Rail & Infrastructure

Hugely divisive

Floods this summer are set to give the Three Gorges Dam its biggest test

Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam will be under pressure in the coming months

Mao Zedong once wrote a poem entitled ‘Swimming’, an ode to his vision for the Three Gorges Dam, a project that he strongly advocated. Unsurprisingly the mega infrastructure project was widely favoured by the engineers that later became senior Communist figures in the 1990s.

However, even within the ruling elite, the dam was controversial. When the National People’s Congress voted on the scheme in 1992 “a third of the delegates abstained or voted against it, even though the dam was championed by Li Peng, who was then Prime Minister,” wrote the New York Times. That was the narrowest margin in the history of the Chinese parliament – where key government initiatives usually pass virtually unopposed.

The Three Gorges Dam is now back in the spotlight because of the recent flooding in southern and central China.

The National Headquarters of Flood Control and Drought Relief stated that as of July 3, around 1,192 counties in 26 provinces had suffered severe floods, and the rising waters had effected almost 33 million people (Reuters reports 130 deaths have occurred) – and led to direct economic losses of approximately Rmb50 billion ($7.5 billion), of which two thirds relates to crop damage.

And the reason for the renewed media interest in the dam: experts this week have said publicly that it has never faced such extreme weather conditions, and people are starting to question whether it will be able to cope with the deluge, let alone improve the situation.

The rainy season in China – known locally as ‘plum rains’ – has been particularly wet this year, most likely because of the super El Niño effect. This has drawn comparisons to a similar situation in 1998 when China experienced its worst floods in 40 years – which killed more than 2,000 and left 15 million homeless between June and September. Worryingly, Zheng Guoguang, head of China’s meteorological administration, has said that the total rainfall since flood season began this summer is 5% higher than at the comparable point in 1998. Furthermore, Liu Min, director of Wuhan Regional Climate Centre, has said that “there have been a total of 20 occasions of heavy rainfall in the south, while rainfall in the same period in 1998 occurred only 14 times”.

Officials had warned of the threat from the Yangtze River flooding earlier this year, but few had anticipated a rerun of the 1998 disaster.

At the centre of the latest controversy over the Three Gorges Dam is Tsinghua University professor Zhou Jianjun, who has conducted a long-term study of the project and its effectiveness in flood control, which he believes is “not so strong”, despite government promises prior to its construction that it would tame China’s longest river.

At Zhou’s prompting, journalists have been digging through a series of official reports relating to the dam’s flood control abilities and noted the changing tone.

For example, a 2003 report proclaimed the “Three Gorges Dam is impregnable”, but by 2010 there had been a reassessment with a fresh government paper that was less bombastically titled “The Three Gorges’ flood storage capacity is limited” warning people to “not put all hopes in the dam”.

This week the state-owned Beijing News again warned its readers that the dam’s flood control capacity is “plummeting”. Zhou’s worry is that the world’s biggest dam has never faced a test as severe as the 1998 rains, as it had not been completed at that point. So if the severe downpours this year match those of that disastrous period, the pressure on the dam – which is five times the size of the Hoover Dam – will be unprecedented.

However, Chen Min, the director of the Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters has tried to assuage fears, saying that despite the “extremely serious” situation, “the risks are controllable”. Liu Ning, the body’s secretary-general, even attributes current flood relief to the Three Gorges Dam, saying it has “helped reduce and delay the flood peaks”, as well as commenting on how new disaster warning systems have helped to save lives.

(The South China Morning Post this week reported the dam can hold 200 trillion square metres of water, which sounds reassuring.)

But with the floods now washing away railway lines andsubmerging road networks, others aren’t so convinced that the Three Gorges Dam is effective. “If the dam is not good in flood control, why did we build the Three Gorges in the first place? Just for some people to get money?” 0ne internet user wrote on NetEase. His latter point refers to public anger over corruption that occurred during the construction of the dam and likewise over the subsequent period of its operation.

Two years ago the project’s chairman and general manager were both arrested for graft (see WiC232) with Guangzhou’s Time Weekly noting in an investigative report that corruption was uncovered in almost every facet of the organisation. This ranged from nepotism and bid-rigging to lavish spending on office buildings, villas and a fleet of Audi cars.

At the outset, the dam’s estimated construction cost was reckoned to be $9 billion. But the 21CN Business Herald points out that the public has never been told the true cost of building the dam, with the latest estimate (which emerged after the 2014 probe), putting it at closer to $80 billion. Even though it produces vast amounts of electricity (the equivalent of 18 nuclear power stations), the dam’s expense is exorbitant.

According to National Geographic, China has built 86,000 dams since 1949. But controversies over the Three Gorges project may have finally turned the public – and some senior government figures – against further dam construction.

That could have decided the fate of China’s only remaining free-flowing river: the Nu. Over the past decade state hydropower firms have sought to dam it too, but faced strong opposition from local residents and environmental groups. The New York Times reports that the latter may have won the argument: in March the government said that the current construction of dams on the Nu would stop and the area would instead be designated as a national park.


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