Chinese Admit Three Gorges Dam Failures

25 May 2011 FDI Team

Background                                           

The Chinese Government has issued a statement admitting that the $23 billion Three Gorges hydro electric dam project is leading to deterioration in the ecology of the region and is vulnerable to geological disasters. The managers of the dam are confronted with conflicting demands for the water, while trying to return profits to their shareholders.

Comment

One of the concerns is the rise in algal blooms and floating rubbish. The project has increased pollution and has also led to the loss of wetlands. In addition, more than one million people have been forcibly relocated to make way for the dam.

Compounding the problems facing the project is the severe drought that has hit central and eastern China. Record-low rains have meant that approximately 1,400 reservoirs have been drained. The government has responded by releasing significant amounts of water from the Three Gorges Dam. The risk of landslides has increased as the ground dries in the drought. The dam has been blamed by some environmentalists as a contributing factor in the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. The huge volume of water in the dam when it is full is said to increase the danger of earthquakes and landslides.

This year, however, it is the lack of water filling the dam that is creating the problems. Flows upstream on the Yangtze River are down 40 per cent over the past month compared to the previous three years. The government is in a quandary. It is releasing water at the rate of 7,000 to 10,000 cubic metres per second to ease the drought downstream but this is dropping the dam’s water level. This, in turn, is cutting the capacity of the dam to generate power and is increasing generating costs. China’s second largest lake and largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake in Jiangxi Province, is currently about ten per cent of its size during the high water season.

The situation highlights the vulnerability of dams to weather patterns and the difficulties dam administrators have in deciding between competing demands for water. Not only does a lack of rain cause water and food security implications, but also energy security concerns.

 In the situation where the dam needs to make a return to shareholders, as in the case of the Three Gorges Dam, maintaining water levels to maintain hydro-energy output may win out over the needs of farmers in the region, unless conditions to avoid this are put in place and enforced by the government.  Driven to maintain shareholder returns, the listed operator of the Three Gorges Dam Project, China Yangtze Power Co, is more likely to be concerned about falling profitability in hydro-electric production and meeting energy contracts, than in third party economic, social or environmental interests in the water.

Gary Kleyn

Research Manager

Future Directions International Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

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