The Chinese government made a rare admission Thursday of something that millions of people living around the Three Gorges dam know only too well: There is a dark side to the country’s proudest engineering achievement.
The 1.4 million people displaced by the dam, completed in 2006, are worse off than the government promised they would be, the dammed waters of the Yangtze River are increasingly polluted, and regular landslides and tremors are making life near the dam dangerous, officials and experts have warned.
These are “urgent problems,” the State Council, China’s cabinet, acknowledged in a statement released Thursday at the end of a meeting to discuss the dam’s future. The statement offered no specific plans to deal with them, however.
“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 statement said.
This will be “incredibly difficult,” warns Lei Hengshun, who teaches at Chongqing University’s Sustainable Development Research Center in Southwestern China. The land on which most of the displaced people were resettled, he points out, “is poor, infertile, and mountainous.”
Resolving the water purification and landslide problems, meanwhile, “will need scientific breakthroughs,” says Yang Yong, an expert on the dam with the Hengduan Mountain environmentalist group in Sichuan province.
The dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, was designed to tame the flood-prone Yangtze River and to generate clean energy, reducing China’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Social and environmental problems associated with the dam have piled up well before its reservoir reached capacity in 2009, however. Upstream water is badly polluted because the flow is too slow to flush waste away, and the weight of the water that has built up behind the dam is causing regular seismic disturbances that have forced the relocation of 50,000 people, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Thursday’s statement was not the first official acknowledgement of problems at the Three Gorges project. Four years ago, government experts were quoted in the official press as warning that "there are many new and old hidden ecological and environmental dangers concerning the Three Gorges Dam. If preventive measures are not taken the project could lead to a catastrophe."
Since then, “the government has spent billions of RMB to improve the environment and prevent natural disasters but there are still a lot of problems,” says Mr. Yang.
The government promised Thursday to set up disaster alert systems, increase funding for environmental protection, reinforce river banks, and provide better social security coverage for the displaced people whose standard of living has fallen since they were forced out of their homes.
Critics of the dam, however, said they felt vindicated by the government’s admission of unforeseen problems. “Three Gorges is a classic case in which government officials exaggerated the benefits and underestimated the risks,” wrote Patricia Adams on her environmental activist website, Probe International.
“What mattered to the Chinese authorities who approved the dam was the prestige,” she charged.