Residents fear China's Three Gorges Dam

Several times this year, Tan Mingzhu had the terrible feeling her home in central China was about to collapse in on her family.

Frightening tremors rocked their simple concrete dwelling 4km from China’s mammoth Three Gorges Dam, ripping floor-to-ceiling cracks in the walls, and she doesn’t hesitate in assigning blame.

“It’s because of the dam. This started when the dam went into operation [last year],” said Tan (36), a mother of one.

The fissures in Tan’s home are among mounting examples of the potentially disastrous impacts of the Yangtze river project, China’s biggest public works undertaking since the Great Wall and the world’s biggest hydropower project.

Built mainly for flood control and hydropower, the giant concrete wall built across China’s longest river has been blamed for a host of worsening environmental ills to go with longstanding concerns about the 1,4-million people uprooted so far to make way for the reservoir’s rising waters.

“An extraordinary amount of damage has been done, not only to property but to the irreplaceable network of human and economic relations that made up the region,” said Patricia Adams, executive director of Toronto-based Probe International, which chronicles the dam’s problems.

Government officials and scientists caused a stir in September when they told a conference that the project could lead to an “environmental catastrophe,” with the comments carried by the official Xinhua news agency.

The conference was told that the huge weight of the water behind the dam had started to erode the Yangtze river’s banks in many places, which, together with frequent fluctuations in water levels, had triggered a series of landslides.

Officials said shortly afterwards another four million people in the area would have to be relocated from around the dam.

After those revelations caused global headlines, the government has run a strong media campaign to say there are no major problems and the extra relocations are not related to the dam.

The head of the office in charge of constructing the dam, Wang Xiaofeng, was among the officials to warn of the dangers in September, but he was brought to Beijing to brief reporters on Tuesday and downplay the concerns.

“Regarding the Three Gorges project’s impact on the ecological environment, the benefits outweigh the negative consequences,” Wang said at the press conference, organised by the central government.

But critics and people living in the region remain fearful. One of the biggest emerging concerns is that the reservoir’s seasonal water fluctuations have unsettled the delicate geology of the area, raising landslide and other seismic dangers.

“This is a geologically risky area and the dam definitely increases those risks,” said Chen Guojie, a geologist at the Institute of Mountain Hazards in Chengdu.

Residents of Maoping, in Hubei province, such as Zhou Gonghui, whose concrete house on a steep slope regularly groans and cracks, live in daily fear of those dangers.

Many like him were resettled here by the government in the 1990s from now-submerged zones.
He wants to leave out of safety but lacks the money and says the government has been unresponsive.

“Of course, we are scared. but we’re just commoners. What can we do?” asked Zhou (48).

Another longstanding concern frequently raised is that the dam will prevent the river from flushing the billions of tonnes of pollution dumped into it each year.

Despite the problems, and driven by a desire to lessen the country’s heavy reliance on highly polluting coal, new hydroelectric dams are being built at a furious pace.

Nearly three dozen are being built or planned for the upper reaches of the Yantze alone.

Just this week, construction began on the Xiangjiaba project in south-western Sichuan province, which will have a third of the energy generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. - AFP

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