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China’s Headlong Rush Into the Modern World

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  • Category: Chinese

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For China to prosper in the global economy it must increase its economic strength. One of these key elements is to be the development of the countries infrastructure. As China develops it urban centres, new factories, offices and homes along with it push into the modern world, it has created an increase in the countries power demand.

China to avoid burning large quantities of fossil fuels for power, causing massive pollution problems, must look to develop other sources of power resources.

Hydroelectric power produced by dams is a clean, renewable energy source that China is keen to embrace. The focus of this essay will be to look at the impact from China’s rush into the modern world in terms of environmental damage and in particular the massive Three Gorges Dam project.

To China’s leaders the project will propel the nations economy into the 21st century. It will not only provide the energy needed by the ever growing population and economy, but it is proposed to increase shipping and commerce along the Yangtze River, and in so bringing economic opportunities to people in the middle of the country.

Although there is a great deal of government support for this gigantic project, it is also extremely controversial and there are many problems associated with the building of the dam. These range from the loss of natural treasures, the displacement and relocation of whole populations, to serious design problems and silting considerations.

The damming of the Yangtze River has become to be seen as a symbol of national unity and strength for the ruling government and as such many of these problems and controversies surrounding the project are ignored or at best glossed over. The Premier Li Peng, who by training is a power engineer, said the scale of the project was a proof to the world of China’s new found strength “The damming of the Yangtze is of great political and economic significance …It proves to the whole world the Chinese people’s capability of building the world’s first rate hydroelectric project” (Treager, 1980).

Thus the construction of the dam has become as much a celebration of Chinese nationalism and its political leadership, as it is a massive power and engineering feat. This as such makes dealing with many of the problems of the project all the more difficult.

To be able to understand the environmental factors that building the dam will cause you must firstly look at some of the facts and figures surrounding the construction and running of the enormous project.

Figure 1. China showing the Yangtze River.

Source: International Rivers Network (c) Eureka Cartography, Berkeley, CA

The Three gorges Dam is deep in China’s rural heartland, along the world’s third largest river. Once finished it will be the largest and most powerful hydroelectric project in the world. The dam itself (see figure 3) will tower some 610 feet high and stretch 1.3 miles across.

It will create a reservoir behind it extending nearly 400 miles upstream. The two massive power stations either side of the central spillway will operate 26 turbine generators of 700 megawatts each. These will in total generate 182,000 megawatts, the equivalent to 18 nuclear power stations. It will send electricity totalling 84.7 billion kilowatt hours annually to Shanghai, throughout the East of China, Central China and to the eastern Sichuan province. This is the equivalent to burning 40 million tons of coal.

This switch to hydroelectric power will have the effect of cutting 100 million tons of carbon dioxide, up to two million of sulphur dioxide, ten thousand tons of carbon monoxide, 370,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 150,000 tons of dust annually from the atmosphere.

Shipping through the Yangtze region should be increased from approximately 10 millions tons at present to somewhere in the region of 50 million tons annually, and this will cut the cost of the transportation by 30 – 37 percent.

Along with this it is estimated the massive reservoir the dam will form will even have an impact on the climate of the surrounding region, moderating slightly the winters and cooling the summers.

But what are the environmental drawbacks to the project? The dam will flood over 62,000 acres of farmland, 13 major cities, 140 large and hundreds of small villages along the riverbanks displacing over 1.9 million people. Arthur Fisher in Popular Science 1996 is quoted as saying “It will also desecrate some of the most awe inspiring landscapes on the planet and drown thousand of archaeological and culture sites.”

Water pollution in the damned Yangtze valley will double at least as the dam traps more than 50 types of pollutants from mines, factories and human settlements that would normally be flushed out to sea by the swift currents. Some of the critics of the project also say that the heavy silt in the river will form thick deposits near the upstream end of the dam, clogging the major river channels of the city Chongquing.

So, it should be considered would the dam actually end the floods of the Yangtze such as the three major deluges that had killed more than 300,000 people in the last century? Of the 1.9 million people being resettled, how many with better housing and work opportunities, the government is promising. Or will the project follow the path of other such projects in China where peasants were moved with little help and the scarce resettlement funds made available to them being squandered.

Does the tangle of environmental implications of this project result in the choking many are predicting and as such hindering and not helping the ports it is supposed to help?

