A controversial plan to build the biggest hydroelectric project in the world on the Chang Jiang River (formerly the Yangtze) is awaiting final approval from the Chinese government. The multibillion dollar undertaking would be the largest construction project in China since the cultural revolution, and possibly since the building of the Great Wall.
American businesses hope to obtain lucrative contracts if the plan goes ahead, and seven companies have formed a working group with the United States government to advise the Chinese on the project. But in the US, critics charge that it is being pushed forward with insufficient planning and inadequate environmental safeguards, which could turn the dam into an expensive disaster.
The proposal calls for a concrete dam 600 feet high and 1.2 miles across, producing 13,000 megawatts of electricity -- equivalent to 20 percent of China's 1980 generating capacity. In 1980 the Chinese estimated the dam would cost $9 billion, but their calculations did not include interest rates or operating expenses.
The site for the dam lies in the Three Gorges, a stretch of the Chang Jiang described as the Grand Canyon of China for its beauty, and its cultural and historical associations.
The US Bureau of Reclamation is advising the Chinese on the design of the dam, under a five-year agreement, signed last year. The bureau subcontracts half of its work in the Three Gorges to private companies, including Harza Engineering and Raymond Kaiser Engineers.
After a semi-official nine-day mission to China last May to promote the Three Gorges project, former Secretary of the Interior William P. Clark helped set up the US Working Group on the Three Gorges to advise the Chinese on the dam.
The group is composed of representatives from the US Bureau of Reclamation, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the American Consulting Engineers Council; Guy F. Atkinson Company; Bechtel Civil and Minerals, Inc.; Coopers and Lybrand; Merril Lynch Capital Markets; Morgan Bank; Morrison-Knudsen, Inc; and Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation. The group is headed by Robert Polvi, a vice-president of Bechtel.
The aspect of the dam about which Chinese leaders are most dubious is that it would require resettling 3.3 million people whose homes would be flooded by the dam's reservoir.
Not only people, but homes, farms, harbors, railroads, factories, highways, and communication lines would have to be moved, at a cost the Chinese have put at $3.5 billion.
The US working group has expressed concern about the threat of landslides, which are common in the Three Gorges area, and which can cause disastrous floods. In a similar scenario a landslide fell into the reservoir of the Vaiont Dam in Italy in 1963, causing a tidal wave that overflowed the dam and killed 2,000 people.
The working group has also warned that the dam may actually impede navigation by trapping sediment upstream of the dam and silting up the port of Chongqing, 390 miles downstream from the proposed site.
Chinese ecologists and experts on fisheries are most worried about the dam's effect on the fishing industry and on the ecology of the huge and now highly productive Chang Jiang estuary.
Scientists look at the example of Egypt's Aswan High Dam -- once regarded as a model of water projects -- as a sign of what may lie ahead for the Chang Jiang dam proposal. In the 20 years since the completion of the Aswan High Dam, erosion of the Nile Delta has increased so severely that the coastline has moved inland a mile -- more at some points.
The salt-water intrusion into the Delta caused by the dam means farmers can no longer use Delta water to irrigate their fields. Furthermore, the drop in nutrient-bearing sediments from the Nile is cited as a major factor in the 90 percent drop in productivity of the commmericial fisheries of the eastern Mediterranean.
In July the group proposed to the Chinese that construction of the dam begin next year, before the final design is completed, and suggested sources of financing, including the World Bank and the US Export-Import Bank. The group also suggested that the Three Gorges project be directed jointly by the Chinese government and a consortium of private US companies.
The Chinese, however, are holding out for a commitment on favourable financing from the US and other countries eager for contracts resulting from the Three Gorges projects.
American environmentalists claim that the Bureau of Reclamation has a legal obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to submit an environmental impact report on the Three Gorges Dam, before undertaking preliminary design work.
Lawyers with the US Department of the Interior are now considering the issue, but Darrell Webber, the bureau's assistant commissioner for engineering and research, says that ``recommending an EIA [environmental impact assessment] to the Chinese would be presumptious on our part. I assume that if there is an environmental community in China, the government will have to answer to their pressure.''