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    Greater China
     Jun 11, 2011

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Three Gorges Dam crisis in slow motion
By Peter Lee

Dams are big and stupid things. The Three Gorges Dam on China's Yangtze River is bigger and stupider than most, so it attracts a lot of criticism. Much of the criticism is deserved. Some of it - such as accusations that it has significantly exacerbated the drought gripping China - is, perhaps, undeserved.

All of the criticism, however, is an important harbinger of mounting political problems for China's authoritarian model of national development.

The Three Gorges Dam, or TGD, is very much the bastard child of the Tiananmen democratic movement of 1989 and the ensuing crackdown.

Popular activists, led by author Dai Qing, tried to stop the dam in

the name of transparency, accountability and democracy. After Tiananmen, the Chinese government built and promoted the dam as a symbol of the government's determination to pursue economic development over political reform and in the teeth of international economic sanctions.

TGD was also a public vote of confidence in then Chinese premier Li Peng, who was at the time internationally excoriated as "The Butcher of Beijing" for ordering the crackdown. Li, trained as a hydropower engineer, was an enthusiastic advocate for the project, and allegedly had strong family as well as professional and public interest in the construction of the dam.

Because of its potent symbolism, negative reporting on the dam was actively discouraged in the Chinese national press for two decades.

Therefore, it was significant news when the State Council, China's cabinet, went public recently with the information that it was necessary to throw another 20 billion yuan (US$3 billion) or so at the Three Gorges in order to deal with landslide, pollution and relocation issues.

Most probably, the State Council announcement reflected the priorities of Premier Wen Jiabao. Wen, who is responsible for projecting the friendly, caring face of the Chinese government, has made it his priority to respond to popular dissatisfaction with bloated, destructive hydropower projects promoted by greedy local governments and powerful national utilities.

Famously, Wen pulled the plug on the Leaping Tiger Gorge Dam in 2008, after reading an investigative report by Liu Jianqiang in the Guangzhou-based Nanfang (Southern) Daily blasting the rogue project.

The Western press, however, decided not to spin the State Council announcement as "China's government makes a belated but welcome step toward transparency and public engagement by breaking silence on TGD problems".

Instead, some outlets decided to use the Yangtze basin drought as a news hook for the story. As the Washington Post reported, "Amid severe drought, Chinese government admits mistakes with Three Gorges Dam." [1] CNN pitched in with "Has the Three Gorges Dam created Chinese drought zone?" [2] Associated Press: "China drought renews debate over Three Gorges Dam." [3]

In example of the bloggy "it would be irresponsible not to speculate" writing that news outlets increasingly turn to in order to fill their pages and attract readers, Elaine Kurtenbach of AP reported the allegation that "many villagers and some scientists suspect the dam ... could also be altering weather patterns, contributing to the lowest rainfall some areas have seen in a half century or more."

A modicum of research - ie recollecting that the Yangtze experienced one of the biggest floods in its history in the not-too-distant past, that is to say 10 months ago - casts doubt on this particular exercise in empirical inquiry.

The Yangtze River basin historically has a surplus of water, not a dearth, and this situation is likely to persist. Research on the effects of climate change on the Yangtze River basin predicts that global warming - not the TGD - will bring more rainfall in brief, more intense episodes from the summer monsoon. It was therefore undoubtedly a matter of considerable but not unexpected relief to the government as Xinhua reported that the drought broke under torrential rains - as much as 10 inches in some localities.

In a sure sign of the journalistic apocalypse, it fell to China's leading purveyor of knuckleheaded nationalism, Global Times, to provide some useful perspective on the purported TGD/drought link: it interviewed Zhang Boting, deputy general secretary of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, obviously a hardcore dam enthusiast.

Zhang harrumphed:
It is absurd. There are more than 20 dams in the world larger than the Three Gorges Dam. But I never heard of them causing droughts. The big flood last year could be a good refutation of this claim. It is impossible for it to cause both drought and flood. [4]
Beyond straw-man issues of climate pseudo-science, the TGD operators did hog water last year in order to achieve the first-time fill of the reservoir to the 175-meter maximum, on the not unwarranted but unfulfilled assumption that spring rains would cover the temporary downstream shortage.

The government subsequently admitted that the large, shallow lakes that form flood basins in the middle Yangtze - particularly Boyang and Dongting Lakes - were lower than usual as a result and dried up dramatically during the unprecedented drought, exacerbating local hardships.

There is also the issue of whether the reputedly greedy and callous operators of the TGD hydropower station resisted releasing drought-relief water from the dam so that optimum head for power generation (and profits) could be maintained. They probably did, and it took a highly publicized directive from the Chinese government to open the floodgates and send 3.7 billion tonnes of water (about 10% of the reservoir's capacity) downstream.

