Troubled waters: China's Three Gorges Dam


By Liang Guosheng

"We have advanced technology as well as experienced construction teams. The difficulty is how to resettle over 1.2 million evacuees."

So runs a remark attributed to Chinese Premier Li Peng, published in the Chinese Daily on September 20, on the regime's Three Gorges hydro-power project. Li Peng's qualifications to make the statement are immaculate. Li happens to be a former hydro-power expert who also oversaw the "clearing" (in official parlance) of pro-democracy demonstrators from Beijing's Tienanmen Square in June 1989.

Late last year China's millions had the pleasure of watching on their TV screens a beaming Li Peng, in front of a representative crowd of bureaucrats and construction chiefs (but no potential evacuees), officially opening a component of the Three Gorges Dam project.

By 1997, across the Yangzi [Yangtze] River just downriver from the justly famous historic and scenic Three Gorges, a 185 metre high dam wall will have been constructed at Sandouping. By 2008, behind the dam wall water levels will rise some 175 metres, creating a 632-square-kilometre reservoir, and making the gorge a gorge no longer. Twenty counties and cities in Sichuan and Hubei provinces will be either wholly or partially submerged. Some 370,000 mu (24,666 hectares) of fertile farming land, together with 1,599 factories, will be flooded along 600 kilometres of the Yangzi's middle reaches, and a population of 1.2-1.3 million people will be displaced.

While the first electricity will not be produced by the dam's generators until 2003, and the immense project will not be entirely completed until 2009, to date the Three Gorges project has succeeded in generating a considerable amount of domestic and international protest and debate.


The problems that the regime is seeking to address through the project are very real. Last year's severe floods across seven coastal provinces in north-eastern and south-eastern China, though on that occasion not connected with the often violent control regime of the Yangzi, produced a death toll estimated at more than 3000. A flood in the lower reaches of the Yangzi during 1981 left a million people homeless, while during another in 1991 more than 2000 people are believed to have perished.

The Yangzi is China's longest river, and the third longest in the world. Its headwaters are fed by melting snows from the Tibet-Qinghai plateau to the west. Although in recent times a number of dams and reservoirs have been constructed on many tributaries of the Yangzi, apparently none has been able to make a great impression on controlling the river's at times violent flow.

The river has flooded on more than 200 occasions during the last 2000 years. Some of the regime's experts predict that if the Yangzi floods again during the coming years, within Hubei province up to 10 million people could be killed.

Many environmentalists, however, point out that dams of far less a scale than the Three Gorges are ecologically disastrous and uneconomic. Late last year, the World Bank, still reeling from environmentalists' criticisms of its funding of earlier large dam projects, was not saying whether it would fund the Three Gorges Project.

A coalition of 15 environmental, development, church and human rights organisations has called on the US Clinton administration to oppose the construction of the dam. Coalition documents suggest that the project will be unable to deliver promised economic benefits, while threatening the safety of more than 100 million people downstream.

Intended benefits

The project is designed to produce the equivalent of about 10% of China's current total hydro-power electricity output. Engineers point to the electricity shortages which still plague central and eastern China, and argue that the project will supply electricity to the whole of the Yangzi River basin, including Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan. They foresee that the project will help alleviate national reliance on coal.

Economic benefits will also derive from the ability of larger ships to run up the river from Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangzi, to Chongqing in the hinterland.

The dam is seen by the government as crucial to its strategy to provide power for the continuing industrialisation of the upper Yangzi basin.

However there are probably numerous other factors also involved in the determination to push ahead with the project.

Alongside China's long cultural history runs a parallel history of natural disasters. Such is the frequency of major natural disasters that many, especially rural, Chinese point to a relationship between such disasters and momentous political changes.

Historically, governments of imperial dynasties placed a great deal of importance on flood control measures. The heavily populated plains of the Yangzi valley and northern and eastern China form not only the cultural centre of the majority and politically dominant Han ethnic grouping, but also the agricultural heartland of China (only 15-20% of China's land area is readily cultivatable).

What the government in Beijing definitely does not need during this period of economic transition in China is the political consequences of another major flood.

Alongside concerns about the regime's collective image domestically are the concerns for Premier Li Peng's "face" — in the short term, his personal prestige, and in the longer term, his ability to portray himself as the "natural heir" to party/government leadership, which the project may assist him to do during the post-Deng succession struggles.

Facing political flak over the project, the government in 1986 invited a team of 412 experts to study issues of concern, including earthquakes, flood prevention, hydraulic power, water conservancy, silting, navigation and relocation. In 1988 the World Bank conducted a feasibility study. After six years of overall study, it was predictably concluded that the project was vital to the country's modernisation drive.

On April 3, 1992, the decision to construct the Three Gorges Dam was officially passed by the Seventh National People's Congress. The timing was opportune. In the late 1980s an environmental consciousness and nascent environment lobby groups had emerged amongst some of China's intellectuals. However, following the government's general crackdown on political questioning (let alone "dissent") in the wake of the Beijing massacre, critical publications on the environment were banned and a high-profile spokesperson for the nascent groups, Dai Qing, was imprisoned.


Aside from the likely human and economic toll of another major flood, migration of rural flood victims to China's urban centres would bring considerable grief for the authorities. In recent years, due largely to the "economic reforms" initiated under Deng Xiaoping, more than 80 million peasants have already moved to urban centres seeking work.

A main problem for many of the future evacuees is that any further postponement of the project will not greatly help them in the short term. Only an unequivocal decision by the national government that the project will not proceed, together with a large amount of funding aimed at boosting the local economies of the affected regions, would be of real assistance.

A central reason for this derives from the government's policy of local economic self-reliance. With decreasing financial support from the centre, all local authorities have found it necessary to seek investment from other sources. But which domestic, let alone foreign, investors are going to plough money into an area which looks like it may, sometime in the near future, be literally 100 or so metres below water? Uncertainties over the dam's construction have exacerbated the problem.

The national policies promoting local self-sufficiency mean that local governments in the project region will be expected to make big efforts to exploit local resources. A compensation fund from the centre will aim at facilitating local economic development, which will supposedly raise the living standards of evacuees.

Evacuees will be expected to reclaim 20 million mu (1.3 million hectares) of "wasteland" and 3 million mu of poorly yielding lands. Through this, authorities say, each evacuee will receive 0.5 mu of land for grain growing and one mu for growing orange trees, tea or herbs.

As well, construction is expected to provide new employment opportunities by boosting local building industries, transportation, services and tourism (initially, see the Three Gorges while you can, and post-construction, see the largest construction project in China since the building of the Great Wall).

However, reporters for official Chinese newspapers have already noted that much of the newly cultivated lands will provide poor yields during the first few years, and that the construction of permanent housing hardly keeps pace with the speed at which land is being consumed by the nation's largest building site.

The same reporters note that there are also resettlement "success stories". A "trial" resettlement was carried out in 1985, which involved the relocation of residents from Wanxian County, situated in the centre of the proposed reservoir, to a city being constructed eight kilometres away on higher ground.

There "a cosmetics manufacturer on the new site has employed 30 evacuees who had been awarded a sum of 300,000 yuan [A$47,620] as compensation in 1985. With their investment the firm began to make profits within a year and went on to accept a further 109 evacuees over the following eight years. 'The evacuees have not only brought in money, but have also become the backbone of our factory', said the chief manager. A newly cultivated tea plantation has generated 8000 yuan from each mu for local planters."

A reporter from the Hong Kong-based Windows news weekly writes that households in Yaoping village, situated in Yunyang County near the upper entrance of the Three Gorges, will be gradually relocated to a new site 100 metres higher. The new village will be surrounded by 180 mu of terraced fields which have been cut into the rock over recent years, and then covered with a 60-centimetre layer of soil carried from the slopes below. "It costs 5000 yuan to reclaim one mu on the new terraces, says Wu Yangqin, a 17-year-old farmer of Yaoping village. But only 1200 yuan will be given by the county's relocation bureau for each mu."

"Not surprisingly", continues the Windows reporter, "many of the young farmers in the village are not pinning their hopes on the newly reclaimed land. They are more interested in the policy that allows one member of each household to work in the local factories. However, some of them might not meet the employment qualifications laid down by the factories. The policy requires that prospective workers must have attended secondary school for a minimum of two years. At Yaoping, poverty forces many children to drop out after primary school."

The Yunyang Motor Parts Plant, on the other hand, "used to operate in the red. In 1988, the plant was given 300,000 yuan by the local relocation bureau when it took on 20 resettled farmers. This money alleviated the financial woes of the factory and in 1993 it received a second subsidy when it employed another 45 farmers. Today, resettled farmers constitute one third of the plant's work force ... Last year the output value of the plant hit a record 26 million yuan."

Overall, according to Karl Huus (Far Eastern Economic Review, October 20, 1994), the central government has budgeted 30 billion yuan for resettlement, about 30,000 yuan per person.


A major problem the evacuees face is that neither the national government nor the often financially strapped regional or local governments encourage handing out hard cash to the evacuees. Instead, funding from above often has a habit of being "relocated" by and within the different government bureaus in order to solve their own short-term difficulties.

The Windows reporter, though perhaps too "polite" to point a finger directly, appears to imply this when noting that, although in 1993 the central government set side 500 million yuan for the relocation program, of which residents of Yunyang were to receive 43 million yuan, funds due to be distributed at the beginning of 1993 did not arrive until nine months later, and in June 1994 residents were still waiting to receive all the money promised them.

Even more ominous is the rampant corruption at all levels. It wouldn't be laying the cynicism on too thickly to suggest that one reason the project is so popular amongst government members is the opportunities it will allow for the lining of various official pockets. According to journalist Karl Huus, Gan Yuping, vice-governor of Sichuan province, has already accused dam officials of diverting funds earmarked for resettlement.

A conservative, US government-linked,human rights organisation has already reported that a large number of anti-dam residents have been arrested for protesting. It is more clear that various traditional methods of inducement are being used by the Chinese government in order to create an atmosphere of compliance with the evacuation program. One of the least subtle of these is the daubing of future water level marks on homes and buildings scheduled for submersion.

No 'fix-all'

China is a developing country still facing an acute lack of material wealth, a huge population dependent on limited agricultural land and a relative shortage of scientific and technical expertise. The overall problems of people's relationship to the environment are truly daunting. The majority of people continue, understandably, to mitigate poverty through actions destructive to the long-term environment.

China's Communist Party governments have historically devised and enacted what have often been criminally anti- human and anti-environment policies and campaigns. It is then hardly surprising that, in 1995, we in China once again hear the coercive clarion call for another project which, prophesied economic benefits and scientists' assurances aside, will mean another immense violation of human rights and impact on China's major river system, the scope of which can only begin to be imagined.

The dilemma is evident. No "economic fix-all" deriving from China's current modernisation drive can hope to address the country's fundamental environmental problems. The fundamental questions disallowed by the regime remain, "What form of economic development? And with the major benefits flowing to whom ?"

The recent history of Chinese "market Stalinism" has been one of the few getting richer more quickly and most poor becoming relatively more poor. Under the regime's current economic policies, the poor are in no position to stop exploiting their environment, while those who are becoming rich depend on the regime's anti-environment policies to make their extra bucks faster.

Since the revolution of 1949, the government has constructed around 86,000 reservoirs, which have involved the displacement of communities consisting in total of around 10 million persons. In the past displaced communities were compensated with a lump-sum payment. The official Chinese press notes that about a third of these 10 million evacuees still live with problems.

Instead of being shipped off en masse to other provinces, as in the past, it is planned that most of the Three Gorges evacuees will be resettled on higher ground near their original homes. It remains to be seen whether this will prevent the traditional sorts of problems associated with relocation.

The Three Gorges project might well be described as a "classical Stalinist 'fix' with market characteristics". Perhaps, during the foreseeable future, in order to save up to 10 million human lives from the next Yangzi floods, the only practical solution is indeed to shift 1.3 million people and build a colossal dam across China's longest river. However, the regime's silencing of domestic voices that have been raised in opposition to the project lends weight to many people's belief that there are some fundamental issues here which the government would like to keep out of sight.

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