Update on 3 Gorges Dam—4/25/02
A decade of the dam: 10 years, 10 problems [Yang Chongqing, a scholar from China, has drawn on Three Gorges Probe and other sources to compile this summary of major problems that have emerged since the Three Gorges project was approved in April 1992.]

Ten years ago this month, China’s National People’s Congress gave the official go-ahead for the world’s biggest dam to be built in the Three Gorges section of the Yangtze River, near Yichang in Hubei province. The state-run media reported at the time that people living in the area celebrated the event by dancing in the streets and setting off firecrackers.

We cannot say whether people whose lives were about to be turned upside down by the dam really were so happy to hear the news. But we do know that, 10 years on, any joy felt by those citizens on April 3, 1992, has long since been swept out to sea.

Consider the residents of the historic town of Dachang, forced to abandon courtyard houses their families had lived in for 12 generations and move to an unknown place a thousand miles away. Or the migrants in Yunyang county, learning the fate of their courageous fellow villagers – the four men

in their 50s and 60s they had elected to take their petitions about resettlement-related corruption to top Chinese leaders. The men were detained and charged, and are now serving jail terms of two and three years for “disturbing public order.” Or the poor farmer forced to chop down young orange trees she has nurtured, just as they are about to bear fruit, before she is moved off ancestral land in Zigui county.

If it is true that, a decade ago, these Three Gorges migrants greeted the NPC decision with excitement and foresaw none of the problems that lay ahead, the same can be said of the dam’s designers and builders. They are now encountering myriad problems with the project – problems they either did not foresee or did not expect would become so severe. On the 10th anniversary of the fateful decision, we offer a selection of 10 pressing concerns now facing the builders – and the political and financial backers – of the Three Gorges dam.
1. Cracks appear in the dam

Small cracks in the Three Gorges dam have multiplied and grown since they were first discovered in 1999. Some now extend all the way up the huge concrete structure, and deep into it. On a recent trip to the dam site, Zhao Shilong, a reporter with South Wind Window (Nanfeng chuang) magazine, saw cracks stretching from the top to the bottom of the dam, and wrote that some were so wide that an adult’s hand could fit inside.

Wang Jiazhu, vice-president of the Three Gorges Project Development Corp., spoke to reporters about the issue on the eve of the Chinese new year in February: “The cracks on the upstream face of the dam were discovered in October 1999. At that time just one crack was found, with a depth of only 0.1 to 0.2 millimetres. But later more cracks were discovered, and they became so deep that some of them extended for more than two metres into the dam.”

Asked whether the cracks were so severe as to warrant dismantling the dam and starting again, Mr. Wang said: “We’re lucky to have discovered the problem early on, because we have had time to take remedial action. But from now on, we need to be more careful. If something like this goes wrong in the near future, we will have no time to address it because of the tight schedule decided on by the central government.”

Zhang Chaoran, chief engineer of the Three Gorges Project Development Corp., added that “this is a normal phenomenon, and cracks such as these can be observed in almost all large dams around the world.” He said that after consulting several leading dam experts in China, “we were able to determine that, after repairs, the dam will be up to standard in terms of project design and future operation.” But he also admitted: “Our problem was that we failed to take the cracks seriously at first. We didn’t think they would develop so quickly or so dramatically, beyond our expectations.”

After Zhao Shilong’s story about the cracks in the dam appeared in South Wind Window, Lu Youmei, general manager of the Three Gorges Project Development Corp., was interviewed by a reporter from the Three Gorges Project Daily. Mr. Lu criticized South Wind Window for “misleading the public.” He said most of the cracks are between 0.1 and 0.2 millimetres wide, and denied that some are wide enough to accommodate an adult’s hand. But he acknowledged that cracks have been found on the whole upstream face of the 483-metre-long spillway section, and that they extend from 1 metre to 1.25 metres into the dam.

The South Wind Window article, which had been posted on the Changjiang Water Resources Commission home page, has now been removed from the site.

