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Development

Three Gorges Dam nears completion, critics fear catastrophe



By David Stanway
INTERFAX CHINA


Shanghai. May 12. INTERFAX-CHINA - The China Three Gorges Project Corporation (CTGPC) is keen to emphasize the virtues of its flagship hydropower dam on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. The state-owned company recently launched a propaganda campaign entitled "Three Gorges Project: The Harmonious Development Humanity and Nature", a photography exhibition which will demonstrate how the project "harnesses and develops the Yangtze" and explore the "successes [the project has contributed] to China's hydropower development and the protection of its environment".

Despite all the efforts to stress the positive benefits of the controversial multibillion-dollar project, the company's spokesperson, Yan Fei, was reluctant to discuss the early completion of the dam when contacted by Interfax, and had no details about the progress of the remaining generating units to be installed on the right bank. She was also unable to give any details about plans to build another batch of underground turbines.

Installation on that right bank has, in fact, already begun, with the assembly of the first unit, No. 26, beginning on May 11. According to the vice-general manager of CTGPC, Cao Guangjing, speaking at Yichang on Friday May 12, the entire 26-unit project will be completed by the end of 2008, a year ahead of schedule. He insisted that the rapid progress on the project would not affect the quality of construction, and would enable the project to generate an extra 70 bln kWh in electricity.

Workers were also busy over the Labor Day holidays excavating and reinforcing the housing for the underground generators, the international tendering for which will get underway later in the year.

The construction of the Dam itself is expected to be completed on May 20. The completion comes about nine months ahead of schedule, and the news was greeted with considerable fanfare in the official domestic media. CTGPC insists that the project has been successful beyond the dreams of the developers and that none of the disasters envisaged by opponents have even come close to reality, but the opponents themselves believe that the troubles have only just begun.

The motive for pushing the schedule forward is very clear, says Professor Fan Xiao, a geologist and hydropower expert at the Sichuan Tourism Geological Research Center, but it brings additional burdens to a project already fraught with complications.

"A senior official with the CTGPC admitted in a TV interview that the revenues from [additional] electricity production would be considerable," Fan told Interfax.

Once the main dam, 2,309 m long and 185 m high, is completed, the water level of the reservoir will rise once again, reaching 156 m by October. It will rise again to 175 m in 2009, by which time all 26 of the generating units will have been put into operation.

But in the rush to earn profits and cover some of the spiraling costs of construction, the operators are overlooking some of the problems, Fan believes. In a recent article for the Chinese National Geographic magazine, he noted that original models suggested that sedimentation would threaten the port at Chongqing within 20 years, but the process could now accelerated.

"This was just a simulation, which means the result may turn out to be more serious," Fan told Interfax.

Surrounding areas are well aware of the problems they are facing as a result of the Three Gorges impoundment. One reason why Chongqing has invested RMB 1.5 bln (USD 187.5 mln) to build a new port at Cuntan, according to Fan, was the fact that the current port at Jiulongpo would soon be immobilized by silt streaming down the upper reaches of the Yangtze and accumulating close to the dam.

The never-ending battle against nature continues, and each solution creates further problems for the army of government experts assigned to monitor construction, who respond to each and every potential crisis with a new set of measures, systems and projects. Silt build-ups at the dam lead to plans to trap the silt further upstream in Sichuan and Yunnan by constructing two massive new dams. The authorities insist that they can avert potential landslides by implementing a monitoring system, and if plant species are endangered by the rising waters, why not set up a gene bank in order to help preserve biodiversity?

CTGPC has been given the go-ahead to build two massive new hydropower plants at Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba, both on the Jinsha River, the Yangtze's western branch. The two projects, with a combined generation capacity that will exceed the Three Gorges facility, are being constructed partly in order to alleviate the silt pressures flowing in from upstream. "Building more dams to relieve silt build-ups only transfers the problem upstream," said Patricia Adams, the executive director of Probe International, a Toronto-based pressure group, in a telephone interview with Interfax.

Some critics have even suggested that the benefits of the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba projects has been exaggerated in order to provide more work for the engineers, technicians and laborers on the CTGPC payroll as construction at the Three Gorges comes to an end. Construction at Xiluodu was officially launched at the end of last year.

