Dam the Consequences

Thursday, July 11, 2002

Building yet another dam could threaten an ages-old engineering marvel in Sichuan and a key part of China's heritage. But the project is going ahead as authorities smother public debate on its impact.

Far Eastern Economic Review

ON A SPRING AFTERNOON in western China's Sichuan province, explosions echo across a steep-sided valley, dust plumes rise and trucks loaded with earth ply one side of the valley floor. All this is part of what is becoming the most controversial power project in China since the massive Three Gorges dam began construction in 1994--the dam at Zipingpu on the Min River which will help generate 760 megawatts of power.

The controversy surrounding the dam stems from fears that it may end the 2,200-year working life of one of China's engineering marvels: the Dujiangyan irrigation and flood-control system. Its entrance is nine kilometres from the site of the main dam, and just 700 metres from the proposed site of a secondary dam that is part of the same Zipingpu project.

Detractors complain that authorities have not allowed the public debate necessary to determine the impact of the dam on Dujiangyan, and even--given Dujiangyan's long, successful record of taming the river--whether the dam is really necessary.

Dujiangyan has diverted flood waters from the Min River, a tributary of the Yangtze, and irrigated the Chengdu plain for more than two millennia, allowing a rich agricultural society to flourish in central Sichuan. In 2000, the United Nations cultural agency, Unesco, nominated Dujiangyan as a World Heritage Site, though the title has not yet been conferred partly because of questions about Dujiangyan's future.

The $746 million dam that could render the ancient waterworks obsolete is the highest-profile infrastructure project in Sichuan province and one of 10 key projects in the central government's three-year-old campaign to develop China's western regions. Supporters, such as Sichuan Governor Zhang Zhongwei, have touted its "great value to agricultural irrigation, urban water supply, flood control, environmental protection and tourism."

But they have refused to release details of a 200-page government-required environmental impact assessment that might clear up questions about the dam's effect on the nearby ancient water system. "It is for internal consumption and cannot be given to outsiders," says an official of the Sichuan Zipingpu Development Corp., the state-owned firm building the dam. Masaaki Yamada, a spokesman for the only foreign bank funding the dam, the Japan Bank of International Cooperation, says the JBIC received a copy of the report, but Chinese authorities told the bank that they "object to disclosing the contents . . . to any third party."

The dam's impact on Dujiangyan isn't the only controversy. Zipingpu's completion by 2006 requires the forced resettlement of at least 40,000 people to make way for an 18-square-kilometre reservoir behind the dam.

Part of the area being cleared falls within the Aba Tibetan and Jiang Autonomous County, suggesting that ethnic Tibetans may be among those being forcibly moved. Han Chinese from other low-lying parts of the reservoir site could end up resettled in higher Tibetan lands.

Resettlement in minority areas is a sensitive topic. When the World Bank proposed providing funds for the settlement of ethnic Han Chinese in Tibetan areas in Qinghai province, north of Sichuan, it provoked international howls of protest that forced the bank to abandon its support for the project in 2000.

Public discussion about the pros and cons of Zipingpu is taboo. But the transcript of an internal September 2000 meeting, at which scholars and other experts were invited to discuss the environmental impact of the dam, provides evidence of sharp dissension over the dam behind closed doors, both within the Chinese bureaucracy and in academic circles.

The notes, leaked to the International Rivers Network, a non-governmental Berkeley, California-based advocacy group, record a raft of objections. The biggest concern raised at the meeting was that the secondary dam nearest to Dujiangyan risks damaging both the ancient waterworks' beauty and their ability to function as an effective irrigation and flood-control system. Other critics cited fears about the dam's proximity to a seismic fault line, its effect on biodiversity and the technical challenge of preventing silt building up behind the dam.

The transcript shows critics included experts from the National Relics Bureau, the Ministry of Construction, the Earthquake Bureau, the State Environmental Protection Administration, the Chinese Academy of Geological Science and the Chinese Academy of Environmental Sciences. Supporters included the Ministry of Water Resources and the Chinese Academies of Hydrological and Agricultural Sciences.

Their backing highlights the government's love of big engineering projects. Most of China's senior Communist Party leadership trained in engineering or technical fields. Li Peng, who ranks second in the party, graduated from the Department of Hydro-Power Generation at the Moscow Power Institute. The man expected to take the No. 1 spot in the party later this year, Hu Jintao, is also a hydraulic engineer.


Taming the environment by dam-building is almost an article of political faith for China's Communist Party elite. According to the Cape Town-based World Commission on Dams, when the Communist Party came to power in 1949, China had just 22 large dams. Now it has 22,000, almost half the global total. For ministerial and provincial level officials on their way up the promotional ladder, being linked with a big infrastructure project adds to their prospects. Today, China's approach contrasts with many other countries where large dams have fallen out of favour. In the United States, large dams are being decommissioned faster than new ones are being built.

Despite the doubts raised in September 2000, the project was officially launched last July. The most significant revision: The second dam is now 700 metres from the entrance to Dujiangyan, instead of 300 metres.

One of the last in China still speaking out against the dam is Dai Qing, a veteran journalist who led opposition to the Three Gorges project a decade ago. "Now that work has begun and there is real money involved, it is even harder to criticize it publicly," she says. "You will be accused of breaking somebody's rice bowl."

Outside China, the Chinese-language press has carried on the fight. Papers in Boston and Hong Kong have run pieces reflecting the concerns of ethnic Chinese overseas about the potential loss of a significant piece of China's heritage. "Please Save Dujiangyan: Dujiangyan will disappear if the senseless Zipingpu project goes ahead," was the headline to a June 2001 story in Hong Kong's Cheng Ming magazine. An article this year in Boston's Epoch Times described the potential harm to Dujiangyan as "the death knell of the essence of traditional Chinese culture."

On the ground, farmers complain about being resettled but can do little. "My family has been here for generations and the officials are only giving us compensation of 200 renminbi ($25) per square metre for our homes," says a grizzled old man who gave his surname as Chen and lives near the construction site.

The Japan Bank for International Cooperation's Yamada says compensation offered to those who have to move is adequate, "based on China's national standard." The bank, which is providing a �32.2 billion yen ($253 million) loan or roughly one-third of the cost, has an "arm's length" approach to the controversy. It says that it adhered to its own environmental guidelines and does not want to meet opponents of the project.

Meanwhile, Unesco is still awaiting full clarification of queries it put to the government two years ago, including the impact of the dam on Dujiangyan. In citing Dujiangyan as a World Heritage Site, the UN body said it "is a major landmark in the development of water management and technology, and is still discharging its functions perfectly." It is unclear how much longer that will be true.