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China: Government Gives Green Light To Dam Construction

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 25 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Chinese government yesterday announced that two Western multinational groups -- the Anglo-French GEC-Alsthom and Swedish-Swiss Asea Brown Boveri as well as Voith/Siemens of Germany and General Electric of Canada -- will supply turbines and generators for the vast Three Gorges Dam in deals worth about $1 billion.

The project calls for a construction of gigantic dam across the Yangtze River. It is called Three Gorges because of its location at the meeting point of the Xiling, Wu and Qutang gorges.

Plans call for a completion of the project in about 17 years. Its costs are estimated to exceed $30 billion. Eventually walls of the dam will rise 185 meters above the bed of the river and the retaining wall of the damn will stretch two kilometers (1.25 miles) from one bank of the river to the other. It will generate 18,200 megawatts or 84.7 billion KWH of electricity annually which would account for one-ninth of China's domestically produced power. Work has already begun at the site.

The project has always been controversial. In 1989, a book featuring a series of articles by prominent Chinese scientists, intellectuals and journalists condemned the project as "the low benefit enterprise serving as a monument to a handful of people."

Shortly thereafter, one-third of deputies to the National People's Congress, usually a rubber stamping body, voted against the dam or abstained. The leaders of the Communist Party, faced with this unprecedented demonstration of protest, decided to postpone construction.

Not long after the congress met, demonstrations in Tienanmen Square began. During the crackdown that followed many critics of the dam, including some members of the National People's Congress who had voted the project down, were arrested. Dai Qing, the chief editor of the critical book was arrested an put in jail for 10 months. She was told she would be executed because she had "abetted the turmoil," by criticizing the dam. Eventually, the government decided to construct the dam.

But the controversy over the construction continues. Though studies have been made no one really knows what the effects of such a large structure will be. Environmentalists point out there has been little consideration of the consequences to the area of the dam and those areas down river. The historians remember that previous attempts to tame the river simply proved the futility of trying to chain nature.

The dam will directly and immediately affect many people living in the large area which will be submerged. The water which backs up at the dam's wall is expected to create a lake 600 kilometers or 400 miles long. The estimate of a number people who will need to relocated from the approximately 13 cities and more than 1,300 villages oscillate between 1.2 to 1.5 million.

Luna B. Leopold, Emeritus Professor at the University of California in Berkeley has written that the dam is designed to operate under conditions practically untested anywhere in the world. Its construction and operation could create major environmental problems.

A look at previous dam projects along the Yangtze brings a sobering forecast. A series of 62 dams was built along the Yangtze in the 1950s. The biggest dam in China was one of these, at Banqioa. A typhoon struck on August 7, 1975 and the entire dam system, including the dam at Banqioa, were swept away with considerable loss of life among the population. Estimates of potential loss of life should the Three Gorges Dam break run as high as 100 million people.

The Chinese government remains unfazed, however. The completion of the dam is slated for 2009.