An additional 80,000 people are to be relocated in 2006, according to official figures, but experts estimate that in the rush to raise the water level and generate as much electricity as possible, the figure may be much higher. Fan notes that the slope of the reservoir will be crucial. A slope at the upper edge of the reservoir in Chongqing would mitigate the problems of silt, but it would also increase the number of displaced farmers, and the developers are currently debating which is the best option, Fan Xiao wrote in Chinese National Geographic magazine.

Each new step in the mammoth project is greeted with dismay by its opponents, and they are keen to limit what they believe will be irreversible damage to the region's geology. The higher the water level, the greater the possibility of disaster, they claim. "53 scientists have signed a petition saying that the depth of the water should not go past 156 m," said Patricia Adams.

"The China People's Political Consultative Conference submitted a report to the State Council last year, objecting to the earlier-than-scheduled completion of the 156 m [water level] target," said Fan Xiao. "But the CTGPC insisted on fulfilling its plan, and no support was given to the opponents in the end."

The Chinese government, with their battalions of environmentalists, geologists, meteorologists, archeologists and hydrologists, insist that they have done everything in their power to minimize the problems that might transpire from the world's biggest water project, but Patricia Adams told Interfax that the efforts were far from sufficient. She said that the Chinese government have "ignored the real costs of the Three Gorges in order to justify a bad decision".

The government have said that they have put in place measures and monitoring systems aimed at reducing the threat of landslides, reservoir-induced seismicity, water pollution and sedimentation, but Adams is skeptical. "If anything," she said, "they [the risks] have been confirmed. These problems just cannot be addressed, and short of draining the reservoir, nothing can be done to avert them."

"As long as the reservoir is filled even at a low level," she said, "they need a state-of-the-art seismic monitoring system, which they don't have. They need a warning system and an evacuation plan, which they don't have."

"{The Dam] is a huge risk introduced into the river valley," Adams said, "threatening not only those communities that live within the flood zone around the reservoir, but the millions of people downstream from the dam itself that is at risk of overtopping, perhaps structural damage and, god forbid, catastrophic failure."

Echoing Fan Xiao, she said that priority had always been given to the profits of the state-owned operator of the project.

And while the problems associated with relocated migrants are severe, they can at least be resolved, financially. "But they cannot alleviate the geological problems," she said.

China says that the advantages of hydropower are self-evident. The fuel, water, is renewable and the cost of generation is cheap. But the government are still forced to "distort the electricity market", says Adams. "In order to protect these big dams, all competitors are kept out in order to guarantee profits. The cost of 8-9 cents per kWh is also much more expensive than other sources of power, but it is subsidized by the government. The price people are being charged is 3 cents, which means there are terrible distortions."

"For political reasons, these big dams are being protected from financial consequences and the costs of the impact on downstream communities," she said.

Hydropower projects "are perfect crucibles for generating corruption", she said. A more transparent and decentralized system would expose the Three Gorges Project as inefficient and uncompetitive.

"Decommissioning does happen when the operators have to relicense their dam and undergo cost-benefit analysis. When the real costs of dams are analyzed, decommissioning starts to happen."

Many are worried about the potentially catastrophic consequences of the Three Gorges Dam. It may continue to operate smoothly for a few years, but its operation span is estimated to last a century. Fan Xiao notes in China National Geographic that although a number of problems have already arisen as a result of the impoundment of the dam, it may take twenty years before the full extent of the damage manifests itself.

New dams being constructed in China are "benefiting from the propaganda push caused by the Three Gorges," said Adams. The proposed Nu River projects in Yunnan Province are "riding the waves of Three Gorges propaganda, the absence of good analysis and the distortions in the electricity market."

The government have justified the hydropower boom as a vital fuel for economic growth in some of China's more impoverished regions. "The need for economic growth is a legitimate and noble question, but the real question is whether or not hydro dams deliver it, and the answer is no," said Adams.

"The local people get all the costs and none of the benefits," she said.

Large-scale dams are a symptom of centralized control and the state monopoly over the power industry. "If you're a community in Yunnan Province what you need is a decentralized system that you can control yourselves, where the costs and benefits can be controlled by yourselves."



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