Evil Olympics, Day Eleven: The Three Gorges Dam

Hailed by some as a miracle of engineering, the Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydro-electric power generator, which when it is fully operational will produce 22,500 megawatts of electricity — this is more than would be generated by twenty nuclear plants. If it had been done right, I’d be ready to hand huge kudos to the PRC for creating a source of power that massive, causing that much relief on fossil fuel burning plants, and being able to build it in the first place. I don’t think the government of China was “evil” in the same sense that it is evil in its mind control practices and its zest for inflicting violence on its own citizens. Something on this scale cannot be anything but morally ambiguous and to be fair, we should not lose sight of the fact that the dam will generate a lot of power without leaving radioactive waste or pumping pollutants into the atmosphere; we should appreciate the engineering and innovations that led to its creation. But like nearly everything this authoritarian regime has attempted, the unthinking adherence to the commands of Mao, who originally ordered construction of the dam in 1949, has not been rationally considered in light of what is known today and were the project to be proposed now, it would have been dismissed as carrying too heavy a price tag. But because the dam was a dream of Mao’s, the government has been all too willing to pay heavy prices in other arenas to achieve a single goal, and the most heavy price paid is human. Much electricity will be generated and commerce to the fabled city of Chongqing will be facilitated, but the government has dismissed an incredible amount of damage done by the many, many unintended consequences of the flood.

At a small town formerly known as Sandouping, the dam rises across a narrow portion of the Yangtze River Valley just downstream of a point where two large tributaries enter the river. The water began to accumulate in 2003 and as of this year, the lake created by the dam extends nearly four hundred miles upriver and the lake’s deepest point is now more than 600 feet. Trillions of gallons of muddy water now make up this incredible flood.

1,400,000 people have been dislocated by the project, which has flooded prime farmland in the Yangtze River Valley. Thirteen cities, 140 towns, and over 1,000 villages were all moved because they were in the flood zone. For some of the displaced people, new housing above the flood zone was created, which involved displacing even more people. Others migrated to larger coastal cities to seek their fortunes there. No one was given all that much choice in the decision to move; it is not clear who was permitted their preference between remaining in the area or participating in the urban migration. And if you got migrated, you got screwed — quoting from one human rights report:

  • Compensation offered to resettlers has fallen short of the replacement cost for their property. Instead, they are forced to buy housing at a cost that far exceeds the compensation they have been offered.
  • The land and jobs that have been promised to resettlers from rural and urban areas are no longer available. Where land has been offered, it has often turned out to be of inferior quality.
  • While approximately 500,000 people have been resettled to other areas in the Three Gorges region, more than 100,000 people have been forced to leave the Three Gorges area altogether.
  • Local authorities appear to have diverted a large part of the resettlement budget into unrelated infrastructure projects, using funds intended for household compensation on projects like hotels and roads.
  • According to the report, there is a “widespread belief that local officials have used the project as an opportunity to fill their own pockets.” Many cases of embezzlement of resettlement funds have been documented.
  • No independent grievance mechanism exists, and the resettlement process is conducted “in an atmosphere of officially orchestrated secrecy and intimidation.”
  • The police have used “excessive force” to quell the numerous protests against the resettlement problems, and the Three Gorges Project has become “an instrument of repression with widespread human rights abuses.”

Many of the people who wound up going to an urban area wound up in Chongquing, which has suffered a significant infrastructure strain and housing shortage as a result of the hundreds of thousands of people who have moved there. We will never, ever know how many people were rendered homeless by the flood.

In those cities and outlying areas were quite a large number of medium to heavy industries, including steel foundries, soap plants, and paint factories. Also in the more rural areas that have been flooded were some of the best farmland on the planet. All of this has been submerged. The loss of the farmland is regrettable because it increases the strain on China to produce enough food to feed all of its people. But this is nothing compared to the problem of the old industrial sites — they are filled with a wide variety of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and petroleum products. Some of this was cleared away before the flood. A great deal of it was not. A great deal more was trapped in the soil, which now will become silt and sediment at the bottom of the lake, agitated by shifting and changing currents and by the boats which now ply the river overhead. Consequently, materials like mercury, arsenic, phosphates, palladium, and benzene are all mixed with the lakewater and being discharged into the lower Yangtze river, there to wash out to sea. About a third of the water entering the reservoir is discharged from sewage treatment plants that inadequately filter… contaminants, shall we say. The million-plus residents of the cities of Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai (each city has populations of over nine million; Shanghai’s greater municipal area is estimated at nearly twenty million) all use the lower Yangtze as a primary source of drinking water; it is not clear how much of this stuff can be filtered out or whether it is even being filtered at all since no one is quite sure what is in the water anymore. And it’s not just people who drink the water; some ecologists estimate that as many as a million pounds of fish and other sea harvest will die every year for the next twenty years, killed off and no longer breeding new fry, and putting further pressure to feed the 1.1 billion Chinese citizens who rely, in no small part, on the bounty of the sea. It remains to be seen how many people will be killed, either of toxic shock or starvation, by the poisons unleashed in the flood.

