Pnomh Penh Post, Friday, 17 June 2011 15:00
By Peter Bosshard
China counts half of all the worldï¿½s large dams within its borders.
During the last 10 years, Chinese companies have also successfully
conquered the global market for hydropower projects. With the Kamchay
Dam and five other projects under construction, Chinese companies are
also the dominant player in Cambodiaï¿½s hydropower sector.
Many Chinese dam builders acquired their technology in the giant Three
Gorges Project on the Yangtze River. Companies like the Kamchay Damï¿½s
Sinohydro frequently refer to the Yangtze dam as proof of their
technical excellence. Like many other foreign leaders, Prime Minister
Hun Sen praised the project when he visited the dam site in 2004. In a
surprise move, the Chinese government has now acknowledged that the
Three Gorges Project has serious social, environmental and geological
problems. What are the lessons from this experience for Cambodia?
With a capacity of 18,200 megawatts, the Three Gorges Dam is the worldï¿½s
biggest hydropower project. In spite of its daunting complexity, the
government completed the project ahead of time in 2008.
The Yangtze dam generates 2 percent of Chinaï¿½s electricity and
substitutes at least 30 million tons of coal per year. Yet its social,
environmental, geological and financial costs are staggering. Here is a
brief overview of the main problems:
ï¿½ Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam has submerged 13 cities, 140 towns
and 1,350 villages, and displaced more than 1.2 million people. Many
resettlers were cheated out of their compensation payments and did not
receive the new jobs or land that the government had promised. While
some of the newly built towns have recovered from the initial shock of
displacement, others are beset by widespread unemployment and
ï¿½ Ecological collapse: Damming the Three Gorges caused massive impacts
on the ecosystem of the Yangtze, Asiaï¿½s longest river. The reservoir has
turned the once mighty river into a stagnant garbage dump with frequent
toxic algae blooms. Because the barrage stopped fish migration,
commercial fisheries have plummeted, the Yangtze river dolphin has been
extinct, and other species are facing the same fate.
ï¿½ Erosion: Government officials were prepared for social and
environmental problems, but not for the damï¿½s massive geological
impacts. The strong fluctuation of the water level in the Three Gorges
reservoir destabilises the slopes of the Yangtze Valley, and triggers
frequent landslides. Erosion affects half the reservoir area, and more
than 300,000 additional people will have to be relocated to stabilise
the reservoir banks.
ï¿½ Downstream impacts: The Yangtze River carries more than 500 million
tons of silt into the reservoir every year. Most of this is now withheld
from the downstream regions and particularly the Yangtze delta. As a
consequence, up to four square kilometres of coastal wetlands are eroded
every year. The delta is subsiding, and seawater intrudes upriver,
affecting agriculture and drinking water. Because of the lack of
nutrients, coastal fisheries are also suffering.
ï¿½ Susceptibility to climate change: The Three Gorges Dam illustrates how
the vagaries of climate change create new risks for hydropower projects.
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. The current year has brought Central China the worst drought in
five decades, which has again sharply reduced the power generation of
the Three Gorges and other dams. Ever more unreliable rainfalls put a
big question mark behind the benefits and the economics of the Three
ï¿½ Financial cost: The official cost of the Yangtze dam is US$27 billion.
Critics argue that if all hidden costs are included, the projectï¿½s real
price tag amounts to $88 billion. It would have been cheaper to generate
electricity and replace coal through other means. While the dam was
under construction, the energy efficiency of Chinaï¿½s economy decreased.
According to the Energy Foundation in the US, it would have been
ï¿½cheaper, cleaner and more productive for China to have invested in
energy efficiencyï¿½ rather than new power plants.
On May 18 the State Council, Chinaï¿½s highest government body, for the
first time acknowledged the damï¿½s serious problems. ï¿½The project is now
greatly benefiting the society in the aspects of flood prevention, power
generation, river transportation and water resource utilisationï¿½, the
government maintained, but it has ï¿½caused some urgent problems in terms
of environmental protection, the prevention of geological hazards and
the welfare of the relocated communities.ï¿½
The Three Gorges Dam has served as a model for projects in Cambodia and
many other countries. Three Gorges contractors such as Sinohydro and
Gezhouba and other Chinese companies are currently building the Da Dai,
Kamchay, Kirirom III, Lower Stung Russey, Stung Atay and Stung Tatay
dams on Cambodian rivers. Chinese companies have also signed a
memorandum of understanding to develop the Sambor Dam on the Mekong, and
have proposed several projects on the Stung Cheay Areng and Srepok rivers.
What lesson does the Three Gorges Project hold as Cambodia considers its
future hydropower strategy? First and foremost, the Yangtze dam shows
that large dams on major rivers are massive interventions into highly
complex ecosystems. Their impacts can occur thousands of kilometres away
and many years after construction has been completed. It is impossible
to predict and mitigate all social and environmental impacts of such
The Three Gorges experience demonstrates that damming the mainstream of
major rivers is particularly damaging, in that it will interrupt the
migration of fish and the transport of sediments throughout a riverï¿½s
ecosystems. As the World Commission on Dams recommended in its
path-breaking report, Dams and Development, a riverï¿½s mainstream should
not be dammed as long as there are other options.
A Strategic Environmental Assessment prepared for the Mekong River
Commission (MRC) predicts that damming the lower Mekong mainstream would
cause the loss of riverine and marine fisheries, reduce the agricultural
productivity in the floodplains of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Delta,
and erode the deltaï¿½s coastline and river channels. All these impacts
have been borne out by the Three Gorges Project.
The MRC was right to recommend that the lower Mekong should not be
dammed in the next 10 years, and the Cambodian government has good
reasons to call for caution regarding the proposed Xayaburi Dam in Laos.
It should be equally cautious as it considers the Sambor Dam in Kratie
Chinese scientists predicted many of the impacts of the Three Gorges
Dam, yet their voices were silenced in what the government claimed was
the national interest. In multi-billion 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
transparent and participatory decision-making process
Finally, China spent tens of billions of dollars on the resettlement
program for the Three Gorges Dam. But because the affected people were
excluded from decision-making, the programme often ignored their needs
and desires, and resulted in wide-spread impoverishment and frustration.
The experience of the Yangtze dam demonstrates that affected communities
and other stakeholders should be involved in the decision-making
regarding large infrastructure projects from the beginning.
Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers. He has
monitored the Three Gorges Dam since the 1990s.
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