But this is an operational issue - and the practical assistance the release provided to (and the woes the late 2010-early 2011 reduced flows inflicted upon) the Yangtze's vast drought-crippled middle and lower reaches is questionable.

The underlying fact is that the dam gives Chinese planners additional flexibility in managing storage and release of water to adapt to extremes in rainfall and drought.

The prognosis for China, therefore, is more dams, not fewer, as Dr John Yin, a hydrologist at the University of San Diego, told Asia Times Online:
I believe that these recent extreme events will provide ammunition to those who want to build more large dams for increasing storage capacity to handle flooding and/or water shortage problems.
Disregarding the drought red herring, the past history and present circumstances of the Three Gorges project point to important structural issues for China's politics and economy, including problems that neither the projects supporters or critics originally anticipated.

Public policy advocates, like generals, sometimes find themselves refighting the last war instead of understanding and mastering the current battlefield.

The previous Waterloo of Chinese hydrology was the San Men Xia Dam, a gigantic failure for which Chairman Mao and his immense hubris were directly responsible. Built on the Yellow River with Soviet assistance in the 1950s and desperately and expensively repaired by China alone in the 1960s, it consumed a disproportionate share of the national budget and served as a drag on economic growth.

Improperly sited and designed, the dam's reservoir silted up almost immediately. Rivers feeding the reservoir slowed and dumped their sediment, raising beds and increasing flood risk. Within months, Shaanxi's capital, Xian, faced the real threat of inundation in the next major flood.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from rich Shaanxi farmland and relocated into hopeless desolation. Their 50-year struggle to return and obtain fair compensation and treatment is documented in Xie Chaoping's samizdat epic, The Great Relocation. [5]

History looked primed to repeat itself with the Three Gorges Dam, a dream of Sun Yat-sen's that had been adopted as the Chinese Communist Party's national priority in the 1980s.

As political ferment and demands for more transparent and responsive government swept China in 1989, Dai Qing elevated opposition to the TGD to a national crusade. She prepared a compendium of articles and interviews titled Yangtze! Yangtze! to distribute to delegates to the National People's Congress and support efforts to block construction of the dam. The book was suppressed and Dai was imprisoned for several months post-Tiananmen.

Yangtze! Yangtze! was a carefully researched brief designed to demonstrate that citizen activists could do a better job of guiding China's hydraulic policy than the bespoke hacks in the Ministry of Water Resources. Its case against the dam touched on many issues, but primarily invoked the San Men Xia fiasco on the issues of unsupportable cost and catastrophic sedimentation.

Dai was wrong about the cost of the dam construction hindering China's growth. China not only built its dam; over the next 20 years, it was also able to over-invest in virtually every civil and industrial asset known to humankind.

The Chinese government also demonstrated it could deploy significant technical, financial, and political resources on the construction of enormous and successful dams throughout China, implying the capability to manage the critical problem of TGD sedimentation.

In 1993, Dai Qing interviewed Huang Wanli, the only Chinese hydrologist brave enough to buck Chairman Mao and his coterie and refuse to endorse the San Men Xia dam during its approval phase. He told Dai that Three Gorges, unlike San Men Xia, was located in a "scouring" zone rather than a "deposition" zone.

In other words, the TGD reservoir could theoretically be flushed out with intermittent high flow release of sediment-laden water. However, as a practical matter, the coarse gravel and rocks carried through Sichuan in the Yangtze could not be flushed out because of their size and weight, and the reservoir would silt up. Then, in a replay of the Xian crisis, Chongqing's port of Jiulongpu, near the west end of the TGD reservoir, would become unusable within 10 years.

The jury is apparently still out on the sedimentation issue. And China's government, in contrast to its frantic, underfunded approach to the San Men Xia debacle, is throwing a lot of resources at the Three Gorges problem before it becomes untenable. But things don't look particularly good.

In 2004, environmental journalist Liu Jianqing penned an investigative report that stripped away much of the optimistic public relations fa็ade erected by the Chinese government. He revealed that landslides were a much more severe problem than originally advertised, and the number of people who might have to be relocated from unstable parts of the reservoir might be double the original estimate and reach 2.3 million. 

Continued 1 2  

China in power dilemma (Jun 9, '11)

The great relocation that failed (Oct 13, '10)

China's Three Gorges Dam comes of age (Nov 4, '09)

  The cold hard cash counter-revolution

2. Iraq: A frat house with guns

3. False bells on Iran's nuclear program

4. Arming the UAE

5. War talk still in the air

6. Low wages and revolutions

7. China's scramble for the African Union

8. Fight or flight in the South China Sea

9. Afghanistan: To go or not to go

10. Israel, Ireland and the peace of the aging

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jun 9, 2011 )


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