The Three Gorges Dam: The Largest Water Project but not the Last One

Photo credit: putneymark (CC-BY-SA)

By Huanhuan Guo

The middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River had rare rainfall in April and May this year, it had led to severe droughts in Hubei, Jiangsu and other provinces along the river. It is not rum that the drought parching much of the Yangtze, it has happened in history. But it is rum to see the months-long dry spell in the central and eastern China, the serious drought in Yunnan province, which should be lush all the time. Some media consider the droughts as the worst ever droughts in south China. Facing the abnormal droughts along the Yangtze, not a few people blame the drought to Three Gorges Dam, together with other natural and geological disasters.

The architecture marvel and huge energy resource

China considered the Three Gorges Dam as another architecture marvel after the Great Wall. The dam and associated infrastructure is the largest integrated water project built in the history of the world. The construction period of the whole project takes 17 years, from 1993 to 2009. The total static cost estimate of the project is 90.09 billion CNY based on the price at the end of May 1993, while the dynamic cost of will be 203.9 billion CNY by rough estimate. The project is designed to bring huge benefits including flood control, power generation, navigation improvement etc. For instance: the dam can generate 18,000 megawatts of power—eight times that of the U.S.’s Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

Under the vast publicity of the dam, people in China were also proud of the dam. “The dam is a good example of the economic growth in China and people were so enthusiastic about the dam, they thought the dam would give the country a lot of prestige, together with energy, it could prevent the lowlands from more flood, they weren’t really aware of the negative impact. Or they considered the positive impact would be much bigger,” says Daan Pelckmans, whose double master degrees are International Politics and Geography, when he talked with some people at the dam. He was at Three Gorges Dam in 2005, during the middle of the construction. Recent years, people start to criticize the project when they have realized the environmental nightmare along the construction of the dam. What they have seen is the dam flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced 1.3 million people, and is causing significant ecological changes, including an increased risk of landslides.

The impact of the dam

Wen Lida, the formal chief of the water resources commission of the Yangtze River divides the effects of Three Gorges Dam into two parts. First, the periodic change, such as climate, the change of environment, it needs three or five decades to give a conclusion, or even longer. Second, the trendy change, such as water pollution, decrease of water resource and social impact can be seen directly.

Daan Pelckmans was quite impressed by the impacts of the dam from what he witnessed. “The water of the river was raising, it flooded so many villages and roads, including the historical architectures. On the way, you could see the villages which were half flooded. On the other hand, there were new project of roads and bridges everywhere in order to get access to the intact areas. The whole project is so huge, too many people and too much money was involved.”

In the long term, a 2010 study of the Three Gorges Dam found that rainfall in the dam area has declined since the 1990s, especially in the past decade, and future patterns could be more unsteady. “It is possible that extremes of lows and highs of major floods and droughts, could increase,” said Xia Jun, the water expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences whose research includes the effects of global warming. “A severe drought such as this could be followed by severe flooding, which is what happened in 1998,” said Xia.

The worry of Xia Jun turns into reality this June. 12 provinces in central and southern China have suffered the fatal flood. The flood has affected 4.81 million people so far since the flood season arrived, Shu Qingpeng, deputy head of the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, said on the 8th of June. According to Shu, southern China would be hit by more rain over the coming few days.

The explanation of officials and experts

Referring to the critiques of Three Gorges Dam, vice president of Chinese Academy of Engineering Shen Guofang indicated that the dam is the sole project which is decided by vote of the National People’s Congress in China; and it is the only project that has been discussed for decades before building. The final decision was made after long discussion.

Confronting with the various doubts of Three Gorges Dam, officials and hydropower experts have stood out to clarify the possible impact of Three Gorges Dam. “The analysis of the monitoring data before and after the water storage of Three Gorges Dam shows that the temperature becomes 0.5℃ lower in winter, 0.3℃ higher in summer, but there is no obvious influence on rainfall,” said Zheng Guoguang, the direct general of China Meteorological Administration. Zheng claimed that at least it was lack of scientific basis to link the extreme weather with the dam. “Furthermore, Three Gorges Dam added more than two cubic meters of water to downstream every day,” added Zheng.

Speaking of the lowest water level of Dongting and Poyang lake, the first two biggest lake in China, Lu Youmei, the commander in chief of Three Gorges Dam pointed out that two lakes have their own origin and river system, they don’t count on the Three Gorges Dam entirely. Additionally, the worst ever drought has also gripped much of northern Europe in the meantime. The severe drought France has experienced since May has never happened in the last fifty years. In the United Kingdom, the March of this year was the driest since 1953. In Germany, April hasn’t been as dry as this year since 1881. Weather forecasters say it could be the worst spring drought in Germany since records began. In addition, temperature has been unusually high in April, greatly exceeded the normal level of the whole Europe.

