On China Yangtze river, giant dam’s legacy blocks revival

The Three Gorges Project has affected many communities, including this one on the Yangtze river, forcing several to move as a result of rising waters and increased seismic activity. (Reuters)
Updated 15 November 2019

On China Yangtze river, giant dam’s legacy blocks revival

  • Earthquakes, landslides, changing water levels and damaged ecosystems among the many issues facing Beijing

CHONGQING: The 2,000 residents of Muhe, whose village was moved to higher ground a decade ago to escape the rising Yangtze river, have tried to make the most of their remaining land by planting orchards of oranges and persimmons along its banks.

With just 110 hectares on the edge of Asia’s longest river, Muhe lost half its territory to make way for the colossal Three Gorges Project, a 185-meter dam and 660-kilometer reservoir designed to control flooding, aid navigation and generate electricity.

Beijing has allocated more than 600 billion yuan ($86 billion) since 2011 to alleviate the dam’s long-term impacts on villages like Muhe and bring the region’s deteriorating environment under “effective control.”

But many problems are unresolved, and the government has promised to spend another 600 billion yuan by 2025, said Xie Deti, a member of the Chongqing delegation of the National People’s Congress who lobbied the government to release more funds in March.

Protecting the Yangtze has become a priority for China after President Xi Jinping promised to end big and “destructive” development along the river, which stretches 6,000 kilometers from Tibet to Shanghai, supplies water to 400 million people and irrigates a quarter of the country’s arable land.

Since Xi’s orders in 2016, local governments have dismantled dams, dredged plastic junk from the water, relocated factories, banned waste discharge and restricted farming and construction all along the river.

“You can say we have undergone earth-shattering changes, especially when it comes to increasing our awareness of environmental protection,” said Liu Jiaqi, Communist Party secretary in Muhe.

But the region has been unable to evade the earth-shattering impact of the dam itself, which sits near two fault lines and has been blamed for a surge in earthquakes and the fragmentation of ecosystems, among myriad other problems.

China’s environment ministry said the region saw as many as 776 earthquakes in 2017, up 60 percent compared with a year earlier, with the highest magnitude at 5.

The total number has risen significantly since the project began, with one study from the China Earthquake Administration showing a 30-fold increase between 2003 and 2009, when the reservoir was filled.

Xie, who is also a professor at Chongqing’s Southwest University, said other challenges include algae blooms caused by fertilizer, and wastewater from tributaries polluting the river.

The government has long insisted the benefits of the dam outweigh the costs and disruptions.

But in 2011, Beijing promised to spend 1,238 billion yuan ($177.24 billion) by 2020 to try to fix them. It pledged to raise living standards, heal the environment and create a long-term mechanism to prevent geological disasters.

But less than half of the money had been spent by the end of last year, said Xie, who told Reuters he had received assurances from Beijing that the rest would come between 2020 and 2025.

So far, farmland has been restored by dredging up submerged soil. Riverbanks have been strengthened and reforested to reduce landslide risks, and “ecological barrier zones” have been built along vulnerable parts of the river.

But one government figure, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the additional funding might not be enough to solve long-term problems.

Sediment accumulating near the dam threatens to undermine flood controls. A specialist research team has been examining the problem in the Three Gorges region for more than 30 years and China has built two giant dams upstream to block silt.

The massive reservoir, which absorbs more heat than dry land, has also been blamed for increasing regional temperatures. Warmer water and the fragmentation of habitats have wreaked havoc on local fish stocks, with the Yangtze sturgeon close to extinction.

HIGHLIGHT

• China to spend extra $86 billion to fix Three Gorges.

• Giant dam hindering Xi’s Yangtze cleanup goals.

• Earthquakes in region surged 60% in 2017.

• Algae, landslides, silt still posing problems.

The dam has also caused water levels to dwindle at Poyang lake, a habitat for the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise.

Since the dam was built in 2006, some leaders have distanced themselves from the project. Wen Jiabao, premier from 2003 to 2012, openly criticized how it was built and castigated officials for failing to take care of more than a million displaced residents. During his visit to the Three Gorges last April, President Xi berated officials for failing to clean up the “grim” environment of the Yangtze, and reiterated his pledge to end “big construction” on the river.

But Xi also described the dam as a testament to China’s talent and self-reliance, saying it made him proud of its staff and his country.

“The issue is obviously very complicated, and it is not black and white,” said Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-governmental organization in China that tracks water pollution.

“It does have both flood control and power generation functions, but on the other hand, whether the cost is too high, whether there are alternatives, I think those are what we need to study,” Ma added. “For good or bad, the heyday of dams has passed.” 


