By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member
Yes, that is a real quote from the official guidebook. China’s soaring energy demands require drastic measures if supply is to keep up with the demands of the country’s increasingly affluent population. On the way back from a meeting in Wuhan, I took the opportunity to visit the infamous Three Gorges Dam, just up the Yangtze River from the city of Yi Chang, which is home to China’s largest civil engineering project since the construction of the Great Wall.
According to recent research from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China has just overtaken the USA as the country responsible for the most CO2 emissions internationally. China, traditionally reliant primarily on domestic coal for its energy, is now investing heavily in nuclear as well as renewables in order to limits contribution to global climate change.
The Three Gorges Dam is theoretically capable of delivering 18,200 MW of power, making it the largest hydro-electric power station in the world (when measured by installed capacity), and there is still room for a further 6 turbines, each of 700 MW. Hydro-electric power is usually thought of as climate-friendly, and the project calculates that it is capable of displacing energy production from coal that would yield 120 billion tons of CO2 per year.
However, recent research points to large dams as significant sources of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. According to a paper published in March 2007 dams in China are estimated to produce 1% of the country’s greenhouse gases. Comparative figures for Brazil and India are 5%.
Beyond energy, the Three Gorges Dam Project also provided benefits for shipping (providing western access for cargo ships through a five stage ship lock, see photo above) as well as flood protection (currently being significantly tested due to high rainfall in the upper Yangtze). It was with these objectives in mind that the TGD was originally proposed in 1919, however it subsequently became one of the most hotly debated political controversies of China’s recent history. The cost of the project so far has been around US$25 billion. Over the 17 years since construction began approximately 1.3 million people have been displaced. The potentially irreversible changes to ecosystems downstream are only beginning to be understood.
The Chinese government seems to have made up its mind that the project was an unbridled success, and is keen to convince visitors to the site. They have created an “ecology garden”, in which tourists may take a walk while overlooking the dam buildings, and an “ecology performance square”, where I managed to catch a spectacular show about the dam’s past and present. The finale featured supra-titles (in English) reading “Great gorges and rivers reflect an ancient Chinese philosophical idea: the unity of earth and heaven and the harmony of everything in the world”… a Chinese version of Nehru’s sentiments on the “modern temples of India”?
In my short stay it was difficult to know what to make of it all. Although not easily visible through the all-enveloping mist common at this time of year, the immense scale of the project was simply overwhelming. The concrete constructions come close to visually dominating the surrounding gorges, breaking the lines of the granite and (for the moment at least) leaving the area resembling an enormous building site.
It was hard to imagine the villages that had been engulfed by the dam, and the generations of associated culture that had been removed for reconstitution (in whatever form) elsewhere. How did their voices feature in the political controversy? I wondered what surprises might be around the corner, whether related to methane emissions, ecological impacts on fisheries and the livelihoods that depended on them, estuary erosion downstream as a result of silt retention at the dam (which might affect land around Shanghai), or the much talked-about flood threats from incoming enemy missiles. The complexities and uncertainties involved were unfathomable, but one thing remained clear: the Three Gorges Project had dramatically impacted China’s socio-techno-ecological systems at a national level, and there was no turning back.