China’s worst drought in half a century has accomplished what years of criticism and environmental activism could not: It has resurrected the debate over the long-controversial Three Gorges Dam and caused the Chinese government to admit mistakes were made when it planned its star construction project.
The severe water shortage in southern provinces along the Yangtze River has caused lakes to dry up, brought farming to a standstill in many areas and left some residents and livestock desperate for drinking water.
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.
Such claims were bolstered Wednesday when a study published by government seismologists showed a 30-fold increase in small local tremors since the dam was built, according to a copy translated by environmental group Probe International.
Worsening matters, the drought has pitted China’s need for water and its need for energy; this is the time annually when China’s hydropower usually ramps up. Instead, the government has been releasing water from dams, dropping water levels and weakening its power generation ability. At Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest hydroelectric plant — the government has increased the water being released, from 7,000 cubic meters per second on May 7 to 11,000 cubic meters recently, drastically dropping the dam’s water levels.
This double crisis of energy and water is a far cry from the utopian vision when the dam was conceived. In fact, the remarkable pedigree of the idea for the dam is, in part, why the government has so carefully protected it over the years. The founder of modern China himself, Sun Yat-sen, proposed the dam in 1919, and Mao Zedong put his weight behind the idea.
When the government finally took up the project more than two decades ago, activists and experts warned of huge environmental and ecological repercussions, and a human toll from mass relocation.
But to much of the government, the massive project was a chance to prove how much China’s strong, centralized government could accomplish in the modern era — a public works project that would propel its economy, create a giant leap into hydropower generation and also rein in, at long last, the flood-prone waters of the Yangtze that had plagued China for centuries.
The government’s response, at times, was to crack down on dissenting opinions. Longtime activist Dai published a book in 1989 that predicted dire problems from the proposed dam. She was later imprisoned for a year. She continued to protest the dam when construction began in 1994 and through the dam body’s completion in 2006.
Reached by phone last week, she was subdued for someone whose warnings for more than two decades had finally been confirmed by the government’s own admission. Officials have known for years that there were serious problems, she said. Just because they are admitting it now does not mean they are suddenly choosing to become more transparent and honest.
“If it is real transparency, they should let the public hold responsible the officials who caused the problem,” she said. Invoking a Chinese idiom, she said the government cannot try to mend the fold after the sheep have already been stolen.
“It’s useless now,” she said. “The dam is already here.”
Researchers Zhang Jie and Wang Juan contributed to this report.