The Three Gorges Dam Corporation celebrated their completion of the world’s largest hydropower project by announcing that over 100 engineering innovations had been created during the course of construction. And they boasted breaking several world records to get the dam built, such as the record for the amount of concrete poured at any one time. Engineers clearly learned something from building the Three Gorges Dam, but what about the rest of us? What have environmentalists, geologists, social scientists, biologists, and others learned from the Three Gorges Dam? This was the topic of a two day symposium that I attended this past weekend, hosted by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, and Probe International.
The inspiration for the symposium came when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued a statement in May of 2011 admitting the Three Gorges Dam has had its share of problems, both foreseen and unforeseen. This official expression of concern seemed to open the doors wider for public debate on the project. Symposium organizers did an incredible job gathering a broad lineup of Chinese experts, who perhaps because of the May declaration as well as the “neutral” setting of UC Berkeley, were willing to take part in an a rare interdisciplinary discussion on what the world’s largest hydropower project has taught China, and the world.
Yet many of the government-funded scientists from China presented a view of the project as one that, while not without its faults, had largely contributed to the good of the Chinese people. Weng Lida of the Yangtze Valley Water Resources Protection Bureau gave the dam high marks for its flood control benefits, though he admitted the dam “weakened the gorge feeling” and that “the main structure is finished but many other aspects are not finished yet, including many things proposed in the Environmental Impact Statement.” The representative of the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute, Chen Daqing, declined to pin the severe demise of Yangtze fisheries to Three Gorges Dam itself, instead citing overfishing, water quality decline, and many other dam projects as equal contributors.
One of the strongest criticisms of the project was made by Ren Xinghui of the Beijing-based think tank the Transition Institute, who presented a disheartening story of his repeated attempts to use China’s new information disclosure laws to reveal details of Three Gorges Dam project funding. Later in the symposium, laughter and consternation alike filled the hall when the nature of the Three Gorges Dam funding was compared to the US government bailout of private banks.
What have we learned from the Three Gorges Dam? Data presented at the symposium points to several lessons:
- Project costs were far higher than anticipated.
- Landslides in the reservoir area and reservoir-induced earthquakes have been greater in number and more severe than anticipated.
- The number of resettled people was far higher than anticipated (nearly double, and growing!)
- The negative impacts of resettlement on people (such as their ability to resume former livelihoods) were greater than anticipated.
- Water quality in the reservoir was worse than anticipated.
- The impacts on fisheries, hydrology, and sediment (and probably many other issues) can probably only be adequately understood through river-basin wide impact assessments, which were never completed, and are not being undertaken now.
- Lack of consensus on primary project purpose (hydropower versus flood control) may have limited the dam’s ability to fill either function very well.
Those who continue to build mega-dams around the world may want to take note not only of the world record innovations, but also the world record headaches caused by the dam.
But could another Three Gorges Dam ever be built? I don’t think so. In a presentation on the human costs of the project, Chen Guojie, Institute of Mountain Disaster and the Environment, pointed out that the Chinese government had clearly decided early on that “the value of one million people [was] lower than the value of the Three Gorges Project.” But China is a different country than it was in 1992, when the Three Gorges Dam was approved. And though bad dams continue to be built in China and around the world, the days of forced relocation on the scale of the Three Gorges Dam are hopefully over for good.