My fourth-grade research project on dams lacked data from the field until I got a lucky break: An uncle had connections at the Conowingo Dam. (He was in the concrete business; Conowingo is 435,000 cubic yards of concrete.) We drove down U.S. 1 to the Susquehanna River in Maryland and took an official tour. Deep in the dam's innards, I stood over an enormous sluiceway, spellbound by the whirling shaft of a turbine as big as a house. Every 60 seconds--the guide shouted--38 million gallons of water pass through the dam, generating electricity for a million and a half residential customers.
The Conowingo opened in 1928, a year before the Great Depression began. Soon afterward, President Roosevelt was flinging public-works projects at the landscape like thunderclouds of cash; flushed with successes like the Conowingo, dam boosters crusaded to build bigger and bigger, blocking rivers nationwide.
The United States dispatched hydrological engineers to China, too. Their mission: to bestow expertise on a nation desperate to catch up with the West. Bursts of dam building followed, but no one attempted the Holy Grail--China's great Yangtze River. China's rulers finally announced the Three Gorges Dam project in 1992. Named for the picturesque scenery it would submerge, the dam would be the largest in the world: as tall as Hoover Dam (America's 1930s monument to the conquest of nature) and six times as wide, to be constructed over 15 years at a cost of $10 billion.
Today, however, as 18,000 workers swarm the site and cost estimates spiral toward $70 billion, a growing number of environmentalists, scientists, and social activists in China and abroad are predicting disaster.
At the center of this controversy is a river," intones Martin Sheen in a voice crisp like a fortune cookie, over scenes of oozing brown water. "But it is not just any river. It is China's lifeline." The picture switches to peasant women washing laundry in an impossibly ferocious current, while the voice-over gushes on: "Throughout the centuries, the people who have made their lives along its banks have depended on it not just for their livelihoods, but for their lives."
Sheen narrates a new PBS documentary on the Three Gorges Dam project called Great Wall Across the Yangtze, scheduled to air Tuesday, October 3, at 10:00 p.m. Since Sheen portrays the president of the United States on NBC's The West Wing, he's perfect for uttering platitudes, which mar this otherwise mostly competent program.
Journalist Audrey Ronning-Topping, who grew up on the banks of the Yangtze and now decries its imminent strangulation, crafted the documentary's narrative. Though wide-ranging, the script showcases too much of Ronning-Topping's own sentimental attachment to the river and its ancient culture. Over historic black-and-white scenes of Yangtze traffic, she introduces her objections to the dam by recalling that her missionary grandparents became engaged on a Yangtze ferryboat (sweet), from the rail of which her grandfather admired the impoverished coolies who tugged river craft upstream (sick).
What this means for the documentary is too much footage of condemned Confucian temples and dolphins in distress (although they're not even endangered because of the dam), and too little attention to the political and technical complexities of the Three Gorges project. But Ronning-Topping's romance with the river begs a question: Who are we anyway--technological crusaders during our own era of damming, but now righteous advocates for culture and the environment--to tell China and its impoverished multitudes what to do?
American criticism of China often elicits the response that so backward and overcrowded a country can't afford Western luxuries--whether it's art for art's sake, a pristine environment, or human rights. Ronning-Topping's protective love for the Yangtze might seem a case in point. Yet there are compelling arguments for why the West ought to weigh in, particularly since China could avoid our mistakes. For starters, sound technical data dictate that the dam be scaled back; moreover, within China clear-headed opposition to the dam has emerged, particularly on behalf of the multitudes who will become impoverished by being displaced.
Great Wall Across the Yangtze makes clear that the problems with the Three Gorges Dam are epic. The submerging of unexplored archeological sites and the danger to fish and fowl are unfortunate, but they begin to seem like drops in the bucket as Sheen rattles off statistics. Seven hundred million tons of sediment will land annually at the foot of the dam, and the government is relying on an untested system of sluiceways to keep it clear enough to produce the promised electricity. Meanwhile, 265 billion gallons of raw sewage will back up in the dam's reservoir every year, quite possibly bubbling into the streets of cities upstream, and toxic substances in the 1,600 factories and abandoned mines to be submerged will flow into farmland downstream. More alarmingly, Three Gorges could become a "Chinese Chernobyl," as one American expert interviewed in the program puts it, if the geologic fault line beneath it ever trembles enough to endanger the tens of millions of people in the watershed below. Though the documentary doesn't note this, some seismologists have even suggested that the weight of the huge reservoir itself could trigger the quake.