2. Flood control overstated: ‘Never, ever let the public know this’

Flood control has long been touted as the most important function of the Three Gorges dam. But leaked, high-level correspondence obtained by Three Gorges Probe reveals that top Chinese officials know the dam will not provide the promised flood-control benefits.

The written correspondence and transcripts of meetings show that the flood-control problem was discussed by Zhang Guangduo, an eminent Qinghua University professor who was in charge of part of the Chinese feasibility study on the dam, and Guo Shuyan, deputy director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee.

“Perhaps you know that the flood-control capacity of the Three Gorges project is smaller than declared by us,” Prof. Zhang said during a meeting with Mr. Guo. “The research [showing that the dam’s flood-control capacity is inadequate] was done by Qinghua University,” and “the Changjiang Water Resources Commission [planner and designer of the dam] has also admitted this is true.”

Prof. Zhang argued that the threat of floods could be addressed by lowering the water level in the Three Gorges reservoir to 135 metres, though this would adversely affect shipping on the river. “But keep in mind,” he urged Mr. Guo, “never, ever let the public know this.”

These leaked documents were circulated between April and June 2000 to dam-skeptic Premier Zhu Rongji, who immediately forwarded them to Li Peng, a long-time champion of the dam who is currently chairman of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress.

Since then, other high-ranking officials have echoed Prof. Zhang’s concerns. Yu Zhengsheng, the new Communist Party boss of Hubei province, has warned that the dam will not solve the Yangtze River flood problem. Mr. Yu recounted that someone had joked that he was lucky to be appointed Hubei party secretary just as the dam was about to make floods in the province a thing of the past. “I don’t think so, of course,” Mr. Yu was quoted as saying. “My understanding is that there will still be floods in Hubei, even though the project will to some extent reduce the frequency and severity of the disasters. So we must attach great importance to this issue, and under no circumstances treat the matter lightly.”

Mr. Yu’s remarks followed similar concerns raised by Changjiang Water Resources Commission director Cai Qihua, who told a meeting of academics and officials in Wuhan that the dam “will not completely solve the Yangtze River flood problem.”

Recent flood-proofing measures taken in the area downstream of the Three Gorges also indicate that the central government is not banking on the dam to solve the Yangtze flood problem. After the severe floods of 1998, Premier Zhu Rongji pledged to address the flooding problem in the middle and lower reaches of the river by earmarking US$2.5 billion to strengthen dykes below the dam. He also launched a plan to move more than 2.5 million residents out of flood-prone areas, to restore some of the original Yangtze floodplain and make more room for floodwater when it arrives.

3. A reservoir with clear water – or a giant cesspool?

In the Chinese feasibility study for the dam, project authorities promised to create a reservoir area with clear water and beautiful mountains. But Chinese scientists, media and even government environmental protection departments (especially at the local level) have repeatedly warned about the dangers of the Three Gorges reservoir becoming a stinking, stagnant cesspool.

Chongqing municipality, located at the upstream end of the 600-kilometre-long reservoir, is racing to clean up its heavily polluted section of the Yangtze before the dam permanently slows the river’s flow, concentrating pollutants and garbage in the huge new body of water. Every year Chongqing discharges more than one billion tonnes of industrial wastewater and 300 million tonnes of sewage into the site of the future reservoir, but only 28 per cent and 8 per cent of that, respectively, is treated.

Dangerous effluent pours out of paper, steel, silk, and chemical factories that line the Yangtze. A study by Chen Guojie, a professor at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, indicated that seven pollutants (petroleum, mercury, lead, volatile phenol, non-ionic ammonia, phosphorus, and colon bacillus) already exceed permissible standards in the water flowing past Chongqing, Fuling, Fengdu, Wanxian, and Wushan.

“Everybody knows the Yangtze will become undrinkable on completion of the big dam,” environmental protection expert and retired Chongqing University professor Lei Henshun has warned. According to Prof. Lei, all counties in the Three Gorges area intend to build their own reservoirs for drinking water because they know they won’t want to draw on the polluted Yangtze after the reservoir begins forming behind the dam in June 2003.