The argument of the naysayers

On the contrary, critics consider Three Gorges Dam as an environmental catastrophe from the beginning. According to Mara Hvistendahl, the journalist and correspondent in Scientific American, building a massive hydropower dam in an area that is heavily populated, home to threatened animal and plant species, and crossed by geologic fault lines is a recipe for disaster. She pointed out massive negative consequences of the dam like geological disasters, relocation of the ecological immigrants, the threat of biodiversity etc in her report “China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe”.

Furthermore, the high frequency of extreme weather along the Yangtze in recent years strengthened their doubts. According to the critics, three Gorges Dam stores water during the winter and draws it off in summer, the periodic change of the water level makes the reservoir bank unsteadily, it can lead to landslide, surge and earthquake. The statistics of the disasters proved the prediction. Zigui county is in the west of Hubei province. These years, the geological disaster has happened more often and the disaster always follows the change of water level of Three Gorges Dam. According to the data, there were 35 damages when the dam increased its water level to 135 meters. There were 38 more damages in 2006 when the water level achieved 156 meters. In 2008, 26 places experienced the disaster when the water level was 175 meters. But in history, there were only 14 geological disasters in Zigui.

The late action of the government

Although officials offer the explanations of the droughts and the extreme weather, the frequent environment disasters are still happening. People have been waiting for the action of the government for a long time. In the September of 2007, the Chinese officials reluctantly accepted that the naysayers were right about the urgent problems. After 4 years, on the 18th of May, a statement released after an executive meeting of the State Council which presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao said “The project has played a significant role in flood prevention, power generation, shipping and water resources use; While at the same time, efforts are needed to address some problems concerning the wellbeing of relocated residents, environmental protection, and geological disaster prevention, all of which should be solved urgently”. At the end of May, the State Council has approved ‘the follow-up work plan for the Three Gorges Project’, which is aiming to compensate the current damage to environment. The involved fund is around 124 billion. The government has decided to curb environmental deterioration in the Three Gorges Dam region by 2020.

Critics of the dam, however, said they felt vindicated by the government’s admission of unforeseen problems. “Three Gorges is a classic case in which government officials exaggerated the benefits and underestimated the risks,” wrote Patricia Adams on her environmental activist website, Probe International. “What mattered to the Chinese authorities who approved the dam was the prestige,” she charged.

“The Chinese government is still in a struggle with all kinds of interests and powers in China,” says Peter Bosshard, the policy director of International Rivers, an environment organization with staff in four continents. Bosshard and his group have investigated Three Gorges Dam since 1994. During the long period contact with the government and various NGOs in China, he can see some positive changes in the attitude and action of government, but he considers that the action of government is still hysteretic. Bosshard indicates that China needs an open-debate environment in the future. There are few platforms for scientists to share their knowledge and warnings to the public.

Three Gorges is not the only and last dam

Referring to the data of WWF, There are as many as 48,000 dams over 15m high worldwide and most of them are in developing countries. The Three Gorges Dam is just the most influential one of all the dams. “No one is sure about all the consequences of a dam, thus we should look at the long-term prosperity. What we can do is to minimize the damage and try our best to make a more appropriate choice. For instance, the decision of government should be the integration of economic interest, social effects and environmental effects together,” says Peter Bosshard. Speaking of the necessity of the big dams like Three Gorges Dam, instead of confronting the unknown consequences, Bosshard indicates that governments can try to find some other solutions. “For example, in order to offer more energy and diminish carbon gas, government could invest in the modernization of factories, make the factories more energy-efficient,” adds Bosshard.

According to Swiss media, on the 1st of June, Brazil has officially approved the construction of the Belo Monte dam project in the Amazon rainforest. According to the Brazilian energy ministry, the dam is expected to start production in 2015, will cost around R$20bn (£6.8bn) and will eventually produce around 11GW of electricity. Thus it will be the third biggest dam in the world after the Three Gorges Dam in China and Itaipu between Brazil and Paraguay.

However, over three decades, the Belo Monte has been strongly opposed by the environmentalists, aboriginal residence and the Roman Catholic Church, they claim that the dam will displace indigenous tribes and further damage the Amazon basin. Peter Bosshard doesn’t encourage the idea of Belo Mnonte: “They could have some other options, it is not a good idea to build Belo Monte.”

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