China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a game-changer

Updated 14 August 2020

China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a game-changer

  • Project will strengthen bond between two countries who share history of good strategic relations

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), presently under construction at a cost of $46 billion, aims to improve Pakistani infrastructure and deepen the economic and political ties between China and Pakistan.

CPEC is advantageous to Pakistan but also carries substantial economic and strategic benefits for China.

Its importance for China is evident from the fact that it is part of China’s 13th five-year development plan.

CPEC will boost ties between China and Pakistan, which share a history of congenial strategic relations, over a versatile canvass of mutual interest extending over six decades.

In the past 65 years, both countries have developed strong bilateral trade and economic collaboration.

China is Pakistan’s largest trading partner in imports and exports. And CPEC is going further to enhance the lucrative economic cooperation between the two countries.

If realized, the plan will be China’s biggest splurge on economic development in another country to date.

Consul Syed Hamzah Saleem Gilani

It aims over 15 years to create an economic corridor between Gwadar Port to China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang through the 2,700 km long highway from Kashgar to Gwadar, railway links for freight trains, oil and gas pipelines and an optical fiber link.

The project will create nearly 700,000 new jobs and add up to 2.5 percent to Pakistan’s annual growth rate.

CPEC has undeniable economic and strategic importance for Pakistan and China. It has been called a game-changer for Pakistan because it will link China with markets in Central Asia and South Asia. Presently China is some 13,000 km from the Arabian Gulf with a shipping time of about 45 days.

CPEC will shrink this distance to merely 2,500 km (an 80 percent reduction).

The shipping time will reduce to 10 days (a 78 percent reduction). The bulk of China’s trade is through the narrow sea channel of the Strait of Malacca.

Top security analysts say that in the event of a future war in Asia, the US Navy could block the Strait of Malacca, which would suffocate China’s trade route. CPEC, besides providing an alternate route, will reduce the shipping time from China to Europe.

The largest part of the project would provide electricity to energy-thirsty Pakistan, badly affected by hours of daily scheduled power cuts because of electricity-shortages, based mostly on building new coal-fired power plants.

The plans envisages adding 10,400 megawatts of electricity at a cost of $15.5 billion by 2018. And after 2018 a further 6,600 megawatts, at an additional cost of $18.3 billion, will be added, doubling Pakistan’s current electricity output.

The CPEC brings many benefits for China and Pakistan, but it is also challenged by security-related and political threats.

There are two major sources of threat: Indian involvement, and the separatist rebellion in Baluchistan where the port of Gwadar is situated.

Both dimensions of threat are interconnected because recent arrests of Indian spies by Pakistan reveal that the Indian government is spending a huge amount of money and resources on sabotaging the CPEC project.

Apart from espionage activities, India is also supporting the Baloch rebels. Nevertheless, Pakistan is well-equipped, with adequate security and infrastructure support to effectively deal with such challenges. Operation “Zarb-e-Azb,” which has received international recognition, has flushed out the major chunk of extremists from Pakistan’s soil.

The political side of the project for Pakistan is also not rosy.

It is always difficult to achieve political consensus on an issue. The Kalabagh dam project, for example, which is considered to be extremely important in addressing Pakistan’s water-shortage problems, has been subjected to political controversy and still awaits construction.

Similar formulas are being applied to CPEC. Drums of provincialism are being beaten loudly to make CPEC another Kalabagh dam.

However, this time sanity has prevailed in the political leadership and controversies were nipped in the bud at an early stage. Besides the efforts of political leaders, the contribution of the Army chief should not go unappreciated.

He took a special interest in this project and provided — and ensured for the future — the Pakistan Army’s full support for the mega-economic project.

CPEC has the potential to carry huge economic benefits for the people of Pakistan and the region. According to a recent estimate, CPEC will serve three billion people, nearly half of the global population. Thus a huge economic bloc is about to emerge from this region.

On completion of the CPEC, Pakistan will become a connecting bridge to three engines of growth: China, Central Asia, and South Asia.

It will create many jobs and elevate Pakistan to high growth rates, which will ensure Pakistan’s stability and serve as a deterrent to extremism and violence.

The completion of CPEC is not going to be an easy task because it has attracted international conspiracies, against which it must be protected.

The economic dividends of this project, by connecting all the economies of the region, are going to be so high that once this project is in full-operation even our neighbor India might ultimately join the club for greater economic benefits.

 

The author is Pakistan’s press counselor in Jeddah