Chongqing’s Environmental Protection Bureau considers building new wastewater-treatment plants a matter of urgency. But one major project, which China’s State Council has said must be up and running before the reservoir begins filling, is behind schedule because of citizens’ demands for higher compensation, the Chongqing Morning Post (Chongqing chenbao) has reported.

About 55,000 square metres of housing in Chongqing are to be demolished and 100 hectares of rural land expropriated for the scheme, which is being funded by US$360 million in loans from the World Bank. But with some individuals and companies holding out for more money for their homes or land, only 30 per cent of the necessary clearance work has been completed, the newspaper reported in March.

4. The reservoir-bed cleanup: Quick, costly and complicated

The Chinese feasibility study for the Three Gorges project underestimated the importance of the reservoir cleanup. Only a few sample surveys were done, and many fundamental factors relevant to the cleanup were ignored. As a result, little is known about the future reservoir bed, and the financial resources to address the truly massive problems are in short supply.

According to a survey conducted in the early 1990s by Chongqing’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the Three Gorges reservoir will flood 703 “toxic sites,” 178 garbage dumps heaped with 2.8 million of tonnes of rubbish, 64 industrial sites containing 15 million tonnes of solid waste, and 41,293 graves.

The cleanup is proving to be tremendously difficult. According to the timetable set by the central government for construction of the dam, the cleanup is to be completed three months before the reservoir begins filling with water next June. Of the three main areas of work – dealing with buildings, with trees, and undertaking “a sanitation and anti-epidemic cleanup” – the latter is by far the most complicated.

Southern Weekend (Nanfang zhoumo) newspaper has reported that a recent survey of the reservoir area made the startling discovery of eight graves contaminated with anthrax, dating from the 1937-45 war with Japan. The survey also found industrial sites containing “123 sources of radioactive debris,” the newspaper said, but gave no further details.

Wei Siqi, a senior member of the non-Communist advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), has said: “Those kinds of things will be disastrous for water quality in the reservoir if they cannot be completely removed. How worrisome it will be!”

The Chongqing Evening News (Chongqing wanbao) has reported another concern – that mice and rats displaced by the reservoir could spread disease as they move into new areas. The rodents have to be removed from “more than 53,000 main areas” before the reservoir is filled, the newsaper said. It quoted an unnamed source at Chongqing’s disease-control centre as saying: “If a substantial part of the rat population is not killed [as part of the cleanup], when the reservoir rises they will be forced to climb to higher ground. A sudden influx of a large number of rats raises the possibility of disease epidemics.” Hygiene officials have warned that the rats could spread up to 200 diseases, 50 of which are potentially fatal to humans, the newspaper reported. Officials in Chongqing have also been quoted as saying that poisoning the rats is problematic, because residues of the poison in the rodents’ bodies could contaminate the water.

5. Geological disasters: Big and getting bigger

On Jan. 17, 2001, a landslide occurred in the old county town of Yunyang, in the heart of the Three Gorges area, Guangzhou Daily (Guangzhou ribao) reported.

On Dec. 13, 2001, an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.1 could be felt over 40 kilometres in Xingshan and Zigui counties, upstream of the Three Gorges dam, the Three Gorges Project Daily (Sanxia gongcheng bao) reported.

On March 3, 2002, an estimated 20 million cubic metres of rock and earth threatened the centre of Wushan and put the town's population of more than 10,000 newly resettled migrants at risk, the Chongqing Morning Post (Chongqing chenbao) reported.

Two days later, a riverbank collapse in Shuitianba township, Zigui county, killed two people and seriously injured another. More than 2,000 cubic metres of rock still threatened the safety of 38 people from nine households, the China News Service (Zhongguo xinwen she) reported.

After millions of dollars were spent on the construction of new buildings, roads and bridges in the new county seats of Fengjie and Badong, geological experts discovered the two towns were built on unstable ground. The two half-finished settlements had to be abandoned, new sites selected and the work started all over again.

