Water is released from the sluice for flood prevention at the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, Hubei province, China. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Drought? Earthquake? Blame the Three-Gorges Dam: World View

a | A

By Adam Minter

Natural disasters have long been agents of social and political change in China, and droughts especially so.  In part, it was the control of droughts and floods along China’s Yangtze River -- Asia’s longest  -- that inspired the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the 2500-yard long superstructure that stands as a  symbol of the Communist Party’s careful, successful stewardship of China’s economy over the last 30 years.

It has long been an object of controversy in China, but its pedigree -- it was a pet project of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modern economy -- made it a mostly off-limits subject for criticism.

That all changed last week when China’s State Council announced that there were “urgent problems” with the dam, including issues with pollution and the relocation of populations displaced by the project. And with one week’s hindsight, it also appears that the State Council was aware of a more immediate, looming problem, as well: the Yangtze is now experiencing its worst drought in fifty years, and Chinese voices  -- both powerful and common --  are starting to question, previously, the sacrosanct pile of concrete that now dams it. Newspaper editorials have been mostly – but not entirely – diplomatic in their opinions. For example, Yangtze Daily, based in river-boomtown Wuhan, carefully opined that: “It is not an incomprehensible thing that there are some adverse effects in the project, objectively. Every activity made by humans will change nature to a certain extent and there must be advantages and disadvantages on both sides.”

Indeed, for most editorial pages on China’s East Coast, subtlety reigned. But in the midst of the carefully couched words, the criticism was obvious. Even People’s Daily, the carefully worded, official voice of the Party, got in on the act  (albeit via quotes on the news pages):  “In response to some media claims that the Three Gorges Dam is behind the drought conditions that have plagued the population living along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, Lu Yaoru, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said that the Three Gorges Dam is not entirely to blame …  However, scholars like Lu say all the blame cannot be placed on Three Gorges Dam. Lu, who is a professor at Tongji University as well as the associate leader of geology and earthquake evaluation for the Three Gorges Project group, said it is impossible and not scientific to put all the blame for extreme environmental problems on the Three Gorges Dam project.”

Among China’s millions of microbloggers, few of whom appear to be climate scientists, there’s a wide range of opinion on whether or not the dam is the cause of the drought. One opinion that’s been resurrected in the midst of the dam debate is its supposed   role in triggering 2008’s devastating Wenchuan earthquake – and that quake had some connection to a previous drought. Journalist Zhao Shilong, opining on the Sina microblog, joined other microbloggers in making this explicit connection: “There are certain connections between the drought and earthquakes. Three years after the southwest drought, the ...  Wenchuan Earthquake occurred. This year there is a drought in the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze River ... It is very strange! We should beware of it.”

For the most part, China’s newspaper editors aren’t quite ready to make a connection between seemingly unrelated natural disasters, but are increasingly willing to air the negative views of Three Gorges experts. In one of the more dramatic if not comical examples, the popular, nationalist Global Times ran an interview with two Dam experts, including Fan Xiao, an engineer associated with geological survey teams based near the dam, and a dam supporter. Unprompted, he offered this unreassuring gem: “After the construction of the project, there were thousands of minor earthquakes, which actually helped release built-up seismic energy in that area and reduced the possibility of big earthquakes happening in the future.”

 Partly in response to statements like this, and in part out of the grandiose paranoia that characterizes microbloggers worldwide, many Chinese have taken to grim proclamations that sound as if they were extracted from the Book of Job, and not China’s version of Twitter. “Every achievement made by man will prove to be foolish later,” wrote one such microblogger at Sina Weibo. “That is man, imagining greatness on one side, and played by nature on the other.”

 Less portentous, but far more tactile, was the comparison made between the Three Gorges Dam and a toilet, by writer and media commentator Li Chengping: “It pumps water in the high place to tank which is called Three Gorges and then been managed by a valve called Three Gorges Project Corporation. When they feel comfortable, they will flush; but when they are not in the mood, they will hold out.”

Meanwhile, in the absence of hard (public) evidence that the Dam caused the increasingly serious drought, the state media is on a bit of an offensive. On Wednesday, Xinhua, the state-owned news service, was peddling a story headlined (on its English site):  “No evidence that dam causes drought: experts.”  And on Thursday the campaign culminated with a new headline: “Three gorges help fight drought.”

In any case, early in the week, and in some quarters, the conversation had expanded into an ostensibly more answerable -- and far more sensitive -- question: how on earth did the Three Gorges Dam get approved in the first place? An unsigned editorial in the Western China City Daily, a large circulation paper based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, far from Beijing, noted tartly: “Originally, the project was promoted by the government, investigated by a group of experts, and voted on by the National People's Congress. Common people, even some experts, could hardly get the opportunity to participate in the process. But the construction of the project swallowed up both the inside and the outside of the reservoir and its adverse effects have also spread through different kinds of channels. Finally, we’re all involved.”

This is the sort of opinion that can -- or, at least, is -- aired far away from Beijing. But back in the capital, where debate is allowed within limits, there’s much less doubt about the wisdom of those who dreamed up, authorized and implemented the dam project. Back at the Beijing-based Global Times, the dam’s review process was depicted in more approving terms: “Prior to construction, the project had undergone more than 20 years of feasibility studies. Contradictory opinions, mainly from environmentalists, were heard publicly. The final approval was given by the National People's Congress. Controversy indeed surrounded the Three Gorges Dam from the beginning, but this was not a decision taken on a whim.”

If drought wasn’t reason enough for the Party to become defensive, there is also the uncomfortable precedent of the Sanmen Dam, a social, ecological and environmental disaster that began in the 1950s and continuestoday. Indeed, the Sanmen Dam remains so sensitive that an investigative journalist who had uncovered much of the incompetence and wrongdoing surround that project was briefly arrested in 2010 on the occasion of the publication of his book about the dam. At least a few of China’s microbloggers have invoked this history in the context of Three Gorges, though mostly with skepticism. “The drought that occurs only once every 50 years pushes the Three Gorges into the teeth of a storm of criticism,” observed a Sina microblogger. “Is the crime really caused by Three Gorges? Will it become the next Sanmen Dam? I doubt it.”

Meanwhile, the drought worsens, bringing threats to Shanghai’s water supply, lost rice crops and power rationing  across China. Some of China’s microbloggers, unable to do much about the disaster, are taking solace in their ability to talk about it (mostly) openly. “Since the Three Gorges began to fill with water on June 1, 2003, disasters have occurred continually on the lower reaches of the reservoir area and the dam,” wrote a microblogger named Xu Xingqi. “The most commonly heard sentence is: ‘it has no connection with the Three Gorges Project.’ From saying this sentence to laying some of the disadvantages of this project on the public media platform, is indeed progress.”

-0- May/30/2011 18:59 GMT