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In China, Three Gorges Dam's image showing some cracks

The dam was hailed as an engineering feat that could withstand the worst flood in 100 years. But this year's torrential rains have severely tested its capacity to control the surging Yangtze.

August 16, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Yichang, China — White-haired Zhao Chengmu lives just below the Three Gorges Dam, China's largest construction project since the Great Wall. If the colossal structure fails, the fragile 77-year-old shop owner will be one of the first to die.

But that's never going to happen, he says.

"This dam will be here for eternity," Zhao boasts. "Even if this dam is hit by a U.S. missile, it won't break — it'll just shake once."


FOR THE RECORD:
Three Gorges Dam: An article in Monday's Section A about China's massive Three Gorges Dam suggested that the 1989 book "Yangtze! Yangtze!" criticized, among other things, shoddy construction in the dam. The dam project did not enter construction until 1993. —

Like Zhao, most Chinese herald their government's monumental enterprise to defy the mighty Yangtze River, choke off its devastating annual floodwaters and harness its raw power to provide cleaner energy. Such a mammoth engineering feat, they say, only serves to underscore mankind's supremacy over nature.

Critics consider the dam in less lofty terms: as Beijing's boondoggle. With an official price tag of $25 billion — and some estimates claiming three times that much — the costliest hydropower project in history demonstrates China's sheer arrogance in trying to tame nature's whims, they say, never mind the 3,000 tons of garbage that have been flowing every day into the reservoir recently.

A year after the dam went into full operation, cracks are already showing in the public image of the project. This year's torrential rains, the nation's worst in a decade, have severely tested the project's capacity to control the surging Yangtze, the world's third-longest river.

Last month, when floodwaters poured into the dam's 400-mile-long reservoir at 565,000 cubic feet per second, a government official acknowledged that "the dam's flood-control capacity is not unlimited" and hinted that more severe flooding could even risk the structure's collapse.

That's a far cry from the highfalutin claims of just a few years ago. In 2003, officials boasted that the dam could withstand the worst flood in 10,000 years. In 2007, the estimate was reduced to 1,000 years. In 2008, it was dropped yet again, this time to just 100 years.

Many engineering experts are worried about this year.

"The flooding is greater than anyone expected," said John Byrne, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy. "The problems that many people predicted appear to be showing themselves."

Newspapers here report that the reservoir's rising water level has increased the likelihood of such hazards as landslides and earthquakes. Officials even say the structure won't totally stop Yangtze flooding, which has killed an estimated 1 million people over the last century. "It can't defeat all under heaven," the project's deputy operations manager said of the dam.

A project promoted by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the Three Gorges Dam was long hailed by Communist Party officials as a crafty way to solve several complex problems with one structure.

Damming the Yangtze allows seafaring ships access to the river, with the reservoir able to accommodate the deep-hulled vessels, and open up China's landlocked interior to economic development. The clean, cheap energy generated by the dam would help wean China off coal-fired power plants, officials said.

Yet in recent years, the government has toned down its boasts on the project, which seems to have fallen out of favor in Beijing's halls of power. When the dam officially opened in 2006, Chinese leader Hu Jintao was conspicuously absent.

Critics claim the dam's legion of problems far outweigh its benefits. They point to the reservoir's silt accumulation that they say will prevent the passage of the deep-sea ships. The dam has also disrupted the migratory routes of several unique fish species, they say.

Many worry the reservoir could turn into a cesspool of sewage, toxins and other pollutants discharged from factories upstream. In recent weeks, the heavy rains have caused thousands of tons of garbage to collect at the dam, threatening to jam its locks. Although tugs and fishing boats have recently helped to collect the garbage, in some spots the trash is still so thick people can stand on it.

For years, journalist Dai Qing has been one of the project's most vocal skeptics. In 1989, she led an alliance of scientists, engineers and scholars in writing a book called "Yangtze! Yangtze!" outlining alleged corruption and shoddy construction in the project. The book was banned, and Dai was jailed for 10 months for anti-government organizing. Two decades later, she still calls Three Gorges a spectacular mistake.

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