secure international financing, setting into motion the next round of international competition to land the Three Gorges contract.

Neither the funding agencies nor the Canadian engineering consortium will disclose any information about the current study, claiming that the Chinese government has requested strict confidentiality. As a result. Probe International, a Toronto-based aid and environmental research policy group, has requested two documents using the Canadian Access to Information Law: the Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese and Canadian governments and the agreement between CIDA and the Canadian International Project Managers consortium.

Similarly, the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has requested from the US Bureau of Reclamation documents relating to the social and environmental aspects of the Three Gorges Project through the Freedom of Information Act. NRDC is optimistic about obtaining the documents, which will provide a valuable check against the project feasibility study's recommendations.

Until this information is made public, however, and with the Chinese government discouraging discussion within China, international public debate is very difficult. Questions about the project's ecological, social and economic impacts and overall merit remain unanswered.

Environmental Concerns

For instance, Lt. Gen. John W. Morris, former chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers, has voiced skepticism over the projected flood control benefits. In addition, a report by the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference states that flooding problems in the middle and upper courses of the Yangtze would not be solved. The Asia-Pacific People's Environment Network (APPEN) reports that although flood protection is a major justification of the project, no economic analysis of the actual reduction in flood risk on the downstream flood plain has been performed.

Better navigation in waterways upstream of the Three Gorges Dam also seems unlikely due to heavy siltation predicted by Chinese river transport authorities. The Yangtze is the third most silt-laden river in the world; 70 percent of its silt would end trapped in the dam's reservoir. The seriousness of the silt problem was demonstrated at China's Sanmen Gorge project on the Yellow River: so plagued by silt, the dam now generates only 20 percent of its intended power capacity.

For these and other reasons, many scientists, engineers and environmentalists around the world share the view of Brent Blackwelder of the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington, DC: that the Three Gorges Project could be "the most disastrous dam ever built."

* Shen Ganqing, a senior MWREP engineer, fears Shanghai's municipal and industrial water supply would be jeopardized by salt water intruding into the Yangtze coastal delta. This, he claims, could result from the low flow downstream of the dam. He is also concerned about the reintroduction of schistosomiasis, once endemic to the area.

* Silt trapped behind the dam would deprive downstream flood plains and estuary fisheries of vital nutrients. These effects, combined with reduced flows, could cause an overall decline in agricultural and fisheries production as is the case at the Aswan High Dam in Egypt.

* Upstream, an estimated 80 species of fish will be wiped out as a result of the dam's reservoir. Downstream, wetland habitat disrupted by the project could endanger both wildlife and fish populations.

* The weight of the Three Gorges reservoir could trigger an earthquake in an area that has very high seismic activity, according to Yan Kai, chairman of the Chinese Committee on Large Dams.

* The US Three Gorges Working Group warns that landslides, which are common in the Three Gorges area, could cause disastrous floods and possibly a tidal wave similar to the disaster at Italy's Vaiont Dam in 1963.

Projected Resettlement

Beyond the litany of environmental concerns, the most troublesome aspect of the project for the Chinese is the resettlement of up to one million people. The reservoir would submerge 10 cities and more than 100,000 acres of precious farmland, harbors, railroads and archeological treasures.

(The Hong Kong Environment Center suspects that the Chinese government is highly sensitive about resettlement. The group claims that China does not want to be seen harassing its people, particularly Tibetans living in the hilly areas of Sichuan province.)

On the other hand, in 1986 vice-president of Canadian International Project Managers Ltd., Jean Gagnon, downplayed the relocation issue, saying that "moving 300,000 people in China is a very small thing - they do that every second year in Beijing."

Consistent with Gagnon's comment is a report in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post (1986), stating that plans to create a 23rd province, Sanxia, were complete and that, pending approval by the National People's Congress, this province would handle the mass migration of people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam.

The cost of resettlement is estimated by Acres International at $3.5 billion, or 30 percent of the present total cost. Based on past dam projects, this is an unusually high proportion for resettlement - even though it amounts to a mere $3,500 for each displaced person.

Given the far-reaching impacts and overwhelming costs associated with the Three Gorges Project, there is a glaring absence of comprehensive proposals for alternatives.

Experts at the Tennessee Valley Authority and the US Army Corps of Engineers have suggested that a series of five or six smaller dams along the Yangtze River could better match energy demand with supply, allow for a more efficient system of waterway locks and avoid the need for massive resettlement of rural people. China could also implement more cost-effective projects to improve the efficiency of industrial and commercial energy use; at present, China is making no move in that direction.

All arguments aside, the Chinese, Canadian and US governments will soon possess a document that analyzes the feasibility of the Three Gorges Project from the perspective of dam builders and aid agencies. Western taxpayers have contributed to this study, one that could radically change the lives of one million people. Without a proper public review in Canada, the US and China, CIDA and the World Bank are sending a clear message to citizens around the world that the Three Gorges Project is none of their business.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.