Almost half of the new county town of Wushan, located between Fengjie and Badong, has been built on top of an old landslide. Xu Kaixiang, chief engineer of the Three Gorges geological disasters prevention headquarters, was quoted in the Chongqing Morning Post (Chongqing chenbao) as saying that construction work in the area has reactivated old landslides.

These reports are just part of the story, because many such events are never made public. The fact is that the world’s biggest dam is being built in a geologically unstable area that is prone to landslides and earthquakes. A survey by the Changjiang Water Resources Commission (CWRC) last year identified 1,320 sites in the area that are at risk of landslides and mud-rock flows.

Two senior water engineers recently urged the Beijing government to undertake a geological-safety inspection of all new settlements being built in the area before the dam reservoir is filled in June next year. Wen Fubo, former director of the CWRC, and Zheng Shouren, current manager of the CWRC’s engineering group, warned that lives would be put at risk unless potentially dangerous areas are checked and double-checked. They predicted that impounding a huge body of water in the reservoir is likely to activate at least 760 landslips.

6. Resettlement: Distant migration no longer a distant prospect

The experts who took part in the Chinese feasibility study concluded that the resettlement operation would not be difficult because all the migrants could be relocated nearby in the reservoir area. They argued that the “population supporting capacity” of a given region is a flexible variable, that the new policy of “resettlement with development” could be adopted, and that about 40 per cent of the rural migrants could be redeployed in non-farming jobs.

The NPC delegates were lobbied, and perhaps many of those who voted in favour of the dam did so because they were persuaded that one of the biggest concerns – resettlement – was going to be handled well.

Unfortunately, most of the available land in the Three Gorges area is rugged and steep, and the soil is poor. Migrants in Wushan county, Chongqing municipality, didn’t want to move uphill because of the poor conditions there, and said so in petitions they tried to submit to higher authorities. Migrants resettled in Zigui county, Hubei province, asked to be moved again because so little farmland was available in their new location.

The construction of new housing and expansion of farmland led to a growing soil-erosion problem in the area. To relieve the pressure on a fragile ecosystem, in 1999 Premier Zhu Rongji announced a policy shift in favour of moving migrants to distant parts of the country. The decision to move 125,000 of the Three Gorges migrants far from their original homes was never part of the original resettlement plan.

The Three Gorges Project Daily reported last month that thousands of rural migrants who were moved under this new policy to Badong county in Hubei province complained about substandard resettlement conditions and asked to be relocated. To maintain social stability, the newspaper said, the migrants were moved again, and project authorities had to find additional money to fund this second uprooting.

7. Resettlement: Financial black hole just keeps getting bigger

The cost of moving people to make way for the Three Gorges dam has soared hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and is one reason project managers are now scrambling to resolve funding problems, the Guangzhou-based 21st Century Economic Report (Ershiyi shiji jingji baodao) has reported.

Guo Shuyan, deputy director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, told reporter Luo Lie that US$768 million more than budgeted had been spent on the resettlement program by the end of last year. Mr. Guo cited three problems that could hamper this year’s resettlement work and were responsible for the sharp rise in costs: the construction of a huge amount of infrastructure in the resettlement sites; the need to deal with geological disasters, and pollution in the reservoir; and the substandard quality of rural resettlement.

Mr. Guo did not mention another major problem – corruption – that has added considerably to the cost of resettlement.

Resettlement funds are disbursed in a “top-down” bureaucratic fashion, from the state level to the province, then to the county, township and village. In the absence of effective supervisory mechanisms involving outside monitors (perhaps drawn from non-government organizations and including migrants themselves), the system allows local cadres enormous “income-generating” opportunities. For example, Huang Faxiang, an official in charge of building new towns for migrants in Chongqing’s Fengdu county, was convicted of embezzling US$2 million, and sentenced to death. Wan Sumei, an official in the Wanzhou resettlement bureau, was found guilty of using US$230,000 in relocation funds for mahjong gambling, and received a life sentence.

