Responding to Graeme Kelleher

Guest post by Patricia Adams, Probe International

In his interview with chinadialogue’s editor, Isabel Hilton (In defence of dams, May 27), engineer and water-resource expert Graeme Kelleher says critics of China’s Three Gorges dam should accept the “facts” that the dam protects the environment by reducing coal burning and “saves thousands of Chinese people from being drowned in the floods of the Yangtze River every year.”

But it is engineer Kelleher who should get his facts straight.

The Three Gorges dam’s relatively small reservoir in relation to typical flood volumes means that the dam is largely unable to control flooding. Furthermore, the fact that most floodwaters originate downstream of the dam, makes the dam virtually irrelevant in controlling the floods that afflict the Yangtze.

China’s top leaders and dam officials know this full well. A leaked government document, containing the transcript of a meeting and circulated in 2000 to China’s Premier Zhu Rongji, revealed that the Three Gorges’ flood control claim is propaganda, not responsible engineering.

“The flood control capacity of the Three Gorges Project is smaller than declared by us,” warned Zhang Guangdou, eminent professor at Qinghua University and principal examiner of the Three Gorges Project’s feasibility report in the 1980s. Zhang’s leaked statement was addressed to Guo Shuyan, the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee Director, in a May 17, 2000 meeting. “The research was done by Qinghua University…The Changjiang Water Resources Commission has also admitted this is true.”

Mr Zhang added, “Never, ever let the public know this.”

Well, the public does know it, and so should Mr Kelleher. The full transcript of the meeting, translated, has been on Probe International’s website for the past 10 years.

But the evidence doesn’t stop there.

Scientists and engineers warn that the Three Gorges dam will exacerbate flood damages upstream of the dam by causing silt deposition in Chongqing and downstream of the dam by discharging silt-free water. Indeed, this is already happening: the silt-free water passing through Three Gorges is scouring critical downstream flood control embankments putting areas, including Wuhan, a city of nine million, at greater risk of an embankment breach and catastrophic flooding. Even further downstream, the tidal wetlands and fragile silt plain on which Shanghai sits now receive less than half of its sediment inflow, putting the city at risk.

Mr Kelleher will find all the detailed flood control analysis for Three Gorges, going back 20 years, on Probe International’s website.

While he is there, he should also review the straightforward cost analysis that shows, yuan for yuan, an investment in high efficiency gas turbines and cogeneration would have more economically generated power and reduced China’s coal burning than an investment in Three Gorges.

The numbers speak volumes: if China had invested the Three Gorges budget of US$30 billion in gas-fired combined cycle plants, it would have displaced at least two and a half times as much coal as Three Gorges could – without the additional costs of Three Gorges’ resettlement, environmental damage, seismic instability, and long-distance transmission. Or, according to the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, by retrofitting coal plants and boilers for cogeneration – capturing waste heat to produce electricity or heat – to generate 80 billion to 90 billion kilowatt-hours annually – roughly equivalent to Three Gorges’ annual output – the cost would have been a fraction of Three Gorges’ cost.

On all three counts – flood control, economy, and environment – the Three Gorges dam fails. It is indefensible. Why then did it get off the drawing board?

Because the Chinese government, along with the Canadian government and World Bank, prepared numerous feasibility studies and environmental impact assessments that were shams — showpieces to legitimize what was always an iron fisted decision to proceed with the dam. Ironically, this is exactly what Mr Kelleher prescribes — EIAs and an iron fist — for “intelligent design, decision making and management” of successful dams.

Mr Kelleher has it exactly backwards. Three Gorges got off the drawing board because, as the Chinese say, those who benefit are not the ones who suffer, and those who suffer are not the ones who benefit from this dam. Only when those who suffer can hold those who benefit to account in a courtroom or at the ballot box, will wise decisions about energy choices begin. Iron fists and EIAs will only cause more dam trouble for the people of China.