Chinese Government Acknowledges Problems of Three Gorges Dam

By: 
Peter Bosshard
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River

In an unexpected statement, China’s government has just acknowledged the serious problems of the Three Gorges Dam. “The project is now greatly benefiting the society in the aspects of flood prevention, power generation, river transportation and water resource utilization,” the government maintained, but it has also “caused some urgent problems in terms of environmental protection, the prevention of geological hazards and the welfare of the relocated communities.” On the same day, it announced concrete measures to improve the living conditions of the displaced people, protect the Yangtze’s ecosystem and prevent geological disasters. What is new about this acknowledgment? And what does it mean for China’s future dam building plans?


Chinese government officials have admitted the problems of the world’s largest hydropower project on the Yangtze River before. “We thought of all the possible issues,” Weng Lida, the secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum, told the Wall Street Journal in August 2007. “But the problems are all more serious than we expected.” Around the same time, senior officials warned that the project had caused an array of ecological problems, including more frequent landslides and pollution, which could result in an environmental “catastrophe” if preventive measures were not taken. (You can find a summary of the social, environmental and geological problems of the project in our factsheet from November 2009.)

The undammed Nu River in China's Southwest
The undammed Nu River in China's Southwest

For a few years, the Chinese government appeared to heed the lessons from the Three Gorges Dam. Several destructive new projects on the Yangtze and other rivers were suspended. Representatives of China’s well-connected hydropower bureaucracy have complained that this period, when fewer dams than planned were built, were “wasted years.” “We must proceed [with hydropower dams],” an official from the Nu Valley in Yunnan Province commented in January. “The resources here are too good; not to develop is not an option.”

The hydropower lobbyists seem to have kept the upper hand within China’s government. In February, the head of the National Energy Administration announced that under its new Five-Year Plan, the government was going to approve no less than 140 gigawatts of new hydropower projects. This amounts to seven Three Gorges dams and is more than any other country has built in its entire history. The energy administration plans to build new dam cascades on the Nu River, the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze and its tributaries, and the upper Mekong.

China’s National People’s Congress adopted the new Five-Year Plan in March, but the plan for the energy sector is still under discussion. The opinions within the government appear to be sharply divided. Pushing back against the dam builders, a senior official in the Ministry of Environmental Protection warned that “hydropower could cause more severe pollution than coal-fired power plants” in terms of ecological impacts, resettlement problems and geological hazards.

Landslide on the Three Gorges reservoir
Landslide on the Three Gorges reservoir

As yesterday’s government statement confirms, a key lesson of the Three Gorges Project is that dams can have serious geological impacts. The fluctuating water levels of the reservoir on the Yangtze have destabilized hundreds of miles of slopes and triggered massive landslides. Most of the projects discussed under the new Five-Year Plan would be built in China’s mountainous Southwestern region, which is seismically active. The devastating earthquake of 2008 in Sichuan Province, which damaged hundreds of dams and may have been triggered by a reservoir, further illustrated the risk of building hydropower projects on fault lines.

Environmental organizations invited Sun Wenpeng and Xu Daoyi, two senior Chinese geologists, to pay a field visit to the Nu Valley to investigate the region’s unique tectonic formations. They found that “the tectonic movement in the Three Parallel Rivers area [of the Nu, upper Mekong and upper Yangtze] is stronger than anywhere in the world – how can they build a cascade of dams here?” The scientists also warned that the proposed dams “may increase the risks of geological disasters.”

Sun and Xu submitted their findings to the Premier Wen Jiabao, who is a geologist himself. After the earthquake disaster in Japan, the seismic and geological risks of dams could no longer be ignored. In April, Hu Siyi, a vice-minister of water resources, called the risk of earthquakes and other natural disasters the biggest obstacle to dam building in the country’s Southwest. He acknowledged that the ability of water projects “to resist floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters has become an issue of increasing public concern.”

On a local ferry on the Three Gorges reservoir
On a local ferry on the Three Gorges reservoir

In the past, Premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly intervened to protect rivers from being dammed. In 2004 and 2009 he personally stopped projects on the undammed Nu River from going forward. Discussing the new Five-Year Plan, he commented in an internet chat that “we must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless [investment].” Wen Jiabao also chaired yesterday’s government meeting. By recalling the unresolved legacy of the Three Gorges Dam, he may be sending a shot across the bow of the zealous dam builders which would be only too happy to forget about the lessons of past projects.   

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard and tweets @PeterBosshard.

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