Monsoon torrent passes as signs emerge that Chinese leaders may be cooling on huge hydroelectric projects
By FRANK CHEN
Chinese state media stuck to the script that nothing had happened when this year’s third deluge of the Yangtze River passed the Three Gorges Dam on Wednesday.
The dam’s operator said the 185-meter-high barrier had since Monday held back more than a third of the storm water hitting the Yangtze’s upper reaches.
At its peak on Monday, run-off from heavy rain in Sichuan and Chongqing poured into the dam at 60,000 cubic meters per second and was discharged at 38,000 cubic meters per second.
Xinhua news agency said no severe flooding was reported across major cities including Wuhan east of the dam, and that the dam had mitigated the threat.
China’s National Meteorological Center has forecast an end to the summer monsoon drenching southern provinces. The worst of the rainy season since June that had pounded swaths of the nation including the Yangtze basin could soon be over, chief meteorologist Zhang Juan said.
The dam has emerged from this year’s massive flooding largely unscathed. Last week, the official Xinhua News Agency said part of the structure buckled slightly due to pressure from the surging water.
The Xinhua revelation renewed rumors about a possible breach, fueling speculation in Taiwan, Japan and India about how long the dam could stand the test.
“It’s rare for Xinhua to admit the Three Gorges Dam had deformed a little bit when holding stormwater to protect downstream cities like Wuhan, as in the past state media would just choose not to report this and deny any talks about the dam being in any sort of danger,” said a professor with the Peking University’s School of Governance, who asked not to be named.
“The timing is interesting. Can this be a sign that Beijing is changing its attitude towards the dam and other mega-hydroelectricity projects? Construction of the dam started in the 1990s during the presidency of Jiang Zemin. His deputy, Premier Li Peng, was the leading proponent.
“The current top leadership may have become less enamored with projects like this, especially since Li died last year and when the clout of Jiang, now at a senior age, is also waning,” said the scholar.
Controversies surrounding the mega-dam have never gone away more than two decades after it blocked the longest river in Asia in November 1997.
Li brushed aside objections from many environmental and hydraulic engineers, fast-tracked environmental and social impact assessments and rammed a bill through the Chinese parliament in 1992 to kickstart construction of the dam and the hydroelectric power plant beneath it. Almost a third of the members of the National People’s Congress abstained or objected the project when the bill was put to a vote.
Some experts saythis summer’s widespread floods in downstream provinces, including Hunan, Anhui, Jiangxi and Jiangsu, show that the dam is a failure when it comes to flood prevention and mitigation.
They say even though this year’s Yangtze rush of water is severe, it pales in comparison with the worst-case scenario envisaged during the design of the dam.
Fan Xiao, chief engineer with Sichuan’s Provincial Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources who also writes a column in the Chinese National Geographic magazine, said that based on his back-of-an-envelope calculations, the dam had only held back 9% of this year’s Yangtze floods.
He argued that the dam could temporarily intercept flooding upstream, but it could do very little to the flooding from heavy rains in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze.
He also said the dam was designed with “once-every-two-century worst-case flooding” in mind, yet it failed to perform its much-flaunted flood regulation role even though the current deluge was far less severe than its worst-case design parameters.
Deputy Minister of Water Resources Ye Jianchun said this week that had it not been for the improvement in weather with rain bands shifting elsewhere, the flooding along the Yangtze since June could have stretched the capacities of the dam and other infrastructure to a “breaking point.”
Li noted in his memoirs that the overarching goal of the dam was to control flooding and safeguard urban centers such as Wuhan and Chongqing.
Yet both cities have been partially submerged this summer, even though the dam’s operator China Three Gorges Group has said the situation could have been far more devastating without the dam.
There have also been signs that Beijing could be shifting its preference away from hydroelectricity projects. China’s National Development and Reform Commission has approved three projects so far this year to build nuclear plants or expand existing generation capacities, but no new dams or hydroelectricity plans on major rivers have been announced.
President Xi Jinping this week singled out for mention nuclear engineers from the state-owned China National Nuclear Corp taking part in an international nuclear fusion project. CNNC is also making headway towards the first domestic fusion experiment by the end of the year.
Xi has not inspected any major dams or hydroelectricity projects since 2018.