The Chinese government claims its primary purpose for the dam is flood control. Over aerial scenes of submerged villages, Sheen reports that during the past 2,000 years the mighty Yangtze has unleashed a catastrophic flood about every 10 years, with a loss of 300,000 lives in the twentieth century alone. In 1998 massive flooding killed 4,000 and left 14 million homeless. The documentary's interview with a Three Gorges engineer leaves the impression that the new dam will prevent such flooding once it is completed in 2009.
But engineers, hydrologists, and environmentalists around the world gleaned a very different lesson from the 1998 floods, which the documentary fails to note: Environmental destruction--including the soil erosion and elimination of natural reservoirs that the Three Gorges Dam itself would cause--exacerbates flooding. After the floods, China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji adopted this environmentalist stance, then axed 100 dam officials for corruption and called for Western advisers to monitor the project. This crack in the government's wall was a blow to Zhu's chief political rival Li Peng, the strongest supporter of the dam. It was also a signal to the dam's detractors that the project could still be downsized.
For years the government had suppressed all criticism of the Three Gorges project. The influential journalist Dai Qing--who is interviewed in the documentary--was even imprisoned in 1989 for her book on the subject. By 1998, though, opposition was trickling into public view. China's pre-eminent hydrologist Huang Wanli (trained in the United States in the 1930s) demanded that the government listen to what he and many experts had been arguing for decades: A series of smaller dams on tributaries upstream would achieve better results at far less cost. As Great Wall Across the Yangtze notes, however, this would defeat the real purpose of the dam. Li Peng and his technocratic entourage want a monument to China's greatness.
Today we associate dam building less with progressives like Roosevelt and more with dictators like Stalin and Nasser. Many of China's leaders believe that awe-inspiring feats of engineering will counter political unrest by generating nationalistic fervor. But with Three Gorges, this strategy seems sure to backfire. More than any other problem with the project, the gargantuan task of relocating 1.5 million people in an already overcrowded country seems insurmountable. Great Wall Across the Yangtze combines pointed interviews with citizens and quiet scenes of their everyday life to paint a sad portrait of the 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,300 villages that will end up underwater. These displaced people will be a volatile floating population that could spark social unrest.
Great Wall Across the Yangtze includes a lot of footage of brown water, beige hills, and big piles of gray rock falling out of dump trucks. Aside from an unsatisfying computer-generated image of the completed dam, nowhere in the program does the overarching scale of the Three Gorges construction site come across visually. Still, if you've ever seen a dam, it's not hard to understand why China's obstinate technocrats love the idea of this one. They want to be able to gape in pride and awe as giant turbine shafts spin clean power off spilling sluiceways. They want to tame the murderous river dragon once and for all.
They won't. The United States doesn't build mammoth dams at home anymore because they don't work. Hoover is a nightmare of silt and salinity that generates more ecological havoc than electricity. In 1996 the Conowingo Dam was almost torn to bits by a sudden winter thaw that rolled an eight-foot wall of water down the Susquehanna; the dam operators saved the residents below only by deliberately flooding their homes before the dam burst. Even China should know better--the documentary exposes a rash of dam collapses in 1975 that killed 200,000 people.
But can anyone stop the Three Gorges project? The U.S. government crusaded for dam building in China 70 years ago; with the same zeal, we are now crusading against it. In 1994 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation withdrew technical assistance for Three Gorges, and by 1995 the White House was refusing to back American companies bidding on Three Gorges contracts. In 1996 the Export-Import Bank pulled out completely; a year later, so did the World Bank.
Come hell or high water, though, China has persevered, securing private funding from American investment houses. "There is no way to stop the project," recites one project engineer in the documentary. "We are using American capital!" laughs another. But capitalism's cold calculations might just be the downfall of this dictator's dream, delivering China from a nightmare. The documentary ends with the Clinton administration commissioner who terminated American support for Three Gorges: "When the reality of the budgets of these projects hits home, people will become very creative in downsizing." ¤