Three Gorges Dam could cause 'catastrophe' say Chinese officials

Posted: 27 September 2007

Chinese officials and experts have admitted the Three Gorges Dam project has caused an array of ecological ills, including more frequent landslides and pollution, and if preventive measures are not taken, there could be an environmental "catastrophe".

While the dam has served as a barrier against seasonal flooding threatening the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the electricity generated by hydropower has led to a decrease of 100 million tons of carbon emissions, the benefits have come at an ecological and environmental cost, officials said.

All the participants in a two-day forum held in Wuhan agreed that the project had exerted a "notably adverse" impact on the environment of the Three Gorges reservoir, a body of water with a circumference of 600 km. It has also had adverse effects all along the Yangtze since last year, when the project began operation.

Three Gorges Dam nears completion
Three Gorges Dam nears completion
Explosives are set off to demolish the last cofferdam protecting the just-completed main wall of Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Yichang, Hubei Province, in June 2006. Photo © Xinhua
They said the huge weight of the water behind the Three Gorges Dam had started to erode the Yangtze's banks in many places, which, together with frequent fluctuations in water levels, had triggered a series of landslides.

"If no preventive measures are taken, the project could lead to catastrophe," they said.

Huge waves

Tan Qiwei, vice mayor of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis next to the reservoir, said the shore of the reservoir had collapsed in 91 places and a total of 36 km had caved in.

Frequent geological disasters have threatened the lives of residents around the reservoir area, said Huang Xuebin, head of the Headquarters for Prevention and Control of Geological Disasters in the Three Gorges Reservoir.

At the forum he described landslides around the reservoir that had produced waves as high as 50 metres, which crashed into the adjacent shoreline, causing even more damage.

Water quality

Clear water discharged from the Three Gorges Dam has also threatened the safety of the protective embankments downstream, according to Hubei Vice Governor Li Chunming.

The Three Gorges Dam under construction in China. Photo: WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
The Three Gorges Dam under construction in China. Photo: WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
The Three Gorges Dam under construction. As well as displacing 1.3 million people and destroying the habitat of many endangered aquatic species, there are now concerns about other environmental effcts. Photo: © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
Both Tan and Li said the quality of water in the Yangtze tributaries had deteriorated and outbreaks of algae or aquatic weeds had become more common.

"We can by no means relax our vigilance against ecological and environmental security problems or profit from a fleeting economic boom at the cost of sacrificing the environment," said Wang Xiaofeng, director of the office of the Three Gorges Project Committee of the State Council.

The open discussion of the negative effects of the Three Gorges Dam comes a month after the Wall Street Journal reported on the rising concerns of landslides, pollution and flooding in the area.

It quoted environmental scientist Weng Lida, secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum, as saying, "We thought of all the possible issues. But the problems are all more serious than we expected."

Environmental woes

Commenting on the newspaper report, Wang said he thought most of the statements were said out of a concern for the Three Gorges Project, but some of the phrasing did reflect ulterior motives.

But he also admitted, "The problems mentioned in the Wall Street Journal should merit adequate attention from all of us."

Wang said the Chinese government had also paid great attention to consequences in the wake of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

Wang revealed that during an executive meeting of the State Council held earlier this year regarding the key problems arising from the Three Gorges Project, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was said to have cited ecological and environmental woes as primary problems to be addressed.

Three Gorges Dam - aerial view
Three Gorges Dam - aerial view
The Three Gorges Dam during construction viewed from a satellite in July 2003. Photo © European Space Agency
While pledging to cooperate more with relevant central and local government departments in promulgating regulations for tightening management over the reservoir, Wang said comprehensive management measures would be taken to ensure the water in the Three Gorges Reservoir is clean.

"We have to make concerted efforts to attain the dual goals of constructing a first-rate hydraulic project and making it into a top-level showcase for the environment," said Wang, "we will work harder to turn the Three Gorges Reservoir Area into an environmentally-friendly society."

Billions spent

The government has invested heavily in programmes designed to restore and conserve the ecology of the Three Gorges area in recent years, including 12 billion yuan (about US$1.5 billion) spent on trying to harness geological disasters such as landslides.

It has also closed or relocated 1,500 manufacturing ventures, constructed more than 70 sewage disposal and waste treatment plants and resettled about 70,000 people from disaster-prone areas.

The participants in the forum in Wuhan also called for the establishment of a long-term mechanism on the prevention and control of geological disasters in the Three Gorges Reservoir Area, and a ban on fish farming in cages in the reservoir area to prevent an excess of nutrients degrading the water quality.

The Three Gorges Project, the world's largest water control facility, was launched in 1993, with a budget of 180 billion yuan (about 22.5 billion U.S. dollars).

Located on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, the project boasts a 185-metre-high dam, completed in early 2006, and a five-tier ship lock. It has necessitated the resettlement of at least 1.2 million people.

Seventeen turbines - 14 on the northern bank of the Gorges and three more on the southern bank - are now in operation. They produced 23.77 billion kwh of electricity in the first half of the year, 2.65 billion kwh more than the same period last year.

Source: Probe International