Compared to coal, hydropower is clean. But China's grandest, half-century-old approach to meeting its energy demands "cleanly" is arguably as much a solution as it is a problem. And there is no better symbol of the necessity and danger of dams than China's Three Gorges Dam, the world's biggest. (It is also, as the New York Times reminds us this week, the world's biggest power plant, biggest consumer of dirt, stone, concrete and steel and has led to the biggest displacement of people in history -- 1.13 million. When the company behind it went public in 2003, it raised $1.2 billion in a single day.)
At a forum in late Sept. in the city of Wuhan, a representative on the project for China's State Council, the highest executive body in the government, sounded the biggest official alarm yet. Increased pressures on the shoreline of the Yangtze River "may become causes for water pollution, landslides and other geological disasters," he said. A shockwave spread. The English language website for the state-run Xinhua news agency, a long tacit supporter of the project, ran the headline "China Warns of Environmental 'Catastrophe' From Three Gorges Dam." Opponents felt vindicated.
On Tuesday, the central government finally announced plans to stem the problems. Details are still unclear.What is clear is that China currently only uses one quarter of its hydropower potential. While the country is scaling up its renewable energy, up to 15 percent of its energy needs by 2020, or 20 gigawatts (coal currently provides 67 percent of the country's energy), by 2020, the country wants to nearly triple its hydropower capacity, to 300 gigawatts.
No doubt, the dam is good in intention: besides a massive amount of energy, it provides water to farmers and prevents the serious, fatal droughts upstream while stemming extreme flooding downstream. But the unintended effects are serious, and in some cases are canceling the benefits; the lake effect is reducing rainfall upstream, and in the event of a catastrophe, the flooding downstream would be unimaginably devastating.
In an elegant essay published in the New York Review of Books, Dai Qing, the most vocal opponent of the Three Gorges, remembers the unheard lesson of one of China's many doomed post-Great Leap Forward water projects:
But as was the case with so many grandiose dam-building projects, the local cadres behind the Yuqiao Reservoir had failed to ascertain the geological makeup of the area. The two-kilometer-long dam was built on sandy soil. Within a few years water was seeping out to create a vast marshland downstream. The result was the destruction of 50,000 acres of land that had provided food for the population of nearly one million people in the six major counties downstream. What was left, so Dejia told me, was a bumpy moonscape that could no longer support agriculture of any consequence. The farmers had long since been forced to leave their homes, but they snuck back to their ruined towns and eked out a living, harvesting only a fraction of the food they used to produce. To this day those villagers are still on state welfare.
As Jim Yardley writes in one of the Times' recent "Choking on Growth" installments, many of those displaced by the Three Gorges have returned, putting more stress on already scarce land. Meanwhile, water pollution, soil erosion and landslides are becoming daily concerns as rising water inundates more land in the reservoir behind the dam. The dam also sits near two fault lines. This week, thirty people were killed in a landslide.
The alarm call in September was not the first time China has sounded worried about its dams. In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended plans for 13 dams along the undammed Nu River. In Sichuan Province, a large dam was canceled after opponents framed the project as an attack on China's cultural heritage. Fearing unrest and seeking to stem pollution, the national government has expressed interest in promoting public participation when it comes to environmental damage.
But legal obstructions to dams have easily been bypassed by strong local governments, who often share profits on dam building with state-run businesses. Energy needs and market pressures have driven the energy industry to pursue massive projects since China began dismantling its inefficient electric power monopoly in 2002. The postponed Nu River dams are still on the table; it's still unclear what measures would be taken to involve public and ecological concerns.
In the United States, dam-building stopped a half-century ago due to the ecological costs involved. That option doesn't exist yet in China. While renewable energy growth will help take some of the pressure off China's hydropower projects, dams will continue to go forward in China. How much governments, national and local, are willing to allow for and ensure public input and ecological safety for these projects remains to be seen.
Photo from Still Life (2006, Jia Zhangke), which focuses on people who have returned to their flooded villages.