As the crisis has worsened in recent weeks, the spotlight has returned to the dam, releasing a torrent of pent-up blame on the project, not only for the drought but also for recent earthquakes, pollution and the hardship faced by the 1.4 million residents who have been relocated for its construction.
“For years, we’ve made some of these very same points and failed to get any notice, but now the problems have gotten to the point where the government is unable to continue covering up the issues,” said Dai Qing, an environmental activist and longtime opponent of the project.
As a result, in the past two weeks, the government has made rare admissions of mistakes with the project. The most dramatic came last month when the State Council, led by Premier Wen Jiabao, acknowledged “urgent problems,” in a statement intended to counter mounting public anger. But while the council talked of landslides, pollution, relocation and other issues, it notably left out any mention of drought.
Instead, over the past week, the government has followed up by going on the offensive — issuing a barrage of editorials in state-run media and quotes from government experts that argue against any drought-dam connection. A prominent headline last week on the state’s Xinhua News Agency site: “No evidence that dam causes drought: experts.”
Other experts outside the government say that while drawing a direct line from dam to drought may be oversimplying, it is undeniable that the massive dam was built to hold back the waters of the Yangtze River — which has in all likelihood worsened the problem.
“It is one reason but not the only cause,” said Liu Shukun of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. The drought, he said, is the result of a whole host of factors, including a severe lack of rainfall. But since the main body of the dam was completed in 2006, he pointed out, the surplus water that usually flows downstream on the Yangtze has been stopped up, eliminating a key component that would have helped now-dwindling bodies of water such as Dongting Lake and Poyang Lake.
The government, however, may be forced to soften its position on the dam’s role in the drought. The latest sign came Thursday when a government official in the Yangtze drought relief office was quoted in local media saying the dam had lowered the water in two nearby lakes.
Amid the renewed scrutiny, many critics have also begun to tie the dam to China’s recent earthquakes. On China’s active blogosphere — the main outlet for government criticism these days — netizens have been particularly eager to link Three Gorges to the devastating Sichuan quake of 2008. Even local newspapers, which are often careful about blaming the central government directly, have printed interviews with scientists openly discussing the dam’s geological impact.