China Takes Issue With Dam Critics

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

BEIJING, Nov. 27 -- A week after a landslide near the controversial Three Gorges Dam killed more than 30 people, Chinese officials on Tuesday defended the environmental work around the project, arguing that "geological disasters" in the area "have been effectively controlled" and dismissing negative news coverage as sensationalistic.

"This area has always been an area of frequent geological disasters," said Wang Xiaofeng, director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, noting that China has invested more than $1.4 billion in tackling such problems.

"That is not to say that in the future there will not be dangerous phenomena, including landslides, but we believe that the Chinese government has paid close attention to this and there will not be any major damage to the life and property of the people along the Yangtze River," Wang said at a news conference.

Wang's remarks marked the latest government attempt at damage control on the dam issue since a recent flurry of criticism. Even before a Nov. 20 landslide killed at least 31 people in Hubei province, a group of Chinese officials and environmental experts had warned of a "catastrophe" if measures were not taken to scale back reckless development and curb pollution.

The experts acknowledged the benefits of the dam -- the largest hydroelectric project in the world -- but they also voiced concern about problems including algae blooms, which threaten the quality of drinking water in the area, and rockfalls and landslides, which have produced waves as high as 165 feet.

The Three Gorges Dam was completed in May 2006 to great fanfare and is a source of prestige for China's leaders, many of whom are engineers. They consider it not only a clean energy project capable of reducing China's growing carbon emissions but also a means of controlling the massive flooding that has long wreaked havoc along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

The dam, however, has led to increased pressure on the riverbanks, landslides and the resettlement of farmers on higher land. Those are problems that even supporters of the project did not fully anticipate.

"Before, experts made environmental evaluations for the Three Gorges Project, and at the time, the evaluations were relatively optimistic. They didn't expect problems would be so serious or that the problems would come so soon," said Liu Shukun, a professor at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. "Experts knew that the water quality would turn a little bit bad, but they didn't forecast the algae blooming. So the government has invested a lot of money to build sewage disposal factories to deal with this problem."

Liu said landslides were the biggest problem, followed by water pollution, especially in tributaries of the river where the dam has slowed water flows. Much of the ecological damage is irreversible, he said.

But in an echo of the upbeat report issued by Three Gorges officials Tuesday, Liu added, "Right now, everything is under control."

Residents of Badong county, the area of Hubei where the Nov. 20 landslide crushed a bus full of workers, said landslides have become common. "Although they are taking measures to deal with the problem, the problem won't be solved. The cliffs along the Yangtze and Qing rivers have the greatest potential for landslides," said a farmer who gave his surname as Deng. "A lot of farmers must move to higher places when the water rises, but after they move, new problems always appear."

Wang, the head of the dam project, told reporters that concrete had been poured into sections of the cliffs affected by landslides, extra sewage plants had been built and new fish species had been introduced into the area. He also said officials have earmarked more money to resettle residents and tightened financial controls to avoid the misallocation of money.

"We have all along acknowledged the existence of disadvantages," Wang said. "The problem is how to tackle the disadvantages, and in time, the decisions will prove to be scientific and correct."

Pan Jia Zheng, team leader for quality control at the Three Gorges, criticized foreign news media for negative coverage of the project, saying they bore "deep prejudices" against China. "You try to make an issue out of nothing," said Pan, who has spent half his life working on the project. He complained about headlines that called the project a "time bomb" and stories that compared river water to soy sauce.

"Please do not demonize what is happening in China," he said.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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