Visit to China 2002

China 2002

Sunday 31 March 2002
Three Gorges Dam Project

Once through the huge Gezhouba Dam ship lock, we pass through the eastern section of Xiling gorge. Firecracker rituals along the spectacular banks make them seem even more atmospheric.

We have come to China to see the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River before they are submerged. The reservoir created by the new dam will begin to fill at the end of the year. We visit the site and are struck by the overwhelming scale of the project. The dam, together with its double flight of five huge ship locks for ocean-going craft and ship lift for light vessels, is 2 km across. At the dam site alone there are 25 thousand workers, with countless others employed on associated projects higher up the river. Countless millions of tons of earth and rock have been moved and concrete poured. The water level will rise by 80 m and a reservoir 600 km long will be created. Whatever international attempts are being made to bring pressure to bear, it is inconceivable that the Chinese government will cancel the project at this stage. Simply too much national pride and prestige are involved.

Occasionally we see signs along the river, marking the level to which the waters will rise. Later at Shibaozhai, as we climb to the pagoda, we find the level marked on a wall. It is only here, looking down from high up the sides of the wide valley that I truly begin to appreciate the vast volume of water involved.

The dam is intended to bring many benefits. It will control flooding in the lower reaches of a river that, within living memory, has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. It will provide hydropower that will meet a significant proportion of China's growing energy requirements, reducing the billions of tonnes of coal burned each year. Water transfer projects will help satisfy the needs of the increasingly water-hungry North. The increased water depth will make the notoriously dangerous river navigable to large ships as far as Chongqing, promoting economic development.

For every supposed advantage, however, there are doubt and risk. A dam aimed at flood control must maintain a large spare capacity in the reservoir, to be filled with excess water in times of need. On the other hand, hydropower needs a plentiful supply of water behind the dam to drive the generators. It will be difficult to meet both needs simultaneously.

Human action has contributed to the danger of flooding. In the upper reaches of the Yangtze, steep slopes have been farmed without terracing. The resulting erosion has caused severe sedimentation in the lower reaches. This has raised the bed, reducing the river's capacity and increasing flood risk. Agriculture and urbanisation have encroached on areas that previously stored overspill, further reducing the capacity to deal with excess water. Dykes in the lower reaches have been neglected and are in poor condition. Now that the dam project is consuming so much money, none is left to repair the dykes.

There is also a suggestion that sluice gates will not be able to prevent sedimentation behind the dam, thereby reducing its effectiveness for both power generation and flood control.

Concerns over pollution have cast doubt on the viability of water transfer projects. Waste discharged into the river that previously flowed rapidly out to sea will be collected behind the dam. As the reservoir fills, towns, factories and cemeteries will be submerged, with consequences that are difficult to predict.

There is uncertainty that even the huge capacity of the reservoir may not be great enough to deal with water from all the Yangtze's tributaries. This, together with suspicions over the quality of the construction, has led to fears that the dam could collapse. Hundreds of medium-sized dams and thousands of small ones have failed in China within living memory. The large Banqiao and Shimantan dams collapsed in the seventies with a death toll of nearly a quarter of a million.

To put this in a wider context, there are dams across the world and there have been plenty of failures. However, many countries today are turning away from dams for flood control and, in this case, the scale is so enormous that the consequences of a failure just don't bear thinking about.

There has been much comment about the social costs. Over one million people will be displaced as the waters rise. Some have been relocated higher up the slopes. The gleaming new high-rise towns certainly look attractive, but it remains to be seen whether the new communities will be economically viable. An even more doubtful situation is faced by many others who are being relocated to different regions, often to land of much lower agricultural quality.

Corruption has affected the distribution of compensation, adding to the sense of grievance of the displaced. Occasionally, by the river's edge, we see a truck piled high with simple furniture and bedding, a symbol of an uprooted family awaiting a journey to an uncertain future.

Sunset, Wu Gorge

Sunset, Wu Gorge
Lucky Man

We spend the rest of the day in the western section of Xiling gorge, and the Wu gorge. The dramatic peaks of the Wu gorge, steep and high, are magnificent in the late afternoon light. We are really thankful to have seen them while we had the chance.

After-dinner activities, of a vaguely improving nature, are provided on the boat. Although we normally avoid anything organised, we decide to attend the lecture on fresh-water pearls and demonstration of the art of the tea master. I win a pearl ring by guessing the number of pearls in an unfortunate live oyster that is sacrificed for our education.

By coincidence, the card with my room number is drawn for a prize after the tea demonstration. I suggest that the draw is made again as I had already won the ring. At first the tea master cannot understand why I would turn down a prize, but someone translates and a murmur of approval passes round the Chinese members of the audience. By coincidence, Anne's card is drawn for first prize and I have to admit that the room number is ours again. This time the Chinese members of the audience (ignoring the fact that Anne and I aren't the same person) seem convinced that I am being rewarded for giving up the earlier prize, as if by a force for higher justice. From then on I am referred to by the crew members as 'Lucky Man'.