INFLATABLE LAKE: A ship travels toward the Three Gorges Dam on October 26, 2010, after its reservoir reached its full capacity of a 175-meter water level on that day (CHENG MIN)
A recent report on the Three Gorges Project compiled by experts from the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) refutes some criticism that has been haunting the world's largest hydropower project and identifies challenges to be addressed that planners had failed to take into account.
As a comprehensive review of the world's largest water conservancy project, the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee under the State Council officially entrusted the report to the CAE in early 2008. Over two years' time, more than 300 experts reviewed the project focusing on 10 issues such as earthquakes, flood control, environmental impact, sediment build-up, displaced people's life and others.
According to the interim assessment report released on December 17, 2010, the Three Gorges Project, which has been basically completed, has started to show enormous comprehensive benefits in flood control, power generation and navigation. The assessment report says the feasibility report on the project is correct in its general conclusion that "it is better to build the project sooner than later," its recommendation of designed maximum water level of 175 meters and its construction plan of raising the water level and relocating residents in the planned reservoir area in stages.
The Chinese Government appointed a panel of experts to conduct a feasibility study of the Three Gorges Project between 1986 and 1989 after 30 years of preparation work.
"Flood control has been the primary task for the Three Gorges Project, which has fundamentally alleviated flood threats against the lives and property of people living in the Yangtze River drainage area," said Shen Guofang, Director of the CAE Assessment Panel. According to the assessment report, the reservoir can hold water up to 22.15 billion cubic meters, enabling the most vulnerable stretch of the Yangtze River on the Jianghan Plain area to weather worst-in-a-century floods instead of the worst-in-a-decade floods. During the 2010 flood season, the Three Gorges Project cut down the flood peak by up to 30,000 cubic meters per second and protected the Yangtze basin against serious floods.
The assessment report says the Three Gorges Project will not repeat the failure of the Sanmenxia Dam Project, which was built on the Yellow River in 1960 and has lost most of its water storage capacity to the massive silt load. It also says the severe droughts and downpours in Sichuan Province and Chongqing Municipality in recent years are not related to the Three Gorges and the 8.0-magnitude earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan Province, in May 2008 was not triggered by the reservoir of the Three Gorges. Geological disasters in the reservoir vicinity can be controlled and middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River haven't undergone many changes since the Three Gorges Dam started to store water, it says.
The assessment report says concerns about the Three Gorges Project urgently needing to be addressed include the water quality of the Three Georges reservoir and its tributaries, ecological environment in the reservoir vicinity, living conditions of relocated farmers and geological calamities in the reservoir vicinity.
A total of 1.2 million people had been relocated for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam by June 2008. According to the assessment report, the 200,000 people who were moved to other provinces and municipalities have adjusted to their adopted cities. Shen said his surveys found relocated farmers enjoy the same level of per-capita housing area and farmland as local residents.
However, the report also reveals a difficulty encountered by people who were relocated in their home county: their farmland area has shrunk as much as 38 percent and the new land is barren.
The report suggests that the Central Government should provide relocated farmers and their local governments with more subsidies and the China Three Gorges Corp., the dam's operator, should establish a long-term mechanism to allow relocated farmers to enjoy the economic benefits of this project.
However, the assessment report admits the original feasibility report made some inaccurate forecasts, such as failing to predict the rapid growth of navigation volumes on the Yangtze River and overestimating the environmental capacity of nearby ecosystems.
"Some of these inaccuracies are due to the prolonged construction process. Moreover, the last two decades have witnessed China's rapid economic and social development due to its reform and opening up, which made the inaccuracies of the feasibility report understandable," said Shen.
It took the Three Gorges Project almost a century to evolve from a dream to reality. Envisioned in 1918 by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a forerunner and leader of the 1911 Revolution that ended China's last imperial dynasty, the Three Gorges Project eventually made a critical step to materialization in April 1992, when the Fifth Session of the Seventh National People's Congress, China's top legislature, adopted the resolution for the construction of the dam.
The water level at the dam reached its designed full capacity mark of 175 meters in October 2010. The only remaining part designed for the Three Gorges Project that hasn't been built is a ship elevator, whose delay has been ratified by the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee.
"The last decade has seen rapid economic development in the Three Gorges area. But the growth is characterized by the development of energy-intensive and polluting industries. The backwardness of pollution control facilities has posed a great challenge to the water environment in this area," said Shen.
According to the assessment report, sewage discharge in the Three Gorges area rose 87.6 percent from 1998 to 2007 and the chemical oxygen demand (COD) discharge increased 13.8 percent. The most significant COD growth was recorded in the upper reaches of the Three Gorges, at a staggering 78 percent during the 10 years.
Pan Jiazheng, Deputy Director of the CAE Assessment Panel, said that it is unreasonable to blame the Three Gorges Project for the exacerbated pollution in the Yangtze River. "Let's not forget the dam does not consume water, but simply uses the water to generate power. The major cause of pollution is the long-time habits of residents along the upper reaches of throwing their garbage into the river. The damage worsened after booming industrial companies along the river adopted the same practice," Pan said.
The assessment report suggests the section of the Yangtze River in the Three Gorges area should be put under special protection against pollution and the mounting population pressure in this area should be eased by providing young people with vocational training so they can find jobs elsewhere.
Pan, who said he once refused to listen to doubt about the Three Gorges Project as a strong supporter, said that criticism around the Three Gorges Project has actually helped prompt the government to take extra measures to ensure the project's efficiency and safety. Giving an example, he said the Central Government was wise in suspending the preparation work in 1985 when some opponents said the designated water storage level of 150 meters was too low.
"We should thank these opponents. Otherwise, the water level of 150 meters could seriously undercut the project's flood control, navigation and power generation capacities," said Pan.