The Three Gorges migrants were supposed to benefit from better compensation terms than people relocated in previous schemes had been offered. With so much money budgeted for the resettlement operation, the planners did not foresee all the potential problems, or imagine that migrants could still wind up deeply unhappy about their fate.

Economies at the household level have also suffered, according to Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers who tracked a small number of rural migrants in the Wuqiao district of Wanxian city. They found that most of those households were significantly less well off than they were before, and that both newcomers and existing residents had only half as much land as they had before resettlement. Farmers in the host community, who had to give up some of their land to the migrants, ended up with half as much as their new neighbours were allotted. While migrants are promised a certain amount of land under the resettlement rules, no such guarantees protect the holdings of people already living in the areas into which migrants are being moved.

If Three Gorges migrants are really better off than before, why are local governments having to force people to move? According to the Three Gorges Project Daily (Sanxia gongcheng bao), residents of Wushan county who resisted resettlement have had their homes blown up. The newspaper reported that 100 police officers and other officials in Nanling township were going house-to-house, reminding residents of the resettlement rules. People who still refused to move were to be evicted and taken – “even forcibly” – to their new locations, while their old homes were demolished to ensure they would not return.

During an inspection tour of the reservoir area last year, Gan Yuping, vice-mayor of Chongqing and head of the municipality's resettlement affairs, stressed the need for more “positive propaganda” about resettlement. He said illegal resettlement-related organizations would be banned and migrants prohibited from talking to foreign journalists without permission. “The stability of the resettlement operation is everything,” Mr. Gan said, as the date draws near for filling the dam's reservoir in June 2003.

8. The race to salvage history

In a talk delivered at the Cleveland Museum of Art in March, journalist and environmentalist Dai Qing noted that the early rulers of modern China were military men, and their successors in the 1980s were engineers. “It is little wonder that no matter which of these leaders was in power, no care or concern was shown for preserving China’s human heritage or its natural resources and environment,” she said.

Even well-educated intellectuals such as Qinghua University professor Zhang Guangdou, have shown scant interest in the preservation of archeological and cultural treasures. For instance, in his meeting with Three Gorges project officials, Prof. Zhang derides the idea of spending money to preserve important archeological sites in the reservoir area: “In my view, it does not make any sense to put money into the preservation of the Yushiliang,” a fish-shaped stone more than 1.5 km long with hydrological records dating back 1,200 years carved in to it. “There is definitely nothing special to seeing it, or not seeing it,” he says. "How important is the Zhangfei Temple [a popular temple in honour of Zhangfei, a hero from the Three Kingdoms period of 220-280 BC]?" he continues. "I feel it is a matter of little consequence."

Dai Qing notes that “no sociologists, anthropologists or archeologists were invited to take part in the feasibility studies for the Three Gorges project. In the initial budget for the dam, one-third of the funds were earmarked for construction, one-third for electricity transmission systems and one-third for resettlement costs. Not a single penny was set aside to help salvage historical relics. … More importantly, government and project authorities have paid little attention to the salvage operation. It seems extremely difficult for them to take these sorts of things seriously. As a result, the situation has handed thieves and smugglers a golden opportunity to steal the treasures and sell them on the black market.”

A priceless bronze money tree unearthed from the Three Gorges area and dating back 2,000 years to the Han dynasty sold for US$2.5 million in New York in 1998. Premier Zhu Rongji, who is in charge of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, was outraged when he heard the news. After his personal intervention, an additional US$375 million was earmarked for the archeological salvage operation.

Since then, the Three Gorges reservoir area has become the world’s biggest excavation site, with hundreds of archeological teams from around the country working tirelessly to save what they can from 120 sites along the river. One day, a 2,500-year-old sword is found in Wanxian; the next day, a well-preserved city dating back to Song Dynasty is discovered in Fengjie; the following day, an ancient salt-manufacturing site is located.

According to Beijing-based Sina.com, one of China’s most popular Web sites, the archeological teams are attempting to accomplish in 18 months work that would normally take 50 years. Officials in charge of the operation have said that, at best, the teams will be able to excavate just 8 per cent of the archeological sites they find.

