Benefits dry up in face of rising woes
By Ching Cheong
CHINA has admitted for the first time that there are serious problems related to the Three Gorges Dam.
It coincided with a severe dry spell that hit central China especially hard in the past few months, drying up major lakes in provinces such as Hubei and Hunan.
Despite not having any hard evidence, local officials struggling to tackle the worst drought in more than 50 years found the massive dam a convenient scapegoat. They claim that it prevented water from flowing downstream and caused water levels in lakes to plunge.
The Three Gorges Dam has been a lightning rod for controversy right from the start.
Those who favoured the project touted two main benefits: The dam will produce hydroelectric power - which is clean, unlike coal - to meet China's growing energy needs; and it will help control annual flooding along parts of the Yangtze River that claims lives and destroys livestock, farmland and homes.
Experts were split on the technical and economic feasibility of China's most ambitious hydroelectric project as well as its social and political desirability. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was similarly split between supporters and doubters.
Those opposed pointed to the human, ecological and cultural costs: More than a million people would have to be uprooted and relocated; countless wildlife habitats could be wiped out; historical or cultural sites would be lost forever when they were submerged.
Top CCP leaders favouring the dam included patriarch Deng Xiaoping, party chief Jiang Zemin and premier Li Peng.
Those who believed the costs far outweighed the benefits included Mr Jiang's predecessor Zhao Ziyang, and Mr Zhu Rongji, who became premier after Mr Li.
None of the current crop of leaders including CCP chief and President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao attended festivities to mark the dam's completion in 2006, 13 years after the project began.
The Three Gorges Dam got the green light because the trio of Deng, Jiang and Li were firmly behind it. The project received 66 per cent approval in the Chinese Parliament, remarkably low for the rubber-stamping legislative body.
In the past two decades, state media ran only positive reports about the project.
Thus, the CCP's recent admission that the project has serious flaws would indicate that the problems must be mighty serious. A Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) panel appointed by the government to assess the dam's performance submitted its report to the State Council in January.
'Although the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention,' the report said.
These same problems anticipated by opponents long ago had not been taken seriously by the top leadership then.
According to well-known environmental activist Dai Qing, patriarch Deng Xiaoping scoffed when told there were people not in favour of building the dam.
Planners also showed professional arrogance. Dr Pan Jiazheng, deputy director of the CAE's assessment panel, told the Beijing Review magazine that as he was a strong advocate of the project, he 'refused to listen to doubts' expressed about it.
The admission of potential problems is prompting the current government to take extra measures to ensure the project's efficiency and safety. But fixing the problems created by the dam is apparently as costly as constructing it.
Government experts estimated that fixing the four problems listed in the CAE panel's report would require 124 billion yuan (S$24 billion) to be spent between 2010 and 2020. This works out to 67 per cent of the cost of building the dam, estimated at 185 billion yuan.
However, Dr Wang Weiluo, a critic of the dam, said the government figure is conservative, citing sources that put the cost at 170 billion to 300 billion yuan.
The CAE panel's report cited two benefits that the dam has brought: electricity generation and flood control.
As of last October, the dam's accumulated energy output was 440 billion kwh. It is estimated that the project could recoup its investment in the next four to six years, a remarkable achievement by any standards.
The report also lauded the dam's role in flood control. It said that in 1998, before the dam was completed, deadly floods took more than 3,000 lives, left 14 million people homeless, and caused economic losses of 166 billion yuan.
In July last year, the dam helped ameliorate the catastrophic effects of floods that were worse than those in 1998.
But the report was silent on shipping along the Yangtze.
Advocates had claimed that the dam, which can control the river's water levels, would enable even ocean-going vessels to sail all the way up to Chongqing, roughly 1,500km inland.
This claim has turned into a joke, since even river barges have difficulty navigating the waterway because water levels have fallen precipitously as a result of the dam.