Three Gorges Dam: The World's Largest Boondoggle to Be Completed


In early November, the reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam on China's Yangtze River will reach a level of 175 meters. Fifteen years after construction started, the world's largest and most controversial hydropower project will thus be completed. After 27 million cubic meters of concrete have been poured, 1.3 million people have been displaced and up to $88 billion have been spent, it is now time to take stock.

I had the chance to visit the Three Gorges Project this summer. After talking with government officials, environmental experts and affected people, I believe that the following lessons need to be drawn from the dam on the Yangtze River:

  • The Three Gorges power plant will substitute the burning of 30 million tons of coal every year. Yet China will have to grapple with the project's environmental legacy for many generations. The Three Gorges Dam has decimated aquatic species and commercial fisheries, is eroding the reservoir area and the Yangtze Delta, and causes frequent toxic algae blooms. The social and environmental impacts of the Three Gorges Dam should be independently evaluated and addressed before new mega-dams are built on China's rivers.
  • Many people who were displaced by the reservoir have been cheated and impoverished. Compensation payments have been routinely embezzled, and the promised jobs and replacement lands failed to materialize. In an innovative move from which other countries could learn, the Chinese government began compensating past victims of dam displacement in 2006. The Three Gorges resettlers have still not gotten a fair deal, and need to be retroactively compensated for their losses.
  • Western export credit agencies and equipment suppliers such as ABB, Alstom, General Electric and Siemens benefited from the boondoggle in the Yangtze Valley. They should contribute to the funds required to mitigate the environmental damages and restitute the victims of the project.
  • China has strengthened its environmental laws and regulations in recent years, but important flaws persist. These flaws need to be addressed. Environmental impact assessments need to be carried out before hydropower projects are started, and violations of environmental laws need to be sanctioned more rigorously.
  • Improving China's energy efficiency would have been cheaper and cleaner than building the Three Gorges Dam. In recent years, the government has aggressively promoted energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. China deserves international support for this approach, for example through an exemption of green energy technologies from patent protection in developing countries.

The Three Gorges Dam was championed by chairman Mao Zedong, and was celebrated by former President Jiang Zemin as a symbol for "the great industrious spirit of the Chinese nation." In recent years, the Chinese government has moved away from its uncritical praise for the project. In September 2007, senior officials admitted that "if preventive measures are not taken, there could be an environmental collapse." China's President and Prime Minister did not attend the inauguration of the Three Gorges Dam, as if to keep a distance from a boondoggle which their predecessors approved.

At the same time, dam construction on China's rivers is moving forward at a breakneck pace. More than 100 further dams are being planned on the Yangtze River and its tributaries alone. Chinese dam builders are also using the Three Gorges Dam as a showcase to demonstrate their engineering skills to potential clients from around the world. In recent years, they have invited government delegations from Congo, Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa and other countries to visit the dam on the world's third-longest river.

China and the world cannot afford more boondoggles in the mold of the Three Gorges Dam. A public discussion of the project's costs and benefits is now needed. International Rivers has just published a new fact sheet on the Yangtze Dam to contribute to this discussion.

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