February 29, 2012, by ICCSR

China’s Three Gorges Dam an Expensive Lesson?

The prize-winning documentary “Up the Yangtze”, shown in Nottingham last night as the second event in the “Doing the Business film series organised by the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, is a heart-wrenching story of the sad fate of a peasant family forced to leave their home as it is flooded by the giant Three Gorges Dam.  The world’s largest hydropower project, with 22.5 gigawatts of generating capacity half way up the Yangtze River, created a giant lake as long as Britain that forced the displacement of 1.5 million people.

The film, by Canadian Chinese director Yung Chang, tells the story of a family of poor farmers eaking out a living in a hovel on the banks of the river.  Their only way to survive the tragedy is to send their daughter to get a job on a ship taking Western tourists on luxury cruises up and down the Yangtze – which, conveniently, she succeeds in doing. The film contrasts the enjoyment of the rich tourists with the fate of the poor family, switching back and forth between images of two entirely different worlds.

It mirrors the human tragedy of China’s poor rural migrants, 200 million of whom have already moved from the countryside to the towns and cities. Another 300 million rural people are due to migrate over the next 30 years, according to the National Population and Family Planning Commission, as China completes its industrial revolution. Described by Yung Chang as “the Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now”, it is a sad and poignant movie.  But despite some angry and tragic scenes in which the displaced poor are heard criticising a callous government that doesn’t seem to care, the political line of the ruling Communist Party does come through in the film. In one scene, a bright young training manager on the cruise ship somewhat incredibly invites the girl’s peasant parents for a tour of the ship.   He explains to them how important the Three Gorges Dam is for China’s national development and how they have to come to terms with the need to move house. Filming in China of course requires official permission, and an element of political stage managing is revealed here.

The movie was particularly interesting for me because 30 years ago as a young Reuters correspondent in China I had travelled to Yichang to interview the Yangtze River bureau about their plans to dam the river at the Three Gorges, when the project was still in the early planning stages.

As the films shows, Chairman Mao himself had called for the building of the dam, and even wrote a poem glorifying the concept.  The main goals of Three Gorges project were to prevent flooding downstream, to generate, at one point, up to nine per cent of China’s electricity needs, and to help divert water from the rainy, wet southern part of China to the dry north.  Another objective was to ease navigation upstream to Chongqing and to Sichuan province.

As the world’s biggest exporter following the transfer of so much Western manufacturing, as the world’s biggest steel-maker and the biggest producer and user of cement, for example, China has a huge demand for new sources of electricity to power its booming economy.  But it is still heavily reliant on coal for 80% of its power generation. At one point it was building one new coal-fired power station a week.

Now also the world’s largest emitter of carbon pollution, China is under global pressure on climate change and has set ambitious targets to improve energy efficiency and lower carbon output.  The Three Gorges dam has helped propel China to produce more hydropower than any other country – about double that of the USA. 

But whether the benefits of Three Gorges outweigh the massive environmental and human cost will be debated for decades to come.  The dam has caused a myriad of urgent problems, not least disastrous pollution.

Planning for the dam, which cost over 25 billion dollars, took place in the 1980s at a time when public disagreement with the ruling Communist Party was forbidden or rare.  While objections were raised by experts at the time, Chinese leaders today admit that insufficient attention was paid to the issues they raised and the damage the dam would cause.  President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have distanced themselves from the project, failing to attend its completion ceremony in May 2006.

Unlike many hydro-electric dams in developing countries, Three Gorges lies downstream from a heavily industrialised region of 100 million people, and pollution by industrial chemicals, sewage and other contaminants is a serious problem. Trash washed down the river forms huge island crusts of rubbish which block the locks, and 3,000 tonnes of garbage have to be removed each day.   Thirteen cities and 140 towns were submerged under the lake, which is 175 metres deep at the dam wall.  The water quality of Yantze tributaries upstream is rapidly deteriorating as the dammed river is less able to disperse pollutants. Scientists fear that silting up will become a huge problem, and one leading authority even predicted that one day the government would have to blow up the dam because of this.

One of the biggest risks is geological: the weight of the water behind the dam pressing on the earth’s crust has significantly increased seismic activity in the area.  Some scientists believe that another large hydropower project further upstream may have caused the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 in which 87,000 people died. The Zipingpu dam, with its giant lake behind, is located just three miles from the earthquake’s epicentre. Research is being done to ascertain whether this is the case.  While Three Gorges itself has no connection with that earthquake, in areas near its reservoir there have been many examples of buildings cracking and landslips, with 10,000 dangerous sites reported and 300,000 more people than originally planned displaced from their homes as a result.  The dam has changed for ever the ecology of the Yangtze River, causing the extinction of the unique Yangtze River dolphin.  It has also caused serious drought and transport problems downstream due to lower water levels.

The movie can be seen as an allegory for China’s rapid development over the past 30 years, the tensions between wealth and poverty, between fast economic growth and human rights. The history of the Three Gorges Dam encapsulates many of the dilemmas China’s rulers face after radical economic reforms launched China onto its fast growth trajectory 30 years ago. How does China industrialize quickly and generate fast enough economic growth to generate 20 million or more jobs each year ?  How can China do this without irreparably damaging the environment? How can human rights be improved without producing so much unrest and instability that the system collapses, plunging China once more into the chaos it experienced all too often over the last 200 years ?

Three Gorges is also a mirror for the process of gradual political liberalisation that has taken place in this one-party state which is trying to develop in fits and starts its own brand of consultative authoritarianism. The timeframe from the dam’s inception to commissioning spans China’s entire post-Mao period, which began with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms launched in 1978.

As early as 1986, objections were being raised against the plans for the dam, which was Premier Li Peng’s pet project.  Leading economist Mao Yushi contributed to a critical book on the dam, which was later banned. Many scholars and scientists expressed concern about the project but debate at the time was silenced by pro-dam Chinese leaders.  Despite this a courageous Chinese journalist, Dai Qing, rallied opposition to the dam, calling it the most environmentally destructive project in the world. She helped form China’s first environmental lobby group in 1989, shortly before she was arrested after the Tiananmen crackdown that year. Dai later won the Goldman environmental prize for her work opposing the dam.  She was jailed in China but later freed.

When Premier Li Peng put the proposal for the dam to China’s normally quiescent parliament, the National People’s Congress in 1992, it was passed by the narrowest of majorities.  The dam later became the catalyst for wider debate on environmental issues, and helped spawn an environmental movement in China as part of the gradual emergence of civil society.  More and more organisations have formed nationwide to tackle a whole variety of environmental and social issues.    Civil society groups, though mostly small and weak and usually required to have government sponsorship and oversight, have become increasingly vocal.  The Three Gorges debate was also facilitated by growing commercialisation and pluralism in the state-owned media and the impact of the internet and the lively Chinese blogosphere that has emerged.

Perhaps history will record that the Three Gorges dam taught the Chinese government a painful lesson – if it does not allow proper consultation and public debate on major issues, there can be a huge price to pay.  Only time will tell whether this lesson has been learnt. 

Yet China’s economic miracle removed 600 million people from poverty between 1981 and 2004, according to the World Bank.  As Up the Yangtze shows, arguably the most important human right there is is the right to earn a living, to have a job, to be able to provide for your family.   The film shows the girl’s aging father and mother realising that in their new home – little more than another hut at the end of a row of houses built above the flood line – they will have to pay for water and other services whereas before they could live off the land. But at least they will be able to rely on a share of their daughter’s salary from her work on the ship.

You can’t help but wonder what happened to all those displaced families who didn’t have sons or daughters given such a lucky break.

The company that owns the dam, Three Gorges Corp, is now a cash rich investor seeking infrastructure investments in distressed Eurozone countries.  Last December it won a bid for a 21% stake in EDP-Energias de Portugal SA.   Three Gorges Corp now issues annual CSR reports, which should make interesting reading.

also see Rob Caruana’s post on this topic

By Richard Pascoe, former director, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

Image sourced from www.uptheyangtze.com

Posted in EVENTS at the ICCSR