To tackle an illness, the first step has to be acknowledging the existence of a problem. That explains why the central government's unusual statement last week, in which it admitted to serious flaws with the controversial Three Gorges Dam, made for very interesting reading.
In a statement issued on Wednesday after a State Council meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, it said that while the world's largest hydroelectric project, costing 180 billion yuan (HK$215.5 billion), had begun to deliver 'enormous comprehensive benefits', it also faced 'pressing issues' that must be tackled urgently.
These include the smooth relocation and well-being of 1.4 million people, ecological protection, geological disaster prevention, and the dam's negative impact on navigation, irrigation and water supplies along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.
The State Council vowed that it would address those problems through the adoption of a 10-year plan.
Although officials have commented on some of the problems associated with the dam before, last week's statement was the first public acknowledgement by the highest-level government body of all the serious challenges that have arisen from the dam. Until then, the central government had directed its massive propaganda machine to focus on the dam's functions for flood control and power generation, as well as praising the mainland's technological prowess in the 19-year effort, while trying to silence critics who voiced concerns over those problems even before construction of the dam was approved in 1992.
In recent years, state media reported deadly landslides, minor earthquakes, pollution disasters and ecological degradation in the dam area, without highlighting any possible link with the dam.
Internet chat rooms and blogs have been full of comments using anecdotal evidence to raise concerns over the unfolding environmental and ecological damage associated with the dam, including unusually long droughts and heatwaves affecting most of the cities downstream along the Yangtze since the dam was completed in 2006.
The shifting tone of the official propaganda caused many mainlanders to question the dam's ability to control flooding. Sharp-eyed internet users noticed that after 2003, when officials proudly claimed that the dam could withstand a flood seen once every 10,000 years, officials backpedalled four years later on the dam's strength, changing that number to 1,000 years. Then, in 2008, it was said the dam could withstand a once-in-a-century flood. And by July of last year, when torrential rain caused widespread flooding, officials warned about the dam's limited capacity to control flooding.
Over the past few weeks, the dam has again attracted intense criticism from internet users for contributing to the severe drought hitting most of the cities located downstream along the Yangtze.
Since March last year, those cities have reported a severe dry spell, leading to a draining of thousands of reservoirs and narrowing of the shipping lane on the river. The drought has also led to a sharp fall in hydroelectric power generation, which has contributed to an ongoing power shortage in southern provinces. Tens of thousands of people in Hubei and Hunan provinces suffered from losing access to drinking water, and farmers in nearby provinces said they did not have enough water for farming. While the state media mainly blamed a record-low rainfall, internet users were more aggressive in blaming the dam for contributing to the shortage of water. Now their suspicions are somewhat confirmed by the State Council statement.
As expected, some mainland environmentalists, while welcoming the central government's unusual frank admission of the problems, said they believed that the plan unveiled last week would be difficult to implement, given the dam's conflicting functions.
But other environmentalists are reportedly heartened by the fact that the central government's statement will help rally support for opposing future dam projects. Indeed, as power shortages spread, some officials are already urging Beijing to accelerate more major power projects, including building more dams upstream along the Yangtze and other major rivers. China already has more dams than any other country.
But as the Three Gorges saga has shown, the mainland's power-generation frenzy - its newly added power-generation capacity each year equals Britain's entire electricity capacity - is unsustainable and is bringing about enormous environmental and ecological damage, the true scale of which has yet to emerge.