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An ambitious project and some concerns

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A view of the giant dam of the Three Gorges hydropower project on the Yangtze river.
A view of the giant dam of the Three Gorges hydropower project on the Yangtze river.

Pallavi Aiyar

Beijing faces the tough challenge of tackling environmental degradation while ensuring at the same time high economic growth.

With the recent admission by senior Chinese officials that without preventive measures the mammoth Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze river could lead to catastrophe, it is clear that the ecological costs of untrammelled growth have come to haunt China. The unusual public admission by the government points to levels of environmental degradation that make denials of the damage both politically and economically unviable.

A group of experts and officials participating in a conference in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on the dam agreed that the project had had a “notably adverse” impact on the environment of the reservoir and along the Yangtze since last year. The official Xinhua News Agency reported them as saying that in the absence of preventive measures, “the project could lead to catastrophe.”

Wang Xiaofeng, the director of the government’s Three Gorges construction body, told the meeting that Beijing had to face up to the increasing “litany of threats to the environment” from the dam, including erosion and landslides, pollution, conflicts over land shortage, and “ecological deterioration” caused by “irrational development” along the river. The Vice Mayor of Chongqing, the city that borders the dam reservoir, said “the shore of the reservoir had collapsed in 91 places and a total of 36 km had already caved in.” Such landslides have produced waves up to 50 m high, which then slam into the shore wreaking further havoc, Xinhua reported. “Regular geological disasters are a severe threat to the lives of residents around the dam,” Huang Xuebin, a senior engineer, added. Other officials reported that the water quality in tributaries of the Yangtze had declined and pollution caused by sediment build-up had increased algae growth in rivers.

Intense debate

The Three Gorges, the world’s biggest hydropower project, has been projected as a symbol of China’s formidable technological and engineering prowess. It has, however, been a controversial enterprise. The proposal to build it sparked an intense political debate in the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. When the proposal was put before parliament in 1992, nearly one-third of its members voted against the project. In the end, Premier Li Peng pushed it through, despite opposition.

Critics of China’s propensity for building big dams have made the case that these damage the environment and destroy fragile eco-systems. But their strongest critique involves the lack of public participation in debating the implications of such enormous projects, as well as the absence of independent analyses of what those implications in fact are.

The Three Gorges dam necessitated the relocation of up to 1.3 million people since construction began in 1993. Objective assessments of its social and environmental impact were not carried out. It was only in 2003 that environmental impact assessments for large dam projects were made mandatory in China. Nonetheless, until now the dam has almost uniformly been projected by the government as a beneficial and prestigious undertaking. Last year, it was described by Li Yong’an, general manager of the Three Gorges Corporation, as “the grandest project the Chinese people have undertaken in thousands of years.” It has been promoted as a way of providing clean energy, creating jobs, and flood control.

The dam is already producing enough electricity each year to replace 50 million tonnes of thermal coal, thereby reducing China’s carbon dioxide emissions by 100 million tonnes. Given that China is set to overtake the United States soon as the world’s largest carbon emitter, this is no mean achievement.

These benefits of the Three Gorges dam are well publicised in China. What is unusual about the recent developments is the candidness of the official admission regarding its negative implications. In the past, outspoken critics of the dam have been dealt with harshly by the authorities. Thus, for example, journalist Dai Qing was jailed for 10 months for claiming that the Three Gorges dam was a waste of money, in her book Yangtze! Yangtze!

The new openness towards the harm the dam is causing the environment is of a piece with the policy priorities of the current administration led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Over the last few years, the two leaders have made environmental protection and sustainable economic growth central goals in their campaign to create a “harmonious society.”

China’s booming economy, it is increasingly becoming clear, extracts considerable social and ecological costs. Given that the scale and speed of the country’s industrialisation and urbanisation have been historically unparalleled, it should come as no surprise that so is the injury caused to its environment. According to China’s own official estimates, the effects of chronic pollution, large-scale damming, and climate change have combined to make for a situation where 70 per cent of the country’s rivers and lakes are polluted to some degree, with 28 per cent being too polluted even for irrigation or industrial use. According to the State Environment Protection Agency, chemical spills into waterways and algae outbreaks across lakes are almost a daily occurrence.

The question of air pollution is equally critical. A recent World Bank report estimates the health costs related to outdoor air pollution in urban China in 2003 to be between 157 billon yuan ($21 billion) and 520 billion yuan ($69 billion) — depending on the method of calculation used. This means 1.2 to 3.8 per cent of GDP.

Faced with this critical situation, the Chinese government has little choice but to start taking serious measures to counteract and slow down environmental degradation even if it means putting the brakes on economic growth.

Paradoxical situation

However, this is no easy task. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Party needs to continue to ensure high rates of economic growth, which provides legitimacy to its continued rule. On the other hand, to assure the long-term sustainability of this growth, it must implement policies that could possibly slow down that growth. The skill with which the leadership is able to negotiate this seemingly paradoxical situation will be critical for China’s political and economic health in the coming years.

The manner in which Beijing addresses this challenge should be carefully studied in New Delhi. India has thus far lagged behind China in terms of the spread and depth of industrialisation. Its environmental wounds are correspondingly fewer. However, many of the challenges now faced by Beijing along its road to economic development are only a little distance ahead on the path that India is trotting up. New Delhi would do well to learn from the Chinese experience.


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