Sun Jialing, a chain-smoking official, sat in his bare-walled office and contemplated the future.
It was 1996, and the colossal Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydro-electric project in the world, was under construction across the Yangtze River. It was downstream from his hometown, Fengdu, historically known as the City of Ghosts.
Mr. Sun was in charge of relocating the town’s 40,000 residents, whose homes would be swamped by a vast reservoir. Loyally, he repeated the rosy mantra drummed into him by those in charge: Relocation was “a small sacrifice” for desperately needed clean power.
But for Mr. Sun and more than a million others whose lives were uprooted from the banks of the Yangtze by the dam, the promise of a better life is as phantasmal as the spirits said to haunt Fengdu.
Today, 15 years later, criticism of the vaunted, $25-billion Three Gorges Dam , after an eternity of public silence, is rife. The worst drought to hit regions downstream from the dam in more than five decades has triggered a torrent of outspokenness – sources range from high officials to peasants – on a host of problems.
Critics point to an increase in earthquakes, poorly-handled resettlement efforts, pollution, silting, seas of algae, erosion, habitat destruction, floods, and now, drought – all attributed in various ways to the Three Gorges. No wonder the Shanghai Daily on Tuesday referred to the dam as “that monstrous damming project.”
China’s governing State Council is among those admitting that all is not well. “Urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention.”
A regional official involved in water management is also ringing the alarm. “We failed to think of all the impact that the dam might bring about when designing it,” observed Wang Jingquan last week.
He linked the unprecedented low levels of China’s largest two freshwater lakes to high volume of storage in the dam’s reservoir, restricting the Yangtze’s normal flow.
Ma Jun, who monitors rivers for a Chinese NGO, was blunt: “Without the Three Gorges Dam, the water level in the Yangtze would not be that low.”
Government spokesmen argue that low rainfall is responsible for record dry conditions, and huge volumes of water have been released from the reservoir to help alleviate the devastation.
Farmers don’t buy it. “Things changed after the Three Gorges,” 46-year old Fan Guofgeng told an AP reporter this month.
He Shishun, who still works his land with water buffalo, said the dam was good for irrigation at first. “But more recently, it’s not been helpful. The water is scarce, and it’s too dry here.”
Still, the dam has benefits. Flooding along the turbulent Yangtze, which caused untold deaths and farmland devastation in the past, has clearly eased since it began operating. And power produced by the dam’s 26 generators – some built in Quebec – is significant in a country where so many coal-fuelled power plants belch greenhouse gases.
First proposed by China’s legendary hero Sun Yat Sen back in 1919, a dam across the Yangstze in the scenic but dangerous Three Gorges stretch of water was fiercely debated for decades until the decision to proceed was firmly made in 1992.
Even then, nearly a third of the delegates at the annual National People’s Congress voted against it or abstained when the project was submitted for approval,, the largest recorded opposition to a motion in the history of the rubber-stamp NPC. Too big, too costly, too dangerous, too much tampering with nature, opponents charged. They preferred a series of strategically placed smaller dams, which they felt would curb flooding and produce power without so many problems.
But Chinese leaders, particularly then-premier Li Peng, who played a pivotal role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, pushed it through.
Numerous Canadian companies have been involved in the dam project, including SNC-Lavalin, which was part of a CIDA-funded, 1988 feasibility study that upheld the viability of its construction.
Despite the myriad difficulties, there is no expectation the gargantuan dam will be demolished, and few think the government will come close to spending the tens of billions of dollars required to fix it for good. The country appears to be stuck with its folly and years of adjustments just to keep matters from getting worse.
There has been no more steadfast critic of the Three Gorges Dam than Dai Qing. As early as 1989, she published a book of essays by scientists and other experts, outlining the proposed dam’s shortcomings. When she continued to speak out in the wake of Tiananmen Square, she was jailed for 11 months.
But Ms. Dai takes no pleasure from the government’s recent admissions and her vindication, after all these years. “It’s useless now,” she said recently. “The dam is already here.”