A dam dilemma

Why the Three Gorges Dam is in the news again

A dam dilemma

Too big to fail: the Three Gorges Dam

Mao Zedong once wrote a poem in which he observed “to struggle against the earth is endless joy”.

Another slogan popular during his 37 year imperium was that “Man must conquer nature”.

He may have got the idea from Stalin’s infrastructure planners, who once boasted: “We order the wind when to blow, the rain when to fall.”

Can man defy nature? If so, the Three Gorges Dam is perhaps the pinnacle of humanity’s attempts.

The dam is tasked with taming the world’s third longest river, the Yangtze, and bringing an end to centuries of drought and flood.

But as drought once again overtakes central China, some say the dam is making their problems worse.

The current drought has left millions of people short of water. Thousands of boats have been trapped on dry riverbeds since August. The government blames climate change for the sparse rain and heat, and denies the dam has played a part.

Environmentalists and even some local officials disagree. An official in hard-hit Hunan province told the Xiaoxiang Morning Post that the drought has intensified since September, when the water level was raised in the area above the dam.

With controversy escalating, the China Three Gorges Corporation, which manages the dam, recently postponed plans to raise reservoir water levels, which are scheduled to reach a maximum height of 175 metres this month.

A great dam on the Yangtze was first proposed by the father of modern China, Sun Yat Sen, and later found support from Chairman Mao. They both thought that it would help to control floods, make the river more navigable, and generate much of the country’s energy needs.

The Cultural Revolution then interrupted Mao’s plans but proposals were revived in 1992 by then Premier Li Peng, a trained hydroelectric engineer.

Still, perhaps it is telling that the final plans were passed by a record low vote (67%) in China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress.

Critics advocated building a series of smaller dams to capture the river’s hydroelectric potential, as well as the use of more traditional flood mitigation techniques, such as dykes.

More than nine decades since it was first conceived, the dam is expected to generate just 3% of China’s electricity this year. Its 26 turbines have a capacity of 18,300 MW.

But it ended up costing $27 billion to build, more than three times the initial estimate of $8 billion. And the effort to transform one of the world’s great rivers had a much more significant human toll. 1.3 million people have been displaced by the reservoir that it has created.

Environmentalists are now most concerned that the dam is causing a build-up of sediment that will staunch the river’s flow and damage marine life. The Yangtze River Dolphin, as well as the Chinese Sturgeon and Paddlefish are all thought to be under threat.

On the other hand, officials have touted the dam as an important source of renewable energy ahead of the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen.

Were it not for the dam, China would have needed to build 500 coal-fired power plants to generate equivalent amounts of power.

But the country’s hydroelectric push has caused tensions with neighbours – notably Vietnam where the Mekong is concerned.

And lately, there are indications that even China’s leadership is becoming more wary of large projects too. Premier Wen Jiabao recently halted the construction of a dam on the Nu River in Yunnan province, pending an environmental assessment. He said that lessons from another proposed dam on the Yangtze still needed to be learnt.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.