Yangtze dammed

China continues with the world's most environmentally unsound dam project

Published: Monday 15 December 1997

 Look hard: this magnificent s even as Chinese dissident journalist Dai Qing blasted the Three Gorges project and environmentalists urged investors to stop financing the world's 'most environmentally and socially destructive project', China went ahead and cut off the Yangtze river at Yichang. A final 40-metre section of a coffer dam was filled in on November 8.

The Three Gorges project, to be completed by the year 2009, will dislocate over 1.2 million people, disrupt aquatic life, submerge archaeological treasures -- including, ironically, a natural stone beam which recorded 72 years of low-water data starting ad 764, and coffins left in the cliffs of Qutang Gorge by an ancient tribe -- and reduce the stunning magnificence of the Three Gorges, which soar to a height of 1,000 metres at places.

According to one estimate, the dam will cost us $28.9 billion (240 billion yuan). Another estimate places the project cost at over us $73 billion. The project is financed mainly by bonds sold by the us -based Lehman Brothers and other financial institutions. But even from the business perspective the project has been criticised. In September 1997, the Berne Declaration and Swiss non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) had strongly opposed the government's decision to cover the Swedish-Swiss company, Asea Brown Boveri, which had landed a contract for setting up eight turbines for the project. At least 25,000 persons joined a postcard-writing campaign to persuade the Swiss government that the project was a bad risk.

From the environmental viewpoint, the Three Gorges -- the world's largest hydroelectric project -- has been widely opposed. Critics say that a series of smaller dams would be more efficient than the current. Many industries have been located along the Yangtze which have polluted the river and the land. The proposed dam will trap a vast pool of industrial and human waste, creating an environmental nightmare.

The dam will flood 632-sq km of fertile land in central China. While rehabilitation of the dam oustees was begun in 1992, few have got new concrete homes and access to land fertile enough to raise cash crops. Many have been resettled in mountainous areas where the soil is thin. These people will find it difficult to break out of the trap of poverty.

According to the investigations of environmental consultants Sklar-Luers and Associates, the project is unsafe. In a letter to the International Rivers Network, they said that coffer dam failures may lead to major delays. More importantly, there is "a real risk" that the dam may flood millions.

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