9. Shipping industry headed for a rough patch

The plan for the Three Gorges dam that was approved by the National People’s Congress in 1992 envisioned the project including a ship-lift bigger than any in the world, both in terms of height and lifting capacity. According to a report in 2000 by a Chinese engineer, the ship-lift was to be 113 metres high and have a lifting capacity of 11,500 tonnes. (The ship-lift that is currently China’s biggest – at the Danjiangkou dam in Hubei province, on the Han River, a Yangtze tributary – is 50 metres high and can lift 450 tonnes.)

According to China Three Gorges Construction, an academic journal published by the Three Gorges Project Corp., the Three Gorges ship-lift was to have been built by a German company and completed in June 2000. The publication quoted German engineers as saying that the technology involved in the ship-lift is complicated, and difficult to operate. Even if the ship-lift can be built, there is no guarantee it will operate properly, they said. The Three Gorges ship-lift has been subject to many delays and now it is unclear what stage it is at, or even whether it is still going ahead.

While no further details are known at this time about the ship-lift, it is known that navigation on the Yangtze will be disrupted for longer than was indicated last year by NPC chairman Li Peng. During an inspection trip in October to the dam construction site, Mr. Li expressed concern about the impact of a 67-day interruption of river traffic.

But the two-month suspension of navigation that so worried Mr. Li now looks like good news compared with recent concerns that shipping may be disrupted for as long as two years. The diversion channel that was created for the dam to be built across the main stream of the Yangtze is to be blocked off this November. A temporary shiplock will go into operation at that time, but it is expected to be able to handle no more than two-thirds of the 200 boats that normally pass that way every day. After five months of traffic jams, navigation will be completely halted on that section of the river between April and June next year. During that time, passengers will have to disembark and freight will have to be unloaded, moved overland and reloaded onto boats on the other side of the dam.

Navigation experts predict that even after the permanent, five-step shiplock takes over (scheduled for June 2003), it may be able to accommodate only 60 per cent of normal river traffic in its first 18 months of operation, the Chongqing Evening News reported. More than 100 shipping companies in Chongqing are worried about the economic losses they may face as a result of the chaos on the river, and they can expect to experience “a most difficult time,” the newspaper said.

10. Turbines could generate giant problems

Qian Zhengying, a former water minister and head of the Three Gorges dam’s quality-control inspection group, has just brought to light the latest startling problem. She has revealed that the 26 mammoth turbines being built for the project are not ideally suited to the conditions in which they will be operated, but that it is too late to do anything about it. “The die is cast, since we have signed the contracts with the suppliers,” she said.

“[W]e are really concerned about the big difference between the operating conditions we assumed when inviting tenders years ago, and the actual conditions that will pertain when the turbines are put into operation a year and half from now,” she told project officials on April 8. Her remarks were published in the Three Gorges Project Daily (Sanxia gongcheng bao) on April 11.

She said that how the turbines will operate “under these changed circumstances” remains a major question. And she noted that “the key to promoting economic benefits and repaying loans depends on being able to generate electricity.”

The turbines’ power output will depend on how much water is stored behind the dam, and they will generate less electricity than originally projected if the water level in the reservoir is kept low. Ms. Qian gave no details about this apparent change in operating regime.

She also expressed concern that cracks could appear in the turbines, particularly the ones made in China, because of possible “flaws and weaknesses” in their manufacturing or installation. And she cautioned project officials that quality-control issues must not be sacrificed in the race to start generating electricity – and repaying the project’s huge debts.

* * * * *

Will the turbines function properly? Can the problem of silt building up in the reservoir behind the dam be resolved? Will the expensive Three Gorges electricity even find a market? Is it possible to resettle in time the hundreds of thousands of people who still have to be moved, and keep a lid on the inevitable social unrest?

Ten years on, the problems just keep mounting. Many uncertainties surround this project – many we know about, and others we cannot even foresee.

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