Cost of development finally to be counted

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am

There is no better sign of the mainland's realisation that its 'development at all costs' attitude has to change than acknowledgement by senior officials that the Three Gorges Dam could cause an environmental catastrophe. Just as the project symbolises the nation's economic and technological development, efforts to repair the damage caused by its construction highlight the need for a more sustainable approach to growth.

No one could doubt that the dam across China's mightiest river, the Yangtze, is an engineering marvel. The hydroelectricity it is producing and the floods and droughts that it prevents arguably justify the US$25 billion cost. But there have been other prices to pay for building the world's biggest dam. More than 1.3 million people have been moved, thousands of years of history and culture submerged and one of the river's most scenic stretches has disappeared.

As a forum in Beijing has been told, there are also a number of worrying environmental threats: erosion and landslides on steep hills around the dam, conflicts over land shortages and 'ecological deterioration caused by irrational development'. Then, there are the uncertainties of what the damming of the Yangtze could mean long-term for people living along its banks. Such concerns were expressed by environmentalists during the planning and construction of the dam, but shunned by authorities in the name of politics and progress. On the completion of the dam's wall in 1997, then president Jiang Zemin hailed the event as 'a remarkable feat in the history of mankind to reshape and exploit natural resources'.

Such comments are in stark contrast to those of the director of the administrative office in charge of building the dam, Wang Xiaofeng , who said on Tuesday that China 'cannot win passing economic prosperity at the cost of the environment'. Communist Party leaders agree: they will consolidate policies giving more attention to the environment at their congress next month.

The meeting will be an opportunity to make a stand on environmental matters. Holding up the Three Gorges Dam as evidence of the danger of putting unfettered growth ahead of all else will help to ensure that a more balanced approach can be developed.