There may be no better evidence of change in China than the fact that the government now occasionally admits that problems exist in the country. No where is this admission more embarrassing than with the Three Gorges Dam, a monstrous, and monstrously controversial, project on the Yangtzee River. Built at great financial, environmental, and social cost, it is turning out to look a lot like Boston's famed "Big Dig"--a poorly executed disaster waiting to happen. Reports the New York Times:
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.
The Communist Party leaders who broke ground on the Three Gorges project in 1994 had promised that China could build the world's biggest dam, manage the world's biggest human resettlement and also protect the environment. Critics warned of potential dangers, but saw those objections pushed aside. Now, critics say, the problems at the Three Gorges underscore the risks of the new phase of dam building, which could displace more than 300,000 people.
“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.”The point is not that dams are never cost-effective. But as the recent congressional override of President George W. Bush's veto of the bloated water bill demonstrates, such projects tend to be the last refuge of the porker and the scoundrel. The result is a lot of wasted money. Human lives are often disrupted, and sometimes sacrificed, as well. The potential Three Gorges debacle poses a particular challenge to the Communist Party's political monoply in China. But the ongoing problems also provide a sobering lesson for politicians in the U.S.