Last year, Chinese officials celebrated the completion of the Three Gorges Dam by releasing a list of 10 world records. As in: The Three Gorges is the world's biggest dam, biggest power plant and biggest consumer of dirt, stone, concrete and steel. Ever. Even the project's official tally of 1.13 million displaced people made the list as record No. 10.
Today, the Communist Party is hoping the dam does not become China's biggest folly. In recent weeks, Chinese officials have admitted that the dam was spawning environmental problems like water pollution and landslides that could become severe. Equally startling, officials want to begin a new relocation program that would be bigger than the first.
The rising controversy makes it easy to overlook what could have been listed as world record No. 11: The Three Gorges Dam is the world's biggest man-made producer of electricity from renewable energy. Hydropower, in fact, is the centerpiece of one of China's most praised green initiatives, a plan to rapidly expand renewable energy by 2020.
The Three Gorges Dam, then, lies at the uncomfortable center of China's energy conundrum: The nation's roaring economy is addicted to dirty, coal-fired power plants that pollute the air and belch greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Dams are much cleaner producers of electricity, but they have displaced millions of people in China and carved a stark environmental legacy on the landscape. "It's really kind of a no-win situation," said Jonathan Sinton, China program manager at the International Energy Agency. "There are no ideal choices."
For now, China's choice is to keep building big dams, even as the social and environmental impacts of the projects are increasingly questioned. The Three Gorges Dam is projected as an anchor in a string of hydropower "mega-bases" planned for the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River. By 2020, China wants to nearly triple its hydropower capacity, to 300 gigawatts...
"In western China, the one-sided pursuit of economic benefits from hydropower has come at the expense of relocated people, the environment and the land and its cultural heritage," Fan Xiao, a Sichuan Province geologist and a critic of the Three Gorges project, said via e-mail. "Hydropower development is disorderly and uncontrolled, and it has reached a crazy scale."
Advocates say hydropower is one of China's richest and least tapped energy resources. Even though much of the country is plagued with drought and water shortages, China also boasts a knot of important rivers that flow out of the Tibetan high plateau. Currently, China uses only about one-fourth of its hydropower potential...
Hydropower...already accounts for 6 percent of the power supply and has major growth potential. Chen Deming, one of the government's top economic planners, said hydropower was a critical noncarbon energy source and described the negative impacts of dams as "controllable." He said officials would emphasize environmental protection and resettlement issues on future projects. "We believe that large-scale hydropower plants contribute a lot to reduce energy consumption, air and environmental pollution," Chen said at a September news conference. China, he added, planned to develop hydropower on "a considerable scale."
Internationally, a debate has raged for years about large dams (those higher than 50 feet) because of their legacy of disruption. Many environmentalists contend that electricity generated by large dams should not be considered renewable because of the social and environmental damage that follow many projects. The United States has many large dams, but in recent years has started decommissioning some of them, particularly in the West, because of environmental concerns.
Tension about large dams is also rising in China. Environmentalists are pushing for tighter regulation and more public input before projects are approved. Resettlement remains a volatile issue. Two years ago, more than 100,000 people protested the Pubugou Dam project in Sichuan Province, until the riot police crushed the demonstration.
President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao appear less enamored of the big projects than their predecessors. Neither man attended last year's ceremony for the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. Wen has demanded environmental reviews for different proposed sites. Yet with the momentum of the surging economy, most projects continue moving forward.
The renewed debate about the Three Gorges project offers a view of the competing pressures on China. Equal parts vanity project and technological marvel, the Three Gorges was initially conceived for flood control, not for any efforts to promote clean energy. Today, dams are big business in China, and profit-seeking is another major reason behind the hydropower push...
Today, the Three Gorges Dam is the de facto anchor of a planned system of 12 hydropower mega-bases on the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze. Over all, officials have said more than 100 hydropower stations could be built on the upper Yangtze basin within two decades. The government-owned corporation that built the Three Gorges Dam has already started construction on 3 of the 12 large projects.
One of those sites, Xiluodu, will be the country's second-largest hydropower station when it is completed in 2015. Two years ago, regulators halted construction at Xiluodu because the project lacked a proper environmental impact study. But work has quietly resumed. In November, crews succeeded in damming the Jinsha River, the tributary that forms the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Environmentalists worry that these systems create a domino effect in which one mega-dam begets another.
New laws require dam projects to undergo environmental impact studies and also provide opportunities for public comment and oversight. But those laws are easy to circumvent, or ignore. Xiluodu, for example, is being built in a national protection zone for several species of endangered fish.
"These large dams will have a lot of impacts, sometimes irreversible," said Ma Jun, an environmentalist and the author of "China's Water Crisis." "We have to look at them very carefully and follow our legal requirements very strictly."
I was poking around the Financial Times website when I came across a recent video series by the well-regarded newspaper on the pitfalls facing the infamous dam. There are three segments available [1, 2, 3] showing the epic scale of the social and environmental costs exacted by this project. The first is an overview of the project. The second narrates the plight of Fu Xiancai, one of those displaced by the dam who was beaten up by local thugs for being too vocal in his opposition to the project. The third features Tan Qiwei, vice-mayor of the city of Chongquing, admitting that the dam has caused several headaches. Below, I also attach a brief snippet from a more recent report in the International Herald Tribune about the Three Gorges Dam. It's scary that the dam has not deterred the Communist Party leadership from building yet more of these huge dams. Pick your power generation poison: coal plants foul up your air, but hydroelectric projects foul up your water and cause a myriad of dislocations. Hopefully, the recently agreed to provisions at the just concluded UN climate change conference on sharing less environmentally pernicious technologies by industrialized countries with developing ones should help.