Nature Strikes Back at Three Gorges Dam
"Battling with heaven is endless joy, fighting with the earth is endless joy, and struggling with humanity is endless joy," Mao Zedong once proclaimed. The Three Gorges Dam, which the great helmsman had conjured in one of his poems, is one of the manifestations of this philosophy. Nature inevitably strikes back against those who fight it. In the case of the Three Gorges Dam, we just learned that at least 300,000 more people need to displaced so that the environmental impacts can be kept under control.
A consortium led by the Canadian firm Acres International studied the feasibility of the Three Gorges Dam in the 1980s with funding from the Canadian government. Already then, leading Chinese scientists warned against the project's environmental impacts, but were ignored. "This is not engineering and science, merely expert prostitution," Professor Vaclav Smil, an expert on Chinese energy issues, protested against the shoddy feasibility study.
After 1994, concrete was poured, turbines were installed, people displaced and cities rebuilt in record time. Yet fighting with the Three Gorges did not bring endless joy. As soon as the Yangtze River's flow was blocked, fisheries started to collapse, seawater intruded up the river, toxic algae bloomed, and the slopes of the Yangtze Valley began to erode. In one case, a landslide killed more than 30 people.
China's state media have now acknowledged the huge dimensions of the environmental and geological impacts of the Three Gorges Dam. According to a recent story in the China Daily, 243 dangerous geological events have occurred in the reservoir area, and 9,324 sites are potentially threatened by such hazards. At least 300,000 people will need to be displaced to mitigate the project's environmental and geological impacts - on top of the 1.3 million who have already been resettled for the reservoir.
Hu Jiahai, a resettlement official and deputy of the local people's congress, explained: "An eco-screen, or buffer belt, is waiting for approval to be built alongside the reservoir to improve the water quality of the Yangtze River streams and reduce the contamination from residents living nearby. Additionally, more people will have to move out of the area to avoid geographic hazards, like landslides, caused by the dam that tames water levels rising or falling between 145 m to 175 m every year to produce electricity."
Past displacement for the Three Gorges Dam has caused untold human suffering. The government agencies, companies and funders which ignored scientific warnings about the project will not pay the price for further resettlement. They should at least acknowledge past errors and learn from them. Affected people must receive sufficient support so they can build up a new economic future, and must be allowed to protest abuses by corrupt officials. Future dam projects must be evaluated more thoroughly, and the capacity of the Ministry of Environmental Protection to do so must be strengthened.
So far there is little evidence that such lessons are being learned. One of the current pet projects of the local government is the Xiaonanhai Dam on the Yangtze River, upstream of the Three Gorges reservoir. The Xiaonanhai Dam would virtually destroy the last remaining reserve for rare and endemic fish on the Yangtze mainstream, and could drive important species such as the Chinese sturgeon and paddlefish into extinction. If built, the dam will create jobs for a few years. It will also invite nature to strike back again, and will thus erode the foundations of China's long-term prosperity.
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard