Mon, May 23, 2011 - Page 9 News List

China warns of ‘urgent problems’ facing the Three Gorges dam

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, BEIJING

The Three Gorges dam, the flagship of China’s massive hydroengineering ambitions, faces “urgent problems,” the government warned on Thursday.

In a statement approved by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), the state council said the dam had pressing geological, human and ecological problems. The report also acknowledged for the first time the negative impact the dam has had on downstream river transport and water supplies.

Since the start of construction in 1992, about 16 million tonnes of concrete have been poured into the giant barrier across the Yangtze River, creating a reservoir that stretches almost the length of Britain and drives 26 giant turbines.

The world’s biggest hydropower plant boasts a total generating capacity of 18,200MW and the ability to help tame the floods that threaten the Yangtze delta each summer.

However, it has proved expensive and controversial due to the rehousing of 1.4 million people and the flooding of more than 1,000 towns and villages. Pollution, silt and landslides have plagued the reservoir area. Given the 254 billion yuan (US$39 billion) cost and political prestige at stake, the government focused for many years on the dam’s achievements and attempted to stifle domestic criticism of the project. However, its public analysis has become increasingly sober.

A statement on the government’s Web site read: “At the same time that the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention.”

There were few specifics, but China’s Cabinet, the state council, admitted several problems had not been foreseen.

“Problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction, but could not be solved immediately, and some arose because of increased demands brought on by economic and social development,” the statement said.

Since the 2.5km barrier was completed in 2006 the reservoir has been plagued by algae and pollution that would previously have been flushed away.

The weight of the extra water has also been blamed for tremors, landslides and erosion of slopes.

To ease these threats the government said last year many more people may have to be relocated. This week it promised to establish disaster warning systems, reinforce riverbanks, boost funding for environmental protection and improve benefits for the displaced.

This is not the first warning. Four years ago the state media quoted government experts who said: “There are many new and old hidden ecological and environmental dangers concerning the Three Gorges dam. If preventive measures are not taken the project could lead to a catastrophe.”

Last year, site engineers recommended an additional movement of hundreds of thousands of nearby residents and more -investment in restoring the ecosystem.

The government has already raised its budget for water treatment plants, but opponents of the dam say this is not enough.

“The government built a dam, but destroyed a river,” said Dai Qing (戴晴), a longtime critic of the project. “No matter how much effort the government makes to ease the risks, it is infinitesimal. The state council is spending more money on the project rather than investigating fully. I cannot see a real willingness to solve the problem.”

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