“Urgent Problems” Facing the Three Gorges Dam

By Ariella Tai

Water being released from the Three Gorges Dam in central China's Hubei province. The state council has admitted the dam is creating a legacy of major environmental and social problems. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Last week, both The Guardian and The New York Times reported on a statement released by the Chinese government, and approved by prime minister Wen Jiabao, that acknowledged “urgent problems” facing the Three Gorges Dam project.

Started in 1992, the construction of the world’s biggest hydropower plant has necessitated the relocation of 1.4 million citizens and the destruction of over 1,000 towns and villages. Victims of the massive flooding include the cites of 1,000 year old Fengjie and 1,700 year old Gong Tan, the last months of which are chronicled in the landmark documentaries Before the Flood and Before the Flood II, directed by Li Yifan and Yan Yu.

Filmed in cinema-verite style, these documentaries do the work of recording the breathtaking natural beauty of these historic cities that will soon be wiped away. The filmmakers also document the struggles of the town’s residents as they are forced out of the homes that they have built and held for generations and asked to relocate to smaller residences where they face the possibilities of unemployment and deeper poverty. These citizens stand against government bureaucrats to protest their mistreatment and organize as a community to protect their homes, livelihood and history.

Famed painter Liu Xiaodong also does his part to stand against the eradication of Fengjie and other cities falling under the floods of the Three Gorges Dam project in the documentary Dong, directed by Jia Zhangke. His sprawling canvases depict displaced workers and residents, and well as the landscapes that will soon be no more.

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

The geological cost of the dam is steep as well. The weight of the water in flooded zones has allegedly caused tremors, landslides and erosion. This pressure has also increased the risk of earthquakes in these regions, but the New York Times reports that although “the government has acknowledged that risk [they have] denied that the project played any role in China’s powerful May 2008 quake in Sichuan Province, in which at least 87,000 people died.” The devastation of the province and residents of Sichuan is explored in Du Haibin’s Venice prize-winning documentary, 1428, as he visits the site almost immediately after the disaster and then again 6 months later- cataloging the ongoing struggle of the survivors.

Since the completion of the barrier in 2006, researchers have seen a rise in the pollution of reservoir, citing that the water has been “…plagued by algae and pollution that would previously have been washed away.”

Responses to these problems include the possibility of a push back against construction and the possibility of further relocations of residents in order to restore ecologically ravished regions facing some of the worst droughts since 2003. Environmental experts at the Asia Society’s Center on United-States China Relations assessed the implications of this recent report, stating “There’s a kind of a balance sheet of benefits and liabilities that have come out of this project…My sense is that the Chinese government is getting better and better at collecting information about things like this.” He added, “They know if they don’t fix these problems there will be dire consequences.” Longtime critic of the project, Dai Qing, however, is less optimistic. “The government built a dam but destroyed a river…No matter how much effort the government makes to ease the risks, it is infinitesimal. The state council is spending more money on the project rather than investigating fully. I cannot see a real willingness to solve the problem.”

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