Other issues include the concentration upstream of pollution into a bile as the dam reduces river flow. Plus does the dam itself carry the threat of deluge either through such natural disasters as earthquakes, a construction fault or in the current global climate of mass terrorism present itself as a “wartime” target.

China of course, cannot tackle this immense project on its own. Foreign expertise, technology and financing are all critical elements in the project.

At the outset of the project a group of environmental, development and human rights groups around the world (Non Government Organisations – NGO’s) began campaigning against the project, calling attention to its environmental as well as social impacts. As a result of their efforts, the US National Security Council concluded that the federal government should avoid involvement in the project. In May 1996, the US Export Import Bank announced that it would not support loans to US companies pursuing Three Gorges contracts. Additionally, the World Bank, the leading supporter of such projects, decided not to participate and three attempts to secure international financial support have failed since 1994.

Despite this criticism from the outside world those in China have always talked up the project. The chief engineer of the project Zhang Guangdau in 1992 is quoted as saying “Now I can only tell you that the local people want us to build the dam. Yes, there’ll be an environmental problem and we’ll have to relocate a million people – half of them city dwellers and the other half villagers. In fact, their life today is quite miserable, especially for the half a million peasants.” (Channel 4,1992)

Because of the influence of these NGO’s, US corporations have lost out on huge Chinese government contracts. Of the 26 massive hydroelectric turbine units to be used in the project foreign firms will supply 14. The contract for the first 8 turbines, worth $ 240 million, went to a European and Canadian consortium.

Some of the most recent floods in China may well have been caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam.

By lulling residents and officials along the river into a false sense of security, the Chinese governments extravagant claims about the dams future flood control capability may be causing the neglect to the maintenance of dikes and other traditional flood prevention measures, says the Californian based group The International Rivers Network.

They believe the Chinese population along these areas believes there is little point in investing or upgrading the present embankment system if the dam is going to take care of all the problems.

“The director of the States Council’s Sanxia Office, Li Boning, said that the inadequacy of flood control measures on the Yangtze demonstrated that the Three Gorges Dam project was the only way to control the flooding.” (Edmonds, 1994) pg. 79.

Many of the dikes have now been breached and have led to the worst flooding since 1954. These flood waters have killed more than 1,200 people, displaced millions of others and caused nearly $ 5 billion of damage across central and eastern China.

Beijing has used the opportunity to trumpet the flood prevention benefits the dam will provide following its completion. In July 1998 the Official New China News Agency (Xinhau News Agency) said the dam “represents the key in controlling floods in the middle and lower reaches of the river.”

But the dam itself has been affected by the unusually severe flooding. In 1998 again, work was virtually stopped due to the flooding from storms. The state run China Daily Newspaper at the time in an unusual degree of openness reported that the rising water levels could imperil the temporary dam, being constructed at the site while the main dam was being built.

Of equally alarming concern to the opponents of the dam is the prospect of a full reservoir behind it, kept at high levels to generate maximum electricity rather than leave room to catch flood waters. “Opponents of the three gorges dam project point out the degree of mutual exclusion between a flood prevention dam and a power generating dam.” (Edmonds, 1994) pg.83. The International Rivers Network President Phil Williams says “It’s a hydroelectric dam, not a flood control dam” and he contends that the chances of flooding up river from the dam will increase because of heavy sediment build up.

After two years of damaging floods in 1998 and 1999, the Chinese central government agreed to commit RMB 10Billion (US$ 1.2 Billion) a year over the next five years to flood control and prevention measures in the Yangtze River basin. In addition top strengthening the dikes and embankments and dredging the rivers channels, the funds were to be used to provide for reforestation, soil conservation and relocation of people out of flood prone areas. But still the regional water authorities are staking their long term strategies on the dam.

The Economic Times reported 1st November 1999 that 36 such projects were under progress, “of which five involved improvements to the river channel and the rest were dike improvements.” Farmers are now prohibited from farming on hillsides with slopes steeper than 25 degrees, unless the slopes are properly terraced, although it is not clear how this ban is being imposed.

Due to the six of the dam and the cut back in flow further down the river Yangtze, a number of climate changes are likely to take place.

The climate around the dam could well led to a slight moderation of the winters and cooling of the summers by a degree or two due to the size body of water behind it. This stable and moderate climate could well lead to new crops being grown in and around the area, such as the cultivation of citrus trees.

