THE BLOG

China's New Mega-Dam is a Mega-Problem

07/12/2012 02:25 EDT | Updated 09/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Almost 20 years in the making, China's Three Gorges mega-dam was declared complete on July 4 when the last of its 32 generators went online, 10 years after the first turbine went into operation. There is no end in sight, however, for costs associated with the vast and controversial project, which remains closer to disaster than triumph.

At a ceremony to mark the completion of the dam, Zhang Cheng, general manager China Yangtze Power, said "The complete operation of all the generators makes the Three Gorges dam the world's largest hydropower project, and the largest base for clean energy."

Zhang did not mention that the cost of the project (US$60 billion) had grown six-and-a- half times more than the original estimate of $9 billion approved in 1992 by the National People's Congress. Earlier this year, a study presented at a symposium on the impact of the dam, suggested that the cost may be higher still.

Meanwhile, the price per kilowatt of power produced by Three Gorges is four times higher than the national standard set by China's State Electricity Regulatory Commission (SERC). Other costs remain harder to pin down, such as the project's toll on livelihoods and the region's geological stability as the risk of landslides continues to force more residents out.

Chinese officials admit that the constantly rising and falling reservoir level is triggering landslides in some 5,000 potential danger sites around the reservoir, requiring the evacuation of 300,000 people, over and above the 1.4 million already moved to make way for the dam's 600 km-long reservoir. Meanwhile, a study by seismologists at the China Earthquake Administration indicates that the dam has "significantly increased" seismic activity 30-fold in a phenomenon called reservoir-induced seismicity.

While Chinese officials were quick to crow that the dam would harness the power of the Yangtze River to produce clean energy -- the dam's combined generating capacity is now at 22.5 gigawatts and provides 11 per cent of China's hydroelectric capacity -- it isn't clear how long that will last.

Geologist Fan Xiao, of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, says in a study that dam developers have gone wild building so many dams along the Yangtze that their combined reservoir volume will exceed the Yangtze's flow. There simply isn't enough water to fill all the dams to their designed capacity which will result, he says, in "an enormous waste of money."

Even Cao Guangjing, chairman of China Three Gorges Project Corporation - the state-owned company responsible for the dam - acknowledges that his dam will face stiff competition for water as other dams are completed.

Other costly problems continue to plague Three Gorges. Clear, silt-free water released from the dam has caused riverbanks to collapse, and the erosion of a section of the Yangtze riverbed downstream from the dam has increased ten-fold since the dam began storing water.

The economic costs of this altered hydrogeomorphology are enormous: last year, ships were beached for lack of water and China's great Poyang and Dongting lakes shrank, depriving millions of their water and livelihoods.

Officials have always fallen back on the dam's power to control floods to justify the project's exorbitant price tag, but even that argument has grown flimsy. Officials now admit that the dam's storage capacity is smaller than claimed and of questionable benefit in the event of a major flood.

The last generator might be connected, and the Three Gorges dam may now be declared finished, but never-ending expenditures to treat the problems it has caused will continue to remind Chinese citizens that the world's largest dam may also be the world's largest albatross.