Sunday, October 22, 2006

Well, I'll be dammed ...

While the nationally heralded joy over Jia Zhangke's win at the Venice Filmfestival with his documentary-style feature film "Still Life" (三峡好人) must be slowly subsiding, it seems not all is quiet yet on the Three Gorges Dam front.

While the film focuses on the tribulations and love stories of the people that had to suffer through relocation because the dam reservoir flooded their original dwellings, a lot of people are now also frowning their eyebrows for more economic concerns. With one of the two shiplocks that take the boats around the dam, in effect locked, one of the major reasons for having the dam built, i.e. improving navigation on the upperreaches of the Yangtze, seems to be in serious jeopardy.

The delays that have plagued boats trying to get around the Three Gorges dam are set to worsen soon when one-half of the two-way shiplock is taken out of service for more than nine months.

The partial closure of the shiplock is scheduled to begin in mid-September and continue until the end of June 2007, Xinhua reports. The five-step shiplock raises vessels to the higher water level in the reservoir behind the dam or lowers them to the river downstream.

The Three Gorges reservoir is due to be raised a further 17 metres after the current flood season, when it will go from 139 to 156 metres above sea level. After the reservoir is raised, the south (downstream) side of the shiplock will be drained to allow construction work on the structure to be completed. With the shiplock's traffic-handling capacity cut in half, vessels going in both directions will have to use the one lane that normally only handles ships going upstream.

The story, which can be found over at CDT and Three Gorges Probe, is just one of those things that makes one wonder whether the benefits will finally outweigh the drawbacks. In the meantime, the bills keep going up on the monsterproject.

Now, in an apparent effort to relieve some of the pressure on the shiplock, the Three Gorges Project Corp. has decided to build a highway from the dam site to the city of Yichang, China News Service reports. The 57-kilometre, 3.6-billion-yuan (US$450-million) road will run from the port of Maoping just upstream of the dam to the Yangtze Bridge at Yichang, and connect with the Chengdu-Shanghai national highway system.

The plan for the new highway appears to confirm the concerns expressed by many, including local governments and shipping companies, that the shiplock is able to handle much less freight than its designers anticipated or project authorities promised.

Clearly, the trials have only begun, as already the first reports start popping up on weather change, not only in Yichang -the dam's location- but areawide in the Sichuan region, which could be due to evaporation of the huge watersurface behind the dam. According to Probe International's Patricia Adams, also the Yangzi flood control argument will not be able to deliver on it's promises:

Meanwhile, the much-touted flood-control benefit turns out to have been nothing more than propaganda. Internal and confidential state documents that were leaked to us confirm that, according to the best analysis done by Qinghua University scholars, the dam will not control Yangtze floods, and the officials know it. But, the leaked documents warn, "never, ever let the public know this."

TGP however is now a fact of life and the Chinese (and the world by extension), whether benefitted by it or not, will have to accomodate whatever consequences it may bring. In view of the huge debate this project has aroused, with fierce criticsm from all circles of scientists, environmentalists, engineers etc ... AND the less than positive track-record they have on dams (over 200 collapsed, several disfunctional due to silting, ...), one would have expected China to be cautious on venturing in further megalomaniac hydropower projects.

Not so the Middle Kingdom. Though TGP will probably remain the largest single project in dimension and size, the sheer number of dams that are on the planning table is incredible. "International Rivers Network" has put up a map on what is in the pipeline for the so-called Greater Shangri-La Region. Extrapolation of this map to the entire country may not be the correct thing to do as there are other area's in China that have far less river coverage than this part, but it gives us an idea on what is on the Chinese planners mind to boost power production fourfold by 2020. When we look at it from this angle and from the first lessons that have been learned from TGP, it may seem that China's environmental nightmare may only have just begun.

The chinese authorities may also have to toughen up further if they want to implement all they have in their drawers, because opposition is also straightening it's back and gets ready to fight. As such, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao already had to order a stop on the building of a dam on the Nujiang River to further assess the environmental impact (Ref. Ma Jun's "Record-breaking Dam Building Boom could make Free-Flowing Rivers and Endangered Species in the World's Most Dammed Country") .

Maybe the River Dragon is slowly awakening and starts to bite back in defense.


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