The Role of the West in China’s Ecological Disasters

3 gorges 4.1

The archaic Biblical tale of the Great Deluge teaches us something still relevant today, a lesson about the interconnectedness and universality of all life on earth, and the responsibility of Man to protect and defend the ecology of the entire planet.  God did not allow Noah to “outsource” his relationship with the earth’s biosphere; God told Noah that he must be responsible for all life forms, and the entire Human race, throughout the earth.  This duty began long before there were any national boundaries, and so it continues to transcend all national boundaries.  While governments and corporations in the West are busy pretending to engage China as a supposed economic superpower, they might want to pause and think about whether their business ventures with that environmentally irresponsible regime are contributing to ecological disasters.  The Canadian experience with the Three Gorges Dam project serves as a painful reminder of the dire consequences for those who compromise environmental responsibility in exchange for imminent gains.

Ian Johnson reveals in a recent Wall Street Journal article, how Canada ignored warnings of the international community against collaborating with China in the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam.  Financial and engineering backings from the Canadians allowed some ambitious technocrats in the Chinese government to resurrect the highly unpopular project blocked by China’s Parliament in the 1989.  The result has been devastating.  Since its construction, the Dam has displaced an estimation of 1.4 million people, and the number has continued to escalate.  It also threatens to become an environmental catastrophe with a price tag several times that of its original construction cost.

When explaining what had gone wrong, Johnson said,

Nearly two decades ago, China picked a consortium funded by Canada to conduct an official study to determine whether it should build a dam around the canyons of the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges. At the time, Canada was a strong backer of hydroelectric power, which had played a key role in the country’s early industrialization.

The 1988 report largely supported the idea of the dam, but with one caveat: Its waters shouldn’t exceed a depth of 160 meters (525 feet).

“We thought 150 to 160 was feasible,” says Pierre Senecal, a Hydro-Quebec engineer who worked on the project. “But we could not definitely say that 170 or 180 were feasible or infeasible, so we did not recommend going beyond 160.”

Three years later, China decided to build the dam – at 180 meters, disregarding advice from its own official feasibility study. Today, the waters behind the dam have reached 156.6 meters, and continue to rise, even as earth slides increase and the number of people to be relocated soars. With more than 20 meters yet to go, concern is growing that the problems could get worse. The water’s height has become one of the defining problems with the dam, triggering millions of resettlers, spiraling costs and serious pollution.

The Canadian experience, frustrating as it may seem, is by no means unique.  Corporations in the West very often underestimate the complexity of operating in an environment where government authorities are not obliged to make decisions for the welfare of the general public.  There is no guarantee that promises will be honoured or expert advice followed.  Rampant corruption further exacerbates the problem.  Voice of America has reported that billions of dollars assigned for relocation have been misappropriated by local officials and many villagers have been left penniless.

But the tragedy does not end here.  When commenting on the implication of Three Gorges Dam project, YaleGlobal made this insightful observation:

Massive development projects, successful or not, spawn jobs, profits and an array of companies, all eager to replicate and improve upon the original design in new locations. With so many countries in the world desperate for low-cost energy and water reserves, Johnson warns the world to expect more mammoth dams.

Technology transfers from Western countries for the Three Gorges Dam project have led to the creations of Chinese companies that are now aggressively building dams in other developing countries around the world.   A Nepal-based online newspaper eKantipur reports in November 2007 that China is set to finance an Indian company to construct a massive hydroelectric dam project on the Seti River in western Nepal.  The US$1.2 billion project is being planned and built by the Australian Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation.  Nepal will receive just 10 percent of the project’s revenues in exchange for displacing more than 12,000 farmers and bearing the project’s environmental destruction.

These numbers are exponentially beyond the reckoning of Noah and his ark.

China Digital Times has a more comprehensive news archive on China’s hydroelectric dams initiatives.

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