Has the Three Gorges Dam created Chinese drought zone?
By Jo Ling Kent, CNN
June 3, 2011 11:56 a.m. EDT
Millions in China have been affected by the worst drought to hit
China since 1961
Farmers and environmentalists say the Three Gorges Dam has
exacerbated the drought
A government official denied that the drought was aggravated by
Dongting Lake, China (CNN) -- Hong Yulan has fished the shallow waters
of Dongting Lake for nearly 30 years, but this summer she is doing
something she never fathomed possible: walking across the bottom of
"I've never seen the bottom of Dongting before," Hong said as she
anxiously wrung her hands. "It is unreal."
Wearing stiff rubber boots encrusted with last season's mud, Hong
traipses across the dried up lakebed in central China's Hunan
Province, navigating the deeply cracked earth. The ground is littered
with overturned boats and dead mussel and clam shells, which once
called this now-dry basin home.
Young grasslands have recently sprung up in the very same place that
just last year was teeming with fish, tortoises and -- most
importantly -- water as far as the eye could see. Dongting Lake
usually serves as the main flood-basin of the Yangtze River.
Map: Three Gorges Dam
Three Gorges Dam
"Usually at this time we are fishing or getting ready to fish, but
this year we can't even put out a boat to fish," Hong told CNN.
"Without fishing, I have no income."
Hong is one of millions in China affected by the worst drought to hit
China since 1961. As of the end of May, Dongting Lake had already
shrunk to less than 45 percent of its usual surface area, according to
state-run media. Local conservationists estimate more than one
thousand hectares of wetlands located on the east side of Dongting
Lake have dried up entirely.
Situated downstream from the dam, Dongting Lake is the second largest
fresh water lake in China. But record low rainfall this year has
caused sharp drops in water levels in the middle and lower reaches of
the Yangtze River, causing the drought to spread throughout Hunan,
Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. The region has
suffered from 40 to 60 percent less rainfall than usual. Millions lack
adequate drinking water.
However, for Hong, the dry spell is not the only culprit to blame for
her fish-less lake. Along with other farmers and environmentalists,
she points to the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydro-power
project as a resource nightmare that has exacerbated the drought.
"The Three Gorges Dam has definitely influenced things here," she told
CNN. "The impact is clear."
Farmer He Shishun agrees. Usually the 49-year-old slowly works his
modest plot of land with his aging water buffalo to reap two rice
harvests per year along with a variety of fruits and vegetables. This
year, due to the water shortage, he will ration his resources and
plant just enough for one rice harvest. Unable to grow fresh produce
at home, He has been forced to purchase fresh produce for his family
at a local market, for high prices that stretch his meager income.
"The Three Gorges Dam helped with water irrigation when it first
opened but more recently it has not been helpful. The water is scarce
and it is too dry here," he said.
But He says he is better off than most farmers as his land shares its
western edge with Dongting Lake. When the water returns, He says he
will be one of the geographically lucky ones as the water will
replenish his farm first.
"I keep on doing what I can. I grow what I can. But most people have
left the farms to look for other jobs," farmer He said as he coaxed
his water buffalo forward.
In a rare admission, China's central government has ordered the dam to
release more water after conceding that the project had caused
"urgent" environmental, migration and energy problems.
Officials are also concerned the declining water levels at the dam's
reservoir could cause power shortages and affect shipping lanes. The
Chinese Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief has
dispatched technical support teams and relief equipment like water
pumps and diesel-fueled power generators to ease the pain of the
However, Li Ganjie, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, denied
that the drought was aggravated by the river's Three Gorges Dam. He
did acknowledge the government will pay greater attention to the
environmental impact of large scale projects like the dam.
"In the future, we will be listening to a variety of viewpoints in the
assessment and approval process of controversial projects," Li said in
a news conference on Friday in Beijing.
Back at Dongting Lake, fisherwoman Hong and farmer He have checked the
weather forecast which predicts rainfall in the coming weeks. But
ironically heavy rain may worsen their situation before improving it.
Officials say the hardened cracked earth may be unable to absorb heavy
rains quickly, potentially causing floods during the summer rainy
Until then, Hong will tend to a small temporary fishing farm the
government has allotted to her family, while farmer He conserves the
little water that remains - as they both hope for rain.
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