A decade on, Three Gorges leads China's dam growth
By Boris Cambreleng
May 31, 2013
A decade after China began filling the world's largest dam - The Three
Gorges - concerns about the project's environmental and human cost
endure even as the country prepares a huge hydropower expansion.
More than 1.2 million people were displaced as the waters in the
monumental dam, which started accumulating 10 years ago on Saturday,
submerged scores of towns and communities, and thousands of poorly
compensated migrants remain mired in poverty.
But China's growing thirst for energy means that the Three Gorges -
which generates roughly as much electricity as a dozen commercial
nuclear reactors - is a model for 50 large dams to be built in the
country, according to its current five-year plan.
Those barrages will crank out more than the current hydropower capacity
of the US, putting China - already the world's largest hydropower
consumer - on the way to providing 15 percent of its energy from
renewable sources by 2020.
China's state-run media has praised the Three Gorges dam for generating
over 88.2 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity last year - more than
France's entire yearly renewable energy output, and exceeding the
project's original goal.
The barrier's huge reservoir has also been hailed for lessening floods
which have for millennia plagued the mighty Yangtze river as it cuts
through central China, claiming thousands of lives as recently as 1998.
As flood waters upstream from the dam reached a peak last year,
television images showed thundering torrents of water spraying from the
structure - as it held the bulk of the deluge in its huge reservoir.
But the dam has also been blamed for amplifying changes in weather
patterns which in 2011 produced the Yangtze's largest drought in half a
century, while heavy rains have continued to flood cities downstream,
As dam officials sacrificed energy generation to release water to combat
the drought, China's State Council, or cabinet, made a rare admission
that the Three Gorges faced "urgent problems", including the relocation
of migrants and ecological damage.
One migrant whose home was submerged by the dam said he refused to
accept government compensation money, claiming it was too low and that
land assigned to migrants had been sold by local officials to build a
"The land they compensated us with was scattered in the areas across the
city that no one else wants. We can't run a business there. Of course we
can't sign the agreement," Luo Xianwen, 69, told AFP.
The much-touted powers of the dam to boost shipping on the Yangtze -
turning it into a superhighway for large tankers which would for the
first time be able to reach the inland megacity of Chongqing - have
Ships can wait for up to a week before being allowed to pass through the
dam's choked locks, which can in itself take seven hours, shifting
freight to newly built roads and railways nearby, reports say.
Fish stocks in the Yangtze have declined rapidly since the dam was built
and fecal substances that can cause death have been detected in the
reservoir, scientists have found - while mountains of trash have
accumulated in the water.
But despite the problems, the Three Gorges will be joined by a wave of
new hydropower projects over the next decade - mostly spread across
China's mountainous and earthquake prone southwest.
The Xiluodu dam, the largest in the world in terms of the amount of
water that it can release at any given time, is scheduled to begin
producing electricity in June.
China's environment ministry approved the Shuangjingkou dam in a Tibetan
area of southwestern Sichuan province earlier this month, the world's
tallest at 314 metres high.
Most controversially, at least five major dams will be built on the Nu
river - which flows into Myanmar and Thailand, where it is known as the
Salween - despite concerns about their impact on unique flora and fauna
in a region abutting the Himalayas.
Environmentalists fought a fierce battle against early proposals for a
dam on the river, winning a rare government climbdown by then Premier
Wen Jiabao in 2004.
The rapid expansion in hydropower has prompted fears among China's
neighbours, with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raising concerns
in March over Beijing's plans to construct three dams across the
Brahmaputra river, which rises in Tibet and runs for hundreds of
kilometres through the region.
The ambitious plans have left some in China's growing environmental
movement feeling powerless.
"We continue to oppose the hydropower plans... they will create all the
same problems with migration and the environment," said Dai Qing, who
spent time in prison for her opposition to the Three Gorges dam.
"Industry and local governments support these hydropower projects,
because they'll profit from them," she added. "And they will be built no
matter what local people say."
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