Building China's 'temples of doom'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 1997, 12:00am

The Chernobyl of the dam-building industry - the world's biggest dam catastrophe - killed 230,000 people in Henan in 1975. And no one outside China knew.

China has built more dams and moved more people than any other country and is still engaged in a massive effort that dwarfs anything else being undertaken in the world. Even in 1986, China had built 18,820 large dams, compared with 5,459 in the United States and 3,000 in the former Soviet Union.

An astonishing 30 million Chinese have been forced out of their homes by this gigantic undertaking - that is half the number evicted worldwide.

The damming of China's rivers is so part and parcel of the history of communism on the mainland that without understanding this story, it is hard to fully appreciate what has happened in the country during the past 50 years. In the US, which led the world in dam construction, the industry has practically come to a standstill and amid fierce lobbying some of the dams are being pulled down. In China under Prime Minister Li Peng, who studied dam building in the Soviet Union, the industry is reaching its apogee this year.

In the autumn, Chinese engineers will divert the waters of the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers, two of the greatest feats of this kind in Chinese history.

Most attention has focused on the Three Gorges Dam, but China is building many more huge structures often with the support of the World Bank and international engineering giants hungrily seeking new work. Inside China, these projects are rarely questioned.

In China only one voice, that of environmentalist Dai Qing, has dared to question what is happening. She puts the numbers displaced by various dams and reservoirs as high as 60 million.

In Silenced Rivers, Patrick McCully has set out to take a long and critical look at the claims of dam engineers, not just in China but all over the world. As the campaigns director of the International Rivers Network, a US-based lobby group which resists damming rivers, this is not intended to be a flattering or unbiased portrait.

Little space is devoted to the benefits of dams. Instead he makes a compelling case that many of these benefits are exaggerated because if the true costs are factored in, the advantages are far smaller than they appear.

As McCully describes it, the history of dam building is a sorry tale of bribery, ecological destruction, banking fraud, poor planning and technological hubris. The book is an impassioned attempt to charge an industry which he asserts has escaped necessary democratic vetting.

It claims dam costs are regularly underestimated, the benefits exaggerated and the beneficiaries are often not those who need help most. Often the poor are made to subsidise the better-off. The book describes, for instance, how these 'temples of doom' are responsible for spreading water-borne diseases among the poor resettlers who rarely use the electricity generated. McCully is also good at describing why many dams often have a far shorter life than expected, especially in China where the average rate of sedimentation in dam reservoirs is 2.3 per cent a year compared with 0.2 per cent in the US.

Most people know about the fiasco of the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River, which immediately filled up with mud, but the same mistakes have been repeated elsewhere such as at the Yangouxia Dam. In the past few years, the anti-dam lobbyists have begun to match the success of the critics of the nuclear energy industry by successfully challenging a number of mega-projects.

The World Bank dropped its support for India's Sardar Sardova Dam on the River Narmada and the Arun III Dam in Nepal, and has shied away from becoming involved in the Three Gorges project.

Yet in China and other parts of the region such as along the Mekong River, the anti-dam movement is making slow headway.

China's leaders and the World Bank are still deeply enamoured with giant hydroelectric projects, especially as they can be presented as the lesser evil when set beside the environmental dangers of burning more coal.

The Communist Party has no intention of allowing popular opposition to its dams to develop because it might become the spearhead of a democratic movement, as happened in Hungary and other members of the former Soviet bloc.

So much of what happens is bound to remain secret.

Yet this book, if it became available on the mainland, would prompt a few more people to ask some hard questions about what is really going in the world's greatest dam-building programme.

Silenced Rivers - The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams by Patrick McCully Zed Books, with The Ecologist, $250