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The Hindu on : China's leap forward

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, February 13, 2001

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China's leap forward

THE MOST comprehensive and timely report ``Dams and Development'' by the World Commission on Dams, which was released by Mr. Nelson Mandela at a special ceremony in London on November 16, 2000, does not condemn the construction of dams outright. It reaffirms that there is often no alternative for developing countries in need of water and hydropower.

The Indian Supreme Court's recent decision to allow the Gujarat Government to go ahead with the Narmada Scheme and to build the Sardar Sarovar Dam to a height of 90 metres also vindicates the protagonists of mega dams especially in India and China, the world's two most populous developing countries. The Supreme Court makes further raising of the Sardar Sarovar Dam conditional on how some of the concomitant environmental problems, and specially the problem of resettlement of the displaced people, will be addressed by the authorities concerned. These problems pale into insignificance when viewed in the broader context of the tangible and intangible benefits that the Narmada Scheme in India and the Three Gorges Dam Scheme in China would bring to millions of people when completed.


In parallel with Narmada, China is building the Three Gorges Dam which has been aptly described as the ``New Great Wall of China.'' The 6,000 kilometre long Great Wall was built to protect the country from outside invasions and the 1.6 kilometre long Three Gorges Dam would protect millions of people from the scourge of floods that destroyed them and their lands in the past. It would offer them long-term food security, abundant energy (hydropower) and cheap inland transport.

The dam is named after the three gorgeous gorges, Qutang, Wu and Xiling, through which the Yangtze majestically flows and which are located in the Sichuan and Hubei provinces. The 192 km long river stretch from the Qutang Gorge to Xiling Gorge is perhaps the most exquisitely scenic area of China containing mountains of all shapes and waters in all forms. Many Chinese poets have extolled the picturesque landscapes of the gorge area in their poems and one poet wrote:

Mt. Wu meets the sky,

The mists fly far and high,

One King Xiang had a dream,

The Goddess bathing in a stream,

Her majesty has gone away,

The pure cloud floats on its way.

Only the Great River is haste,

Flows eastward with no rest.

The Yangtze rises in the high mountains of Qinghai province and flows through Tibet, Yunan, Sichuan and Hubei to Poyang Lake from where it meanders through the low-lying alluvial plains before debouching into the East China Sea north of Shanghai. The Yangtze is not only the largest river in China, but also one of the largest and the third longest in the world. Along with the Yellow River, it has provided clean water and cheap inland transport to China for centuries (The total navigable length of the river system including tributaries exceeds 70,000 kilometres). The Yangtze Basin, encompassing 1.8 million square kilometres or nearly 20 per cent of the country, has a population of 350 millions and produces about 40 per cent of the country's total agricultural and industrial output.

Salient features and benefits

First proposed by British engineers in 1919 and finally approved for construction in 1992, the Three Gorges Dam is perhaps China's biggest venture since the Great Wall of China more than 2,000 years ago. It is scheduled for completion in 2009 at a total estimated cost of U.S. $25 billions (some critics of the dam claim that the cost may double or treble by the time it is completed). The 180 metres high and 1.6 km long dam will create a gigantic lake or an ``inland sea'' with an area of over 600 square kilometres.

The dam will control the catastrophic floods that regularly sweep down the river causing incalculable loss to human life and property. Major floods in this century occurred in 1931, 1935, 1954 and 1998. The 1954 flood was the worst in living memory and affected 8 million hectares and claimed over 300,000 lives.

The impounding of the reservoir is planned in three stages: to a level of about 80 metres by 1998, to 135 metres in 2003, and to 176 metres in 2009 when the project is completed.

While the dam will control floods in the lower reaches of the river, the huge reservoir upstream will facilitate and extend water transport and shipping up to Chongking, a teeming industrial city in the Sichuan province. In terms of hydropower, the Three Gorges Dam will top the list of world's hydropower schemes when completed. The dam's 26 generators will transform the Yangtze's power into 18,200 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to one-tenth of nation's energy output. This additional energy is indispensable to sustain China's booming economy in the 21st century.

Social impact

The new lake will stretch back some 400 kilometres to Chongking in the Sichuan province. It will inundate 140 towns and 320 villages in addition to several antiquities and celebrated scenic sites. About 1.2 million people will be displaced and they are being moved to new towns and villages built on higher ground or outside the reservoir area. Tens of thousands of people living close to the river have already been moved and they have been compensated for their houses, lands and other immovable assets.

China may be handling the displacement and resettlement of people in an orderly manner but it is the flooding of hundreds of archaeological and cultural sites, some 6,000 years old, that has aroused international interest and concern. Some Chinese and international critics think that heavy silting of the reservoir may compromise the dam's operation and increase the risk of a catastrophic collapse during a major flood.

Other critics think that the huge lake of ``inland sea'' may turn into a cesspool if the pumping of raw sewage into the reservoir is not stopped. Water pollution from raw sewage would affect the water quality of the lake and render it unsuitable for irrigation and drinking.

A group of Chinese archaeologists, intellectuals and environmentalists, specially established to save the ancient monuments, has compiled a catalogue of 1,200 sites judged worthy of preservation and submitted it to the Three Gorges construction committee with a request for $140 millions to finance a rescue programme of selected sites. According to the group, the planned rescue programme may be far bigger than the UNESCO-funded operation to save Abu Simbel and other Egyptian temples from the High Aswan Dam. Many Chinese now believe that only 10 to 20 per cent of the ancient relics would be saved.

The World Bank and the U.S. Export-Import Bank declined to finance the project on environmental grounds. However, China is determined to complete it with its own resources and from private foreign financing.

Progress at a price

Displacement of people, loss of cultural or historic sites and submergence of forests or scenic landscapes due to dam construction is a small price to pay for development. Progress in Western Europe and North America was achieved at an enormous cost to the people and the environment but no one seems to remember it today. The media in the West focus almost daily on the negative social and environmental impact of development projects like the Narmada and the Three Gorges.

They do not remind the world that the U.S. alone accounts for 25 per cent of the total emission of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and it is defying the world opinion by refusing to control it. The World Commission on Dams' report claims that 56 million people have been displaced involuntarily by dams built in India since Independence. It is not clear how this figure was arrived at. A vast number of people, no doubt, have been displaced but they are still alive.

The report should also have indicated how many people would have died in famines since Independence without these dams. While releasing the report in London, Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who enjoys the greatest moral authority in the world today, quite aptly remarked: ``It is one thing to find fault with an existing system... It is a more difficult task to replace it with an approach that is better.''


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