[Marxism] Three Gorges Dam: ecological time-bomb
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 15 07:31:31 MST 2007
In Chinese Dam's Wake, Ecological Woes
Landslides, Relocation of Residents Among Costly Drawbacks of Yangtze
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 15, 2007; A01
MIAOHE, China -- It was in this little village clinging to cliff sides
over the Yangtze River that the environmental costs of China's Three
Gorges Dam began to add up, a down payment on what experts predict will
be billions of dollars and years of struggle to contain the damage.
The first sign was just a crack in the terraced earth, about four inches
wide and 35 feet long, villagers said. But engineers found that the
crevasse betrayed the danger of a massive landslide. They judged the
risk so great that most of Miaohe's 250 farmers were temporarily
evacuated. Fearing the hillside would never be safe again, the
government started constructing a replacement village on a nearby
plateau, blasted out of rock for increased stability.
"This is going to be good," said Han Qinbi, 60, a grizzled peasant who
pointed at the spacious new house he and his family will be moving into
But what Han saw as good fortune was a bad omen for the Chinese
government. In the 18 months since the Three Gorges Dam was completed,
increasingly clear signs of environmental degradation have started to
accumulate along the Yangtze, just as activists had warned. Among the
most troubling have been incidents of geological instability in the
soaring gorges that now embrace a reservoir stretching behind the dam
across a good portion of Hubei province 600 miles southwest of Beijing.
Local officials acknowledge that dozens of major landslides have been
recorded, affecting more than 20 miles of riverbank.
The Chinese, who had been talking about taming the Yangtze for a
century, finally realized their dream of the Three Gorges in May 2006,
when the dam was declared finished in a burst of national
chest-thumping. From the beginning, Communist Party officials had
acknowledged that the massive engineering project would entail
environmental risks and upset the lives of riverside peasants. An
estimated 1.2 million were forced to move to make way for backed-up
water. But the damage could be controlled, the party and government
insisted, and overall, the benefits still would outweigh the dangers.
The $24 billion dam played its assigned role in controlling the river
during the annual flood season this summer. Moreover, the
7,575-foot-wide (almost 1.5-mile) structure has dramatically increased
China's supply of clean electricity, producing 23.7 billion kilowatt
hours in the first half of this year. The reservoir and swollen upstream
river waters, reaching about 250 miles to Chongqing, have given the
center of the country a trouble-free transportation lane.
But the breaking-in period has also shown how vast the environmental
damage is likely to be -- and how expensive to handle. Lei Hengshun, an
engineering professor at Chongqing University who has followed the Three
Gorges project since its inception, said it has opened a "bottomless
pit" of government expenditures that will have to go on for decades.
A group of hydraulic engineers and environmentalists reported in March
that the overall number of landslides in the area, including small ones,
surpassed 4,700, requiring reinforcement or evacuation of 1,000 localities.
Higher and less stable water levels behind the dam, now at almost 500
feet above sea level and scheduled to rise to 575 feet, already have
altered pressure bearing on the base of majestic cliff sides, they
explained, causing the perennially unstable ground to give way more
often up and down the reservoir.
Along the cliff-side road to Miaohe, on the south bank about 20 miles
upstream from the dam, a man with a shovel patiently repaired one such
slide on a recent afternoon. Just across the river, on the north bank, a
small ferry landing had been buried under another slide, forcing
travelers to climb over a mound of earth to board. Concrete
reinforcements have been erected nearby to keep both lanes clear on the
main east-west road along the north bank.
"The negative effects of the dam are starting to appear, one by one,"
said Wu Dengming, who runs the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing and
has long warned about what the dam would do to the river's fragile ecology.
In addition to the landslides, he noted, industrial pollution,
fertilizer runoff and waste from Chongqing and other cities have
thickened in the backed-up reservoir waters, just as he and others
predicted they would. Downstream, he said, Shanghai has noticed seawater
moving inland because of a change in the flow of water carried down the
river on its 3,900-mile journey from Tibet to the East China Sea.
Lei, the Chongqing University professor, was among a group of government
officials, environmentalists and engineers who warned in September that
a "catastrophe" could befall the Yangtze River unless the government
faces up to the environmental ills intensified by the dam and takes the
costly measures necessary to confront them.
"It cost a lot of money to build the dam, and now it's going to keep on
costing a lot of money," Lei said in an interview.
The two-day forum that produced the alarm was remarkable for its open
challenge to the government's long attempt to minimize dangers raised by
the Three Gorges Dam. "The environmental danger must be confronted,"
said Lei, a former official who always supported the project and still
does. "We said that to the officials very clearly. Since the dam is
already finished, you have to face the environmental problems and not
try to fool yourself about them."
Equally remarkable were reports in the government-controlled press that
clearly described the expressions of concern from Lei and other experts.
The New China News Agency, which distributes only authorized news,
quoted officials as well as experts warning that the lives of people
living along the reservoir would be in danger unless the geological
instability is dealt with.
"This is the first time the government has publicly admitted the serious
environmental problems caused by the Three Gorges Dam," said Wu, the
Chongqing activist. "If they had from the beginning grasped how damaging
the dam would be, they would not have constructed it."
The project was decided by a generation of party leaders trained as
engineers and eager to demonstrate the country's prowess in taming
nature. Then-Premier Li Peng in particular promoted the dam in the early
1990s, dismissing its opponents as part of the democracy movement that
had blossomed in the 1980s and was crushed at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In that political context, officials long sought to play down the
environmental dangers inherent in the biggest engineering feat in China
since the Great Wall. Party censors made sure the focus was on the
economic benefits and national prestige that would grow from such an
The relocation of farmers forced to move from low-lying villages
generated widespread corruption as local officials distributed -- or not
-- resettlement payments from Beijing. Regional planners in Chongqing
have estimated that several million more farmers will probably end up
voluntarily moving out of riverside villages into Chongqing's main urban
sphere over the next two decades as the area increasingly industrializes.
Back when the dam was being designed, such problems were seen as an
unavoidable part of China's modernization, Lei said. But a new
generation has taken over in Beijing, he noted, seeking to balance
economic progress with other concerns, including its impact on China's
700 million farmers.
President Hu Jintao and his premier, Wen Jiabao, have begun emphasizing
the need to take environmental dangers into account when making such big
economic and engineering decisions. Tellingly, Hu also has seen to it
that his photo is not displayed at the Three Gorges exhibition hall
among those of dozens of Chinese leaders who have visited the dam to
congratulate its engineers and bask in its glory.
But whether he and his successors will spend the money necessary to deal
with damage behind the dam over the years to come is the question that
environmental activists such as Wu are asking. So far, Miaohe's little
disaster has not been expensive. The village party secretary, Li
Facheng, 45, said that each family got $400 as resettlement aid and that
the local government is spending about $5,000 on each of the new houses.
But for the future, Du Chenglong, a 30-year-old Miaohe native, noted,
"Our village is famous for landslides."
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