China admits Three Gorges dam danger

China’s Three Gorges dam threatens to become an environmental catastrophe if the government does not act quickly, senior Chinese officials have warned in an unusual public nod to the massive project’s ecological impact.

The comments, carried in state media on Wednesday, mark a rare Chinese admission that dire predictions of ecological destruction from international experts and domestic opponents of the world’s largest dam are coming true.

Landslides, silting, and erosion above the dam are creating environmental and safety hazards that cannot be ignored, Wang Xiaofeng, director of the State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee, was quoted as saying. “We cannot exchange environmental destruction for short-term economic gain,” he said.

After 15 years of construction the controversial project has affected a 600km stretch of the country’s largest river, with local officials complaining of increased landslides and a profusion of algal blooms along the length of the reservoir.

The flow of the Yangtze above the dam has been reduced from 2 metres per second to 0.2 m/s, causing the sediment in the river’s famously muddy water to settle on the riverbed.

Local governments are faced with huge and growing problems just to keep the dam operational and warn that increased silting could make parts of the river impassable for shipping transport, negating one of the main rationales for the dam in the first place, according to Jean-Louis Chaussade, chief executive of Suez Environment, who met with local officials in recent months.

Unfettered dumping of industrial wastewater and the submergence of numerous toxic factories when the dam was first built have added to the problems of a project that involved the forced relocation of 1.3m people.

“China has no choice, if it doesn’t reduce contamination of its water resources economic growth will stop,” Mr Chaussade said. “This is understood by the government.”

The administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has made environmental protection and sustainable economic growth central goals in its populist campaign to create a “harmonious society”.

In the past, officials have argued that the environmental benefits of hydroelectric power outweigh its costs. The Three Gorges dam is now producing enough electricity each year to replace 50m tonnes of thermal coal and reduce China’s CO2 emissions by 100m tonnes. According to some experts, China this year overtook the US as the world’s largest carbon emitter.

The unusual criticism of such a symbolic project could be politically motivated in the lead-up to the 17th Communist Party Congress, a five-yearly event in which senior officials jockey for power before the top ranks of the party are decided.

In his published remarks, Mr Wang quoted Premier Wen telling China’s cabinet recently that “the environmental cost is the most pressing of the serious problems facing the Three Gorges project.”

The dam was the brainchild of Mao Zedong but construction began under the government of former President Jiang Zemin, who still exercises residual influence in the current government even three years after he relinquished his last official post.

Former Premier Li Peng, the man widely believed to be responsible for sending in troops to quell the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement, is the official most closely associated with the Three Gorges project.

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