Tide of Opposition Swells as Largest Dam Nears Completion

Antoaneta Bezlova
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Originally published by IPS in various news outlets

BEIJING, Oct 30 (IPS) - Fifteen years after dynamite blasts first shattered the peace of China's breathtaking Three Gorges, the Three Gorges Dam-the pride of China's engineering progress-is nearing completion. But the cannonade of criticism bombarding the world's largest and costliest dam in history is far from over.

In a matter of days the water level in the reservoir on the Yangtze River will reach its final height of 175 metres. With every metre of water filling the concrete coffer the swell of domestic opposition has increased and the voices of its international critics have grown louder.

Unlike 12 years ago when Beijing staged elaborate celebrations to mark the diversion of the Yangtze on the spot of the future dam, this time around officials and engineers are marking the completion of the dam in a low- profile manner.

At home they are facing criticism that the filling of the dam is exacerbating the drought afflicting the river's delta. Abroad, where China has attempted to export its Three Gorges model of generating economic growth through huge hydropower works, Chinese engineers are being confronted with homegrown opposition to such projects. Chinese diplomats are seeing a rising tide of discontent with Beijing's expansion of hydropower diplomacy across Asia and Africa.

Yet perhaps the most compelling reason for holding back the fireworks is that the Three Gorges Dam stands as a monument to obsolete ambitions. As China increasingly turns to new forms of renewable energy and even claims leadership in the next wave of green development, the dam sends a signal of confused priorities.

"The Three Gorges dam is a model of the past," says Peter Bosshard, the policy director of California-based International Rivers whose avowed mission is "to protect rivers and the communities that depend on them".

"There are smarter ways of generating energy and managing floods than by building outdated mega-projects," adds Bosshard.

Damming the Yangtze was one of the dreams of Sun Yat-sen-the founding father of modern China who toppled the Qing dynasty in 1911. Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the first digs on the project before the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) put a halt to it. Both saw the dam as a way of controlling devastating floods along the lower Yangtze and creating a backbone for a national power grid.

No longer a thing of dreams but a reality, the Three Gorges Dam has a capacity of 18,000 megawatts of electricity. But in the process of its construction 1,350 villages were submerged and 1.3 million were displaced from their homes.

It is not only the world's largest but also the costliest hydropower project ever undertaken. When it was approved in 1992, its cost was estimated at 57 billion renminbi (8.3 billion U.S. dollars). In the meantime it has risen to 27 billion U.S. dollars by the Chinese government's reckoning and to 88 billion U.S. dollars by some outside estimates.

The hidden costs of the dam are only beginning to emerge. Blocking the river flow has changed the ecosystem of the Yangtze to a degree that rare river species like the dolphin and sturgeon are now facing extinction. The commercial fisheries in the Yangtze and off the river's mouth in the East China Sea have declined sharply. Other disastrous side effects include pollution of fresh-water supplies, the deadly landslides and the increased risk of earthquakes.

In September 2007, government officials admitted that "if preventive measures are not taken, there could be an environmental collapse".

It was former premier Li Peng, an engineer by education, who was the driving force behind the project and who will be remembered for it. In 1992 Li managed to suppress opposition to the project at home and ram approval for the dam through the parliament. Experts say the effort was motivated by Li's desire to rebuild his political legacy in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy, which he oversaw.

The damming of the Yangtze "is an event that not only inspires people but demonstrates the greatness of the achievement of China's development," he said in 1997, presiding over the ceremony to mark the river's diversion.

These days, though, Chinese politicians are talking about developing a "low- carbon" economy, and describing China's greatness in terms of massive dams is no longer the phrase of the day.

The country is now the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases and in recent years has taken an aggressive path to develop alternative sources of energy. China is planning to build more nuclear power plants, become the front-runner in wind and solar-power generation and dramatically raise the efficiency of all new buildings.

But the debate on how to go forward with developing hydropower-a controversial power source because of its impact on river ecosystems-is ongoing.

China now leads the world in installed hydropower capacity, with 150 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, according to the London-based International Hydropower Association, which represents the hydropower sector. The Chinese government plans to expand this capacity to a future level of 700 GW.

More than 100 dams are being planned for the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River. What is more, China is actively seeking to export its Three Gorges expertise abroad, signing up agreements to build hydropower works in countries from Cambodia to Pakistan and Nigeria.

Proponents of the hydropower industry here are unequivocal in their support for more dams. Pan Jiazheng, hydrologist with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, argues that water is the only renewable energy source in China that can be developed on a large scale.

"Developing hydropower is the only viable way to make a dent in China's consumption of coal," Pan says. "Those who argue that hydropower is not a clean energy have to ask themselves whether there is any other task more urgent for China's clean development than burning less coal".

In 2008, thermal power accounted for 80 percent of China's total energy output. Hydropower generated 16.4 percent of the country's energy mix, while nuclear energy accounted for less than two percent. While China is racing ahead to install more wind and solar power capacity, the energy generated by these works is considered too costly and insufficient to satisfy the country's voracious power needs.

Critics of hydropower expansion, though, are equally forceful. "It is quasi-science to believe that hydropower equals green energy," says Zheng Yisheng who researches environment and development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "You can't see rivers just as a source of energy and choose to ignore their ecological function as eco-systems. People need energy but they need a place to live too."