Some of the world’s most amazing scenery — the famous green-covered rounded mountain pillars of the Yangtze — have been submerged in the name of industrial progress. These picturesque scenes have been replaced by 100 to 200 meters of water. This, by itself, might not be so awful, but along with the loss of the view, wetland areas used by a wide variety of birds have also been destroyed, raising substantial concerns about their ability to survive their annual migrations. Already lost are a species of river dolphin; the only surviving specimens are in aquaria and can no longer survive in the river because of habitat loss, temperature changes in river water and the disruption in their food supply. That food supply includes the fit-for-human consumption Yangtze Sturgeon, which will no longer be able to migrate from winter feeding grounds near the ocean to summertime molting grounds upstream to breed. It is not clear how the sturgeon will survive in the Three Gorges Reservoir without their food supply that in the past has included food found in abundance only towards the mouth of the river. The next candidate for extinction is the already-threatened Siberian crane, whose migratory patterns (for the eastern flock) included several days of layover in the wetlands that have now been lost to the flood.

Culturally, the Chinese drowned a huge amount of their heritage. The river valleys were the places were civilization first arose in China and there are countless burial sites and archeologically important areas. All of the raw information that could have been gained about early civilization in the area is now lost forever. Of particular interest were the hanging coffins of the Bah people, who inhabited the valley about 3,000 years ago. It was their custom to bury their dead in hollowed-out logs attached to the cliffs of the gorges; some coffins have been preserved for museum display but thousands have been lost to the flood.

Did it all need to be done? Perhaps. The dam will account for about 3% of China’s overall electric use when it reaches full capacity; total hydroelectric power in China is projected to make up something like 10% of China’s total supply by 2020 and this is a third of it. If that number seems small, bear in mind that China will have to provide electricity for 1.3 billion people and their employers by that time. It’s a huge amount of power being generated, and in theory, the power does not generate pollution. But, because inadequate cleanup of the valley floors, the river and the South China Sea will have to deal with elevated levels of all sorts of heavy metals and toxins for years to come, all washed downstream by the waters of the flood.

And the earth will have her revenge on the water, sooner or later. The effectiveness of the dam will ultimately have to face its greatest test in the form of silt. Downstream of the dam, flooding will be controlled well by the new structure, but upstream there continue to be periodic rainstorms and the flooding they cause. This kicks up large amounts of silt, and now that the flood waters are higher, there is new much dirt for nature to erode and to deposit in the lakebed. Like everything else in the lake, the silt will gradually make its way downstream towards the dam. No one knows exactly how much or how fast it will move, but it is certain that the silt will diminish water pressure behind the power intakes for the electric generators. Particularly worrisome are large rocks displaced from the steep cliffs, which will eventually roll downstream with the currents; these cannot be moved or displaced with the same kind of tools as particulate mud. The more silt, the less electricity. Silt also is an impediment to navigation, of course. And the lack of silt resupplying river banks downstream raises the risk of soil subsidence, landslides, and destructive erosion downstream as well, putting something like a hundred million people living downstream of the dam at risk. as the silt moves downstream with the rest of the flood.

Why did all of this happen? Could the government have prepared for these things better? Obviously, it could have done so in retrospect. But the project had earned criticism for ten years from the outside world, and all of these issues had been raised in international forae then. Internally, though, critics of the Three Gorges Dam found themselves silenced and steered away from positions of influence over the project. Now, even the government has been forced to acknowledge that they have a tiger by the tail and a wide variety of problems could result if anything goes wrong with the dam. It is a shame that the authoritarian form of government that prevails in China did not allow for free public debate about so momentous, complex, and expensive an undertaking. Let us all hope, for the millions downstream, that the dam never breaks, because not since the Black Sea was created in an earthquake will any human being have seen such a flood.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.