June 23, 2003 - The New Yorker: RPCV Peter Hessler discusses the Yangtze River Dam
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June 23, 2003 - The New Yorker: RPCV Peter Hessler discusses the Yangtze River Dam
RPCV Peter Hessler discusses the Yangtze River Dam
Read and comment on this interview from the New Yorker with RPCV Peter Hessler, author of the acclaimed Peace Corps memoir River Town, about the attempt to dam the Yangtze River in China and the repercussions of the Three Gorges Dam at:
Discussing the Dam*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
Discussing the Dam
Issue of 2003-07-07
This week in the magazine and here online (see Fact), Peter Hessler writes about the attempt to dam the Yangtze River, in China, which, since the Three Gorges Dam was completed, has been rising steadily and flooding towns along its banks. Here Hessler discusses the repercussions of the Three Gorges Dam project with The New Yorker's Amy Davidson.
AMY DAVIDSON: Can you give a sense of the scope of the Three Gorges Dam project? Has anything comparable been attempted in the United States?
PETER HESSLER: There is no single American dam as large as the Three Gorges, and there has not been a single resettlement that involved such a large population. In other words, no part of America was ever changed by a dam to such a degree. But the Tennessee Valley Authority in the nineteen-thirties was a massive dam-building project in seven states, and there are some points of comparison. The U.S. was struggling to develop quickly and to overcome the Depression, and dams were seen as a way to use technology to improve the lives of common citizens. At that time, American leaders were very enthusiastic about dams, to the point of missionary zeal—at various points, a Danube Valley Authority was promoted for the Danube Valley and an Amazon Valley Authority for the Amazon. In pre-Communist times, the Yangtze project was sometimes referred to as the Y.V.A., for this reason. Deirdre Chetham covers this in the book "Before the Deluge." John Hersey's novel "A Single Pebble," which was published in 1956, deals with a young American who is surveying the Three Gorges region in the nineteen-forties in hopes of building a dam. One of Hersey's main themes is the conflict between the American, who represents a blind faith in science, and the Chinese, who have more respect for the mysterious power of nature. At one point, the narrator says, "My career, engineering, seemed only nonsense here. Nothing—absolutely nothing—could be done by man's puny will for this harsh valley littered with gigantic rocks."
Of course, by the nineties, these roles had reversed—the Chinese leaders had boundless faith in technical improvements, while American environmentalists were criticizing the project. It reflects the fact that, to some degree, the Chinese are passing through a stage that isn't completely different from what Americans went through more than a half century earlier. And it also shows how quickly we forget our own willingness to tinker with the environment.
The Chinese government has presented the dam as having the potential to bring enormous benefits. Are the dam's advocates being realistic?
There's no question that the Three Gorges region is poor, and there's no question that floods are a serious problem along the Yangtze down below the Gorges. The last big