BY GRACE GARRETT, Staff Writer
Although China is the world’s leading clean energy producer, some of its most ambitious and, arguably, successful projects have generated large amounts of criticism both locally and abroad. The Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze River in Hubei Province, is one such project. Despite having reduced China’s greenhouse gas emissions by over 100 million tons per year, the dam has sparked negative international attention and local resistance from protesters, who point out the indirect costs of pollution, displacement, and risk of disaster.
The Three Gorges Dam has been many decades in the making. The location is so strategic that leaders as early as Sun Yat-sen proposed such a project in 1919. Construction for the dam began in 1994, and it was completed in 2003. Because of the bargaining system in the Chinese government, a large number of organizations had to agree to support the dam before it was able to move beyond the planning stages. As China scholar David Lampton points out, “To weld a coalition big enough to win support for the dam, [promoters of the project] must provide benefits to a vast constellation of groups”. These groups include international and domestic agencies and banks that invested heavily in its construction, the Central Government and companies that benefit from its energy production, and of course, local companies and residents, whose operations and lives are directly impacted. Each of these parties have a different estimation of the costs and benefits of the dam’s operations.
On the one hand, electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam currently supplies over ten percent of China’s total demand. Hydropower is a natural, renewable, and clean energy resource. The greenhouse gas that hydroelectricity displaces from the atmosphere reduces air pollution, improving health conditions. The dam prevents the regular flooding of several major Chinese cities, saving lives and cutting the loss of flood damage at the same time. The economic benefits are also considerable: rising water levels improve access and safety for cargo ships on major trade routes, which has led to a measurable boost in the economy of Central China.
Yet these successes do not give us license to ignore the many negative ways in which the dam has affected millions of people living in the Yangtze watershed, and the poor in particular. The basin created upstream has corrupted farmland and led to widespread displacement of people within the region. Some have been relocated to cities, where they struggle to transition to urban life. Widespread corruption means that money intended for those people who lost their homes often never reaches them. Additionally, while air pollution may be down because of the drop in coal use, there has been a rebound effect in the form of a rise in water pollution. According to a World Wide Fund for Nature report, “[the] Three Gorges Dam exacerbates water pollution by impounding waters, trapping sediment and increasing eutrophication”. Eutrophication is the process by which bodies of water lose oxygen because of excessive growth of algae. While raw sewage and other waste was once flushed out by the river, it is now left stagnant. World Bank reports show that 115 million rural inhabitants rely on surface water as their primary source of water, despite the fact that 70% of China’s water is now unfit for consumption.
The Three Gorges Dam is an example of the way in which the transition to clean energy does not produce exclusively positive results. The loss of people’s homes and danger to public health must be factored into an honest cost-benefit analysis of the dam. While it has produced certain environmental and economic benefits in its early days of operation, the dam is still relatively new, and the full price of its construction may not be understood for years to come.