Problems continue to mount at China's Three Gorges Dam

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Beijing - The Three Gorges Dam continues to cause China major headaches, five years after its completion.

The world's largest dam was constructed at an official cost of 22.5 billion dollars and officially opened in May 2006, but Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was forced to call a cabinet meeting this week to address ongoing geological, social and environmental problems with the hydroelectric project.

'While the Three Gorges project has brought great and comprehensive benefits, there are problems that must be urgently resolved, such as the smooth relocation of residents, protecting the environment and preventing geological disasters,' the government said in a statement after the meeting.

It was also acknowledged that the dam on the Yangtze River in central China was impacting downstream shipping, irrigation and water supplies.

The huge project has disturbed the natural balance of the area served by the Yangtze, which has resulted in frequent landslides, drought and a bottleneck for shipping.

Some experts say the Three Gorges Dam is partially responsible for China's worst drought in 50 years, arguing that the drought in the Yangtze basin has been worsened by the dam upsetting the region's ecological balance and causing a decrease in rainfall.

However, supporters of the project, which has created a vast reservoir stretching for 660 kilometres, say the severe drought problem has actually been eased by water discharges from the dam.

Wednesday's surprise cabinet meeting highlights the level of local discontent and the negative impact the dam is having on the region, with critics saying their worst fears have now been realized.

'The project has had large negative effects, be they ecological, geological or social, considering the necessary relocation of people,' Fan Xiao, the chief engineer of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau in Chengdu, told German Press Agency dpa.

'Even if there are advantages as a result of electricity generation, it is our view that the project will cause more damage in the long term.'

The final load of cement was poured onto the top of the 185-metre-high dam on May 20, 2006. But due to the ongoing criticisms of the project, which reached all the way to the government level, no member of the Communist leadership was present to take part in the celebrations.

The forced relocation of 1.2 million people to facilitate the vast reservoir has caused perhaps the greatest resentment towards the project, which resulted in the flooding of 13 large and 140 smaller towns, as well as 1,350 villages.

Over a year ago, unexpected landslides caused by fluctuations in the water level of the reservoir led to the announcement that a further 300,000 people would need to be relocated in order to create a natural shelter belt.

Many people were forced to move to higher ground, where the land suffers from erosion and is not as fertile. The cost of the latest relocation has yet to be calculated, but is thought to run into the billions.

The recent huge earthquake in Japan has also revived fears that the weight of water could lead to a similar devastating event along the Yangtze, although Fan doesn't agree, due to geological differences between the two areas.

'It is almost impossible for there to be a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, such as in Japan, at the Three Gorges,' he said.

Fan refused to rule out the possibility of a weaker earthquake, but says the dam is designed to withstand quakes of magnitude 6.0 or 7.0 without sustaining any serious damage.

The real danger would come in the unstable region surrounding the reservoir, which could suffer massive landslides.

The problem of water pollution has also yet to be resolved. Efforts have been hampered by the huge quantities of rubbish and other debris that have been washed into the river and accumulated at the reservoir.

Whether the dam has lived up to its promise of solving flooding problems further down the Yangtze has been cast into doubt, with experts saying its effect has been minimal due to the fact that the size of the reservoir is limited.

Navigation has also been adversely affected, with the dam only able to deal with half the shipping tonnage originally envisaged, leading to serious delays.

Although the official cost of the project is put at 22 billion dollars, Western experts estimate the Three Gorges cost twice as much, while Chinese critics believe it cost around three times that amount.

It is also feared that around 10 per cent of the money spent on relocating people has been siphoned off through corruption.

Source: Monster & Critics

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