By Peter Bosshard
Business Day (South Africa), June 6, 2011
AFTER he visited the country in 2001, Ronnie Kasrils exclaimed: "China
today is a construction engineer's dream…. Nowhere is this better
symbolised than at the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River." The
Yangtze dam is the world's largest hydropower project and has often been
touted as a model for dam builders around the world. Now the Chinese
government has admitted the project's serious social, environmental and
What are the lessons from the Three Gorges experience for Africa?
The Three Gorges Dam is indeed a masterpiece of engineering. In spite of
its daunting complexity, the government completed it ahead of schedule,
in 2008. The dam generates 2% of China's electricity, and obviates the
need for at least 30-million tons of coal a year. Its cost has been
estimated at between $27bn and $88b.
Like southern Africa, China has pressing water and energy needs. Yet the
Three Gorges Dam was neither the cheapest source of energy nor the best
option for replacing coal. While the dam was under construction, the
country's economy actually became more wasteful in its use of energy.
According to the Energy Foundation in the US, it would have been
"cheaper, cleaner and more productive for China to have invested in
energy efficiency" rather than new power plants.
The project's social and environmental cost is staggering. The Three
Gorges Dam has displaced more than 1,2-million people. Hundreds of local
officials diverted compensation payments into their own pockets. Because
it no longer controls the economy and land is scarce, the government
could not provide the jobs and land to the displaced people that it had
Damming the Three Gorges caused huge effects on the ecosystem of the
Yangtze, Asia's longest river. The barrage stopped the migration of
fish, and diminished the river's capacity to clean itself. Pollution
from dirty industries attracted by the reservoir is causing frequent
toxic algae blooms. The number of commercial fisheries has plummeted,
the Yangtze river dolphin has become extinct and other species face the
Government officials expected social and environmental problems, but
were not prepared for the dam's massive geological effects. The water
level in the Three Gorges reservoir fluctuates between 145m and 175m
every year. This destabilises the slopes of the Yangtze Valley and
triggers frequent landslides. Erosion affects half the reservoir area,
and almost 200k m of banks are at risk of collapsing. More than 300000
additional people will have to be relocated to stabilise the reservoir
Since most of the Yangtze's silt load is now deposited in the reservoir,
the downstream regions are being starved of sediment. As a consequence,
up to 4km² of coastal wetlands are eroded every year. The Yangtze delta
is subsiding, and seawater intrudes up the river, affecting agriculture
and drinking water.
The Three Gorges Dam illustrates how the vagaries of climate change
create new risks for hydropower projects. In a nutshell, past records
can no longer be used to predict a river's future flow. The dam
operators planned to fill the Three Gorges reservoir for the first time
in 2009, but were not able to do so due to insufficient rains. This year
has brought central China the worst drought in 50 years, which is again
reducing the power generation of the Three Gorges Dam and hundreds of
On May 18, the Chinese government acknowledged for the first time the
serious problems of the dam. "The project is now greatly benefiting the
society in the aspects of flood prevention, power generation, river
transportation and water resource utilisation," the government
maintained, but it had "caused some urgent problems in terms of
environmental protection, the prevention of geological hazards, and the
welfare of the relocated communities."
The Three Gorges Project was a model of dam building all around the
globe. Once it was completed, Chinese companies began exporting the
technology they had acquired. The Three Gorges Corporation is developing
several projects in Africa, and Sinohydro, the world's biggest
hydropower contractor, uses the Three Gorges Dam as a reference for
international contracts. Governments and utilities everywhere should
consider the lessons from the dam as they chart their own strategies for
the energy sector.
The Three Gorges experience demonstrates that rivers are highly complex
ecosystems, and that the effects of dams cannot be fully predicted and
mitigated. Because of dam building, water withdrawals and pollution,
fresh-water ecosystems have lost more species than any other major
ecosystem. The services that rivers provide in terms of fisheries, water
supply, flood protection and nutrients must be valued and fully
integrated into decisions affecting their watersheds. Dams on a river's
main stream are particularly damaging, and should be built only if all
other options have been exhausted.
Chinese scientists predicted many of the effects of the Three Gorges
Dam, yet their voices were silenced in what the government claimed was
the national interest. In multibillion-dollar projects, the national
interest is often taken hostage by political prestige, bureaucratic
power struggles, and the generous kickbacks of a bribery-prone industry.
These vested interests need to be balanced and held accountable by a
fully transparent and participatory decision-making process.
China spent tens of billions of dollars on the resettlement programme
for the Three Gorges Dam. Yet because the affected communities had no
say in the decisions that determined their futures, the project resulted
in widespread impoverishment and frustration. Local communities need to
be fully involved in decision-making processes about such projects from
Africa is already more dependent on hydropower than any other continent.
As the Three Gorges Dam demonstrates, global warming increases the
financial and geological risks of dams. Rainfall and stream flows are
becoming less predictable. Decentralised and diversified projects make
the water and energy sectors more resilient to climate change than
sinking billions of dollars into centralised water storage.
The World Commission on Dams, which was chaired by Kader Asmal, proposed
a new framework for decision-making on dams in 2000. This framework
gives equal weight to social, economic and environmental concerns, and
brings all interest groups into the decision-making process.
Now that climate change has raised the stakes and renewable energy
technologies have seen their breakthrough, the commission's
recommendations have become all the more relevant.
A few hundred kilometres north of the Three Gorges Dam, the waterworks
of Dujiangyan have provided irrigation and flood protection to the
plains of Sichuan for more than 2000 years. While the Three Gorges Dam
reflects Mao Zedong's conviction that nature must be conquered, the
sophisticated waterworks express the Taoist philosophy of working with
nature. As the costs of subduing nature become more evident, we should
combine the wisdom of traditional approaches with the potential of
modern technology to devise policies that respect the limits of our
• Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His report,
China's Environmental Footprint in Africa, was published by the South
African Institute of International Affairs.
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