“Proponents suggest that the new landscape formed by the reservoir will be beautiful with the added benefits of a larger water surface for the Yangtze Sturgeon. The reservoir would have great fish potential and a positive effect on microclimate” (Edmonds, 1994) pg.83, would certainly back this theory.

Perhaps more worryingly though would be the effect that the diverting of such large quantities of water would have further down the river. Studies have shown that this diversion could trigger a warmer climate around the Sea of Japan.

The changes they show would result from altered circulation patterns in the Sea of Japan. The new circulation patterns would be triggered by changes in the surface layer’s salt content as less fresh water from the river reaches the sea.

The Yangtze River dumps an enormous amount of fresh water into the Pacific, at times this can reach 30,000 cubic meters of water per second. This water dilutes the solution of the Pacific water it meets. Currents sweep this relatively sodium free mix north, through the Tsushima Strait and into the Sea of Japan. There, the fresher, less dense water circulates atop warmer saltier, more dense water that otherwise would ride at the surface.

The layer of fresher water not only holds a lid on sea surface temperatures, particularly in winter, it also slows and even stops a conveyor belt like circulation pattern that feeds a vast pool of deep water at the bottom of the Sea of Japan’s 3,500 meter deep basin. The conveyor like current also helps pull warmer Pacific water into the Sea of Japan.

Dr Doron Norf of the Florida State University calculates that shutting of only 10 percent of this water will raise the salinity of the water entering the Sea of Japan enough to bring the warmer water to the surface. In addition the conveyor belt will speed up, drawing more warm, saltier water into the basin. Losing the fresher water cap ” will most likely cause a warming of the atmosphere over Japan” says Norf in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. When the dam is finished in 2009 and the Chinese begin to fill it, for six months, the Yangtze will turn from a torrent to a trickle. “The effects may be dramatic”, Norf says.

The Yangtze is not only a river of water, it is also a river of sediment. The flow of the Yangtze carries approximately 4 percent of all river borne sediment discharged to all the oceans. Colina MacDougal in the Times 1989 reports this “silt discharge equals the combined totals of the Nile, the Mississippi and the Amazon.

In rivers such as the Yangtze, the majority of the sediment is conveyed during floods, and it is sediment deposited from these floodwaters that over time have formed the fertile flood plains down stream of the Three Gorges area. As the river flows across the valley to the sea its waters erode and redeposit the sands and silts of its beds and banks.

Sediments brought down by the river further downstream, created the low fertile coastal plains of the Yangtze estuary, and major cities such as Shanghai have been established on these fragile landforms. When a reservoir as large as this is filled with water, the flow of sediment through the river system is naturally disrupted.

When the velocity of the river decreases as it merges with the slow moving reservoir water, the bed load is deposited raising the riverbed. Because the river channel fills with sediment, floodwaters spill out more frequently onto the adjacent floodplains.

The planners of the Three Gorges dam have a particularly difficult task in analysing and predicting the impacts of sedimentation, for the following reasons.

Firstly, in effect the Three Gorges dam is a massive experiment in river management. Never before has this type of operation and design to minimise sedimentation been successfully demonstrated on such a large scale dam project.

Secondly, the scale of the river and sediment discharges that the planners are attempting is unprecedented. Previously the only attempt to manage sediment flows of this volume was with the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River, which outside China is widely accepted as being a costly failure due to unanticipated sedimentation problems.

Third and finally, even with the best analytic and data collection methods, sediment discharge can only in this case really be predicted with a best guess scenario.

The sediment held in the reservoir could well increase coastal erosion. If the dam is completed as planned, the complete silting up of the reservoir will most certainly happen inside of a few hundred years. This will create a hazard to the population down stream, who have survived and prospered over time through their own management of the river.

No issue associated with the Three Gorges dam has been more politically troublesome than resettlement. This is because, while construction problems can and have been covered up for a while or even corrected at a later date, the relocation problems have been exposed to public scrutiny as China’s society opens up or seeks support around the world.

The Three Gorges officials have said that despite widespread reports of corruption in resettlement areas, the process is moving along smoothly. As of July 1998, 248,000 people who lived on the banks of the Yangtze have been resettled, they said, some as far away as Shanghai and Xinjiang province in China’s vast Northwest.

In opposition to this Catherine Caufield in the Guardian 18th March 1998 quotes a senior Chinese official involved in moving the 1.2 million people the dam will displace as saying “China will have to rely on the military or a man made flood to force people out of their homes to complete the giant Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze river.”

Like wise two years later, again in The Guardian (22nd November 2000) Patrick McCully is also concerned about the resettlement programmes associated with the project “It is difficult to believe that the nearly two million people being evicted to make way for China’s gargantuan Three Gorges dam would ever freely agree to the project. While it is just as likely that the Chinese government would give these people the chance to be heard…”

Frequently the project organisers and the China government are warned that if resettlement funds are not increased and more care is not taken in moving people, the relocation issue will likely become an explosive social problem and a source of constant social instability in the country for the first part of this century.

Groups of angry resettled farmers routinely demonstrate against the treatment they receive. Thousands have journyed to Beijing and provincial capitals seeking support within the higher reaches of government.

However, most of those relocated so far have been living within the actual river channel, inside flood walls. Another 5 million live in the retention areas. Since there is less than an acre of cultivated land per farming family to go around in the region, evicting farmers from the retention areas is simply not feasible. There is no unoccupied space to relocate them to. Instead, the government is now planning to permit farming in these areas in normal years, whilst providing secure locations for farmers to retreat to in flood years. Only time will tell if this will solve the challenging task of relocation in the dam area. The forced resettlements from the project and the resulting social and economic turmoil will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of the 1.2 million people due for relocation.

With the lack of key information on environmental hydrology, cumulative impacts, biological, physical, and chemical responses, and human use patterns it is impossible to truly asses the impacts of the Three Gorges dam project.

However, if the dam’s major objectives are fulfilled, the erratic and powerful Yangtze waters will be brought under control. Along with this a clean new source of electric power will open up more of China to modernisation and development, and river cargo transportation will be expanded and made more affordable. These achievements will help propel what in many ways is a Third World country into the 21st century circle of wealthy nations.

Reference List.

Boxer, B. (1988): China’s Three Gorges Dam: Questions and Prospects, The China Quarterly, Vol.113, p.99.

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, (2001): It Could Get Hotter In Japan Thanks to Three Gorges Dam, http://www.ametsoc.org/AMS/ pubs/jnl/jrnldescrip.html#bams. Accessed September 22nd 2001.

Chris Catton, (1992): Tears of the Dragon – China’s Environmental Crisis, Channel 4 Television, (Incomplete reference P.C)

Caufield, C. (1998): Development: Hollow Promise, The Guardian, 18th March, p.5.

Caldwell, M. (1977): China and the Environment, Progress in Planning, Vol.8, Pt.2, pp.103-109.

Delf, R. (1990): China’s River 1: Wealth and Woe, Far Eastern Economic Review, 15th March, p.23.

Edmonds, R.L. (1994): Patterns of China’s Lost Harmony: A Survey of the Countries Environmental Degradation and Protection, Routledge, London.

Fearnside, P.M. (1988): China’s Three Gorges Dam. Fatal Project or Step Towards Modernisation?, World Development, Vol.16, pp.615-630.

Gittings, J. (1999): Great Yangtze Dam in Trouble, The Guardian, 25th May, p.16.

Jianguo, Y. (1993): Yangtze River Valley: A Soaring Dragon, Beijing Review, Vol.36, No.7, pp…

MacDougal, C. (1989): Floods of the Yangtze Lay Siege to China’s Main Rice Bowl, The Times, (Incomplete reference P.C)

McCully, P. (2000): Lies, Dam Lies. The Guardian, 22nd November, p.9.

Naitao, W. (1994): Population Relocation for the Three Gorges Project, Beijing Review, Vol.37, No.4, pp…

Ning, L. (2000): Three Gorges Project Sees Smooth Progress, Beijing Review, Vol.47, No.3,

The Economic Times, November 1st 1999. (Incomplete Reference).

Tregear, T.R. (1980): China: A Geographical Survey., Halsted Press, New York.

Wei, H. (1993): Blueprint for Yangtze Valley Progress in 90’s, Beijing Review, Vol.36, No.26,

Williams, P.B (1994) :Flood Control vs. Flood Management, Civil Engineering, May, pp. 51-54.

Zi, M. (2000): Three Gorges: The Ecology and Environment, Beijing Review, Vol.43, No.29,

Xinhau News Agency, www.xinhau.org. Accessed September 22nd 2001.

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