China's Great Leap Backward: Uneconomic and Outdated, the Three Gorges Dam Will Stunt China's Economic Growth

By Ryder, Grainne; Adams, Patricia | International Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

China's Great Leap Backward: Uneconomic and Outdated, the Three Gorges Dam Will Stunt China's Economic Growth


Ryder, Grainne, Adams, Patricia, International Journal


THE TRAGEDY OF THE THREE GORGES DAM goes beyond the nearly two million people who will be resettled from their homes, villages, farms, temples, and work places to make way for it, beyond the 1,300 sites of cultural antiquities and the 100,000 hectares of precious farmland that will be submerged forever under the 600 kilometre long reservoir, and beyond the rare species that it will likely render extinct. Ironically, the tragedy created by the Three Gorges will also extend to the economy and its electricity sector - the chief justification for building the dam. The Chinese government must maintain the status quo in the electricity sector to protect the twentieth century's largest state vanity project from market discipline and public oversight. While rapid technological advances in electricity markets around the world will deliver cheaper, cleaner, and more readily available power, Chinese citizens will be forced to buy dirty, expensive, and unreliable power. As a source of electricity, the Three Gorges dam cannot compete with the alternatives. As a symbol, the dam sends out the discouraging signal that in China the central planners are alive and well and at the helm. The Chinese economy and all its citizens will lose if the dam is completed.

THE MAELSTROM OF THREE GORGES

We know a great deal about the Three Gorges dam, now under construction on China's Yangtze River which flows past the major cities of Chongqing and Wuhan to the East China Sea at Shanghai. It would be the largest dam in the world, with an installed capacity of 17,680 megawatts, and the most expensive, costing $28 billion according to official sources, $34-36 billion according to industry sources, and $77 billion according to an independent Chinese banker knowledgeable about the project.(f.1) It would displace more people - 1.98 million according to the latest figures(f.2) - than any dam in history and flood 13 cities, 140 towns, over a thousand villages, factories, farms, temples, and archeological treasures dating back to 50,000 BC.(f.3) With 27 submerged spillway bays (each with the average flow of the Missouri River) that are, according to Canadian engineers, 'well beyond proven world experience,'(f.4) it would be daringly experimental. Without a doubt, it would be the most challenging: the Yangtze River has the fifth highest silt load of any river in the world, and the dam's engineers will be pushed to find a way to flush silt through the reservoir, something that has never been done successfully before.(f.5)

Outside China, the problems besetting the project are well known. No other dam in history has received more ink. Every major daily newspaper from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian, every major magazine from National Geographic to Time, and every major TV network has dedicated prime space and time to the debate and to the costs that the dam will inflict on the Chinese people, its environment, and its economy.

Inside China, the Three Gorges dam also receives wide and regular coverage but only in the form of government public relations packages which claim that the dam will generate electricity, stop life-threatening floods, and increase navigation of ocean-going ships to Chongqing. Criticism of the dam, or even debate in which different sides challenge each other, is strictly forbidden. Books which contain such debates are banned. Experts and journalists who attempt such discussions are harassed, even jailed.

While much is known and said about this project - the single largest capital project under construction today - one thing is rarely discussed and little known: there are cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable ways to provide the desperately needed power that the Three Gorges dam is meant to supply.

THE THREE GORGES DAM IS UNCOMPETITIVE

Technological advances, brought about by regulatory changes in the world's energy markets, have turned mega-power projects like the Three Gorges into modern-day dinosaurs. …

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