Risk of geological disaster, state cabinet admits, as project is linked
to soil erosion, quakes, drought and social upheaval
Jonathan Watts in Beijing, The Guardian, Friday 20 May 2011
(For an International Rivers blog post on the background of this new
development, see www.internationalrivers.org/en/node/6521)
The Three Gorges dam, the flagship of China's massive hydroengineering
ambitions, faces "urgent problems", the government has warned.
In a statement approved by prime minister Wen Jiabao, the state council
said the dam had pressing geological, human and ecological problems. The
report also acknowledged for the first time the negative impact the dam
has had on downstream river transport and water supplies.
Since the start of construction in 1992 about 16m tonnes of concrete
have been poured into the giant barrier across the Yangtze river,
creating a reservoir that stretches almost the length of Britain and
drives 26 giant turbines.
The world's biggest hydropower plant boasts a total generating capacity
of 18,200MW and the ability to help tame the floods that threaten the
Yangtze delta each summer.
But it has proved expensive and controversial due to the rehousing of
1.4 million people and the flooding of more than 1,000 towns and
villages. Pollution, silt and landslides have plagued the reservoir
area. Given the 254bn yuan (£24bn) cost and political prestige at stake,
the government focused for many years on the dam's achievements and
attempted to stifle domestic criticism of the project. But its public
analysis has become increasingly sober.
A statement on the government's website read: "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."
There were few specifics but China's cabinet, the state council,
admitted several problems had not been foreseen.
"Problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction
but could not be solved immediately, and some arose because of increased
demands brought on by economic and social development," the statement said.
Since the 1.5 mile barrier was completed in 2006 the reservoir has been
plagued by algae and pollution that would previously have been flushed
away. The weight of the extra water has also been blamed for tremors,
landslides and erosion of slopes.
To ease these threats the government said last year many more people may
have to be relocated. This week it promised to establish disaster
warning systems, reinforce riverbanks, boost funding for environmental
protection and improve benefits for the displaced.
This is not the first warning. Four years ago the state media quoted
government experts who said: "There are many new and old hidden
ecological and environmental dangers concerning the Three Gorges dam. If
preventive measures are not taken the project could lead to a catastrophe."
Last year, site engineers recommended an additional movement of hundreds
of thousands of nearby residents and more investment in restoring the
The government has already raised its budget for water treatment plants
but opponents of the dam say this is not enough. "The government built a
dam but destroyed a river," said Dai Qing, a longtime critic of the
project. "No matter how much effort the government makes to ease the
risks, it is infinitesimal. The state council is spending more money on
the project rather than investigating fully. I cannot see a real
willingness to solve the problem."
The timing of the statement - as the government prepares to flesh out
the details of its latest five-year plan - has prompted speculation of a
possible push back against hydropower interests.
Peter Bosshard of International Rivers said: "While powerful factions
within the government are pushing for the rapid expansion of hydropower
projects, others are warning of the social and environmental cost of
large dams and the geological risks of building such projects in
seismically active regions.
"By highlighting the unresolved problems of the Three Gorges dam now,
Premier Wen Jiabao, who has stopped destructive projects in the past,
may be sending a shot across the bow of a zealous hydropower lobby which
would be only too happy to forget about the lessons of the past."
The frank assessment of the challenges posed and benefits offered by the
dam came amid growing concerns about a drought on the middle stretches
of the Yangtze. This has left 1,392 reservoirs in Hubei with only "dead
water" and has affected the drinking supplies of more than 300,000 people.
Chinese media reported this month that the Yangtze water levels near
Wuhan hit their lowest point since the dam went into operation in 2003.
Long stretches have apparently been closed to water traffic after
hundreds of boats ran aground in the shallows.
There have been claims that the Three Gorges plant has exacerbated the
problem by holding back water for electricity generation, but operators
claim they have alleviated the problem by releasing 400m cubic metres of
water from the reservoir. As a result the levels have fallen below 156
metres - the amount needed for optimum power generation.
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