Three Gorges To-Do List: Mudslides to Jobs

Deng Hai
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Originally published in Caijing Magazine

The construction phase of the Three Gorges dam and reservoir ends this year. But follow-up tasks -- and project woes -- abound.

Muddy misfortune has been commonplace along the banks of the central Yangtze River since the final impoundment stage for the Three Gorges Dam began last year.

Landslides following two days of torrential rains in late April forced hundreds to evacuate homes in two Chongqing Municipality counties, and closed a mooring for ships carrying hazardous cargo in the Hubei Province city of Yichang.

An official with the Chongqing Land Resources Bureau told Caijing that more than 150 dangerous geological events -- including landslides involving 45 million cubic square meters of earth -- have been reported in the reservoir area behind the dam since the water impoundment began last November.

About 9,000 people have been affected and 133 hectares of land destroyed, the official said. Economic losses so far have totaled 500 million yuan. And farmers are among the hardest hit. "More than 2,000 farmers have been deprived of their livelihoods," the official said.

Against the backdrop of these messy and sometimes tragic events, disputes over the Three Gorges project were voiced by legislators in Beijing for the first time at this year's spring sessions of the
National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Delegates from Chongqing Municipality and Hubei Province advanced combined 18 suggestions, proposals and motions at the March sessions. They called for reallocating the shares of water, electricity and income from the Three Gorges Hydropower Complex, the world's largest
water conservancy project. They also urged all parties involved to share responsibility for resettling people displaced by the dam, environmental protection, and controlling geological hazards.

These issues are not new. Indeed, the debates often have been heard outside Beijing throughout a long construction period that officially began in December 1994 -- two years after relocation and resettlement of residents in affected areas began - and is expected to end this year.

Major components of the dam and reservoir - hydropower generation and transmission, flood control, irrigation, navigation and resettlements -- are nearly complete. Officials are now preparing for final stage reviews of the huge project, which has changed lives as well as the face of nature.

Yet post-construction plans have not been settled. The legislative disputes highlighted the fact that fair, effective and long-term solutions to questions over sharing costs and benefits are still begging for answers.

Whatever the outcome, future decisions over Three Gorges will have a direct impact on the huge Yangtze River basin, which is not only home to one-third of China's population, but accounts for one-third of the nation's GDP and grain production.

Geological Hazards

A five-year research project commissioned by the State Council and completed in March 2008 said the central government would have to spend an additional 98.9 billion yuan for post-construction projects. The investment would include 38.2 billion yuan for environmental protection in the reservoir area, 29.3 billion yuan to support relocated residents, 10.4 billion yuan for geological hazard control, and 12.8 billion yuan to offset negative impacts on all aspects of life along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze. The council also called for spending 1.6 billion yuan on an environmental monitoring system, as well as funds for reservoir management, research and other projects.

The original designers of the Three Gorges project acknowledged from the start that completion of the reservoir would by no means mark the end of the gigantic project. They said riverbank reinforcement would take another five to 10 years, a period during which damaging geological events could be frequent.

Every year since the first trial impoundment of river water in 2003, the reservoir area has withstood manmade floods - proof that, according to experts, the project changed hydro-geological conditions and destabilized riverbanks in surrounding areas.

An evaluation completed after the impoundment last November by the official Yangtze River Water Resources Committee, a branch of the federal Ministry of Water Resources, warned of potential hazards linked to the reservoir once the water level reached 175 meters. That impoundment, locking up 19.3 billion cubic meters of water, raised the reservoir surface to its highest permissible level of 172.4 meters. At one point, it even reached 175 meters.

"The change in hydro-geological conditions and long-term impact of the reservoir water may cause disastrous landslides to occur at 1,331 sites, and cause 178 kilometers of riverbanks to collapse," said the committee's internal report.

Some experts have sounded personal warnings. "Now, every year, the reservoir's water level will be raised to 175 meters and then back to the 145 meter mark," said a hydrologist with the Yangtze committee, who speak on condition of anonymity. "A 30 meter increase is equivalent to a flood the Yangtze River used to encounter every 100 years. That means the frequency of such severe floods has been increased from one in 100 years to once a year."

Similar conditions have accompanied dam projects around the world. The committee's statistics showed that about 49 percent of all reservoir-related landslides in the United States occurred during
initial impoundment periods, while 60 percent occurred during operation phases at Japanese reservoirs.

Scrambling for Prizes

eanwhile, local governments have been competing for the project's rewards. Debates over electricity generation as well as long-term policies and benefits from the central government have pitted Chongqing and Hubei officials. The 56,700 square kilometer reservoir area touches 20 counties and cities, including 16 in Chongqing and four in Hubei.

Electricity is a key prize for local governments. As of April 7, the hydropower complex had generated 300 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. And more will come: The last of the station's 26
generating units -- each with a capacity of 700 megawatts - is expected to be installed and operating by year's end.

But local governments also face steep project costs. For example, some have struggled to pay for landslide-related problems. Only a handful of disasters have received central government mitigation funds, even though the State Council since June 2002 has set aside 10.5 billion yuan from the reservoir construction fund for hazard control.

An evaluation conducted by China International Engineering Consulting Corp. between September 2004 and April 2005 showed corrective measures were taken after only 355 out of 2,686 landslides and similar geological events.

Local authorities have long complained about the constant threat of geological calamities, as well as the need for extensive rescue operations and relocations. These issues continue to haunt officials
now searching for a long-term prevention and management mechanism. And time is running out; the current disaster control scheme for the fragile land area expires in 2015.

People Pressured

Beyond the official debates, people who live in the Three Gorges project zone have borne a heavy burden. Many have sacrificed jobs, homes and livelihoods. Some 1.28 million area residents -- 80 percent farmers -- have been relocated since 1993, including 1.06 million in Chongqing and 220,000 in Hubei.

Wang Xiaofeng, director of the Three Gorges Executive Office of the State Council, recently said the relocations are nearly complete. But the work needed to stabilize lives and provide financial support for displaced people is far from over.

The impoundment submerged about 26,000 hectares of farmland, leaving mostly hills and mountains, which now account for more than 90 percent of the land area. Nearly half of the remaining 1.47 million hectares of farmland are inclined more than 15 degrees - tough terrain for tractors and oxen alike.

According to the Chongqing government's Complaint Office, emigrants from flooded areas have been among the most frequent participants in disturbances as well as filers of appeals for several years.

Displaced residents in rural areas "are living in new houses, but their living standards have fallen," said Wang Mingju, deputy director of the Hubei Three Gorges Office. Caijing found that a four-member family in the Shuanghekou resettlement area in Chongqing, for example, typically receives a monthly allowance of 140 yuan - all from the central government.

Many local officials blame the troubles on flawed government policies, including low compensation standards and unfair subsidies. For example, although compensation for rural emigrant housing was set at 185 yuan per square meter in 1993, construction costs had climbed to 600 yuan by 2002 when most of the houses were built, said Peng Dakui of the Rural Migrant Settlement Section of the Migrant Bureau of Badong County, in Chongqing, who has worked with Three Gorges emigrants for 17 years. And although the government increased subsidies for township residents forced to build homes on steep slopes in Chongqing's counties of Wushan, Fengjie and Badong, the benefits
were not offered to rural emigrants.

To relieve pressure from human activity on the fragile ecosystem, a new round of relocations is planned. The State Council has approved the relocation of 100,000 people from Chongqing areas over the next four years. According to the Yangtze committee, some 180,000 residents, including the above, will be resettled in the next stage at a cost of more than 18 billion yuan. An additional 350,000 will have to move by 2020.

To compensate the displaced, local governments and legislators are mulling ecological mitigation fees. Charges may be levied on the operator of the hydropower station or cities along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze.

Entrepreneurs and employees have been negatively affected by the project as well.

Only 300 of the original 1,400 businesses that were in the Chongqing section of the project area are still operating, while just 11 out of an original 232 have survived in Hubei. Unemployment is at 9 percent in the Chongqing reservoir area, while GDP in eight counties is less than 50 percent the national average. Some local governments are heavily indebted.

To stimulate the local economy, the State Council granted Special Economic Zone status to 20 counties and cities in the reservoir area in August 1994. But the policy never reached the implementation stage.

A scarcity of jobs has meant that heavily polluting -- but highly profitable -- industries have been allowed to operate or open under dodgy circumstances. Chemical industries for natural gas, petroleum and saline production have been established in the Chongqing area. A plan by the chemical giant BASF to build a global production center for a methylene diphenyl diisocyanate has sparked controversy.

Pollution is another scourge. According to the Yangtze committee, surface pollution and algae blooms in the reservoir area are mainly caused by industrial discharge, soil erosion, agriculture, rural household waste, and large-scale livestock and fowl production facilities.

Central government funds were supposed to finance construction of 50 sewage plants and 40 rubbish treatment plants in the reservoir area as well as in upstream counties and cities starting in October 2001. But about 70 percent of the plants were idle as of 2005 because local governments could not afford operating costs. Hubei and Chongqing urged the central government to contribute more, and Hubei suggested a 300 million yuan water use fee for the hydropower complex and the
Gezhouba Power Station. But the hydroelectric plant operator refused, saying power generation does not consume water.

Meanwhile, 51 percent of the reservoir area has been affected by erosion. Some 40 million tons of soil pours into the Yangtze annually upstream from the reservoir and, unless the government's 72 million yuan-a-year erosion control program reverses the trend, the reservoir will be filled with earth in less than 40 years.

Future Management

Complicating the long list of unsettled debates over Three Gorges is a pending change in management.

An official with the Hubei Three Gorges Office told Caijing that the Hubei-based China Three Gorges Project Corp. (CTGPC) -- the legal owner of the hydropower complex and the entity that controls the dam's discharge -- soon will transfer to local authorities all follow-up construction and reservoir maintenance responsibilities.

Chongqing and Hubei authorities are not ready. In separate reports to the State Council, each government asked that CTGPC continue taking full responsibility for impoundment-related geological hazard control and other hanging issues after the reservoir is fully operational, with local governments acting on its behalf.

"The initiator (of the dam project) should handle the aftermath," one report said.

The project's various functions - from irrigation and flood control to power generation - are sometimes mutually exclusive, posing special management challenges. But CTGPC wants to focus only on those functions that are profitable.

"CTGPC is soon to be listed on the stock exchange and its quest for profit will be much stronger," said Lei Hengshun, a Chongqing University professor and Chongqing government consultant. "Should all parties involved not give a damn about each other and fail to coordinate, the results would be disastrous."

On the other hand, under the status quo, management of the Yangtze River is fractured, with the middle and lower reaches in the hands of the river committee under the State Council and the reservoir area controlled by CTGPC. Oversight of the upper Yangtze is decentralized.

Different ideas have been floated by the Chongqing and Hubei governments, as well as the central government's Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Transport, for future management of the
project region.

The water ministry's Yangtze committee has suggested creating a river basin agency for major decisions and coordinating local authorities. Local officials favor a temporary management mechanism to coordinate solutions to problems and account for all interests. Another suggestion is to continue supporting the committee that currently oversees resettlements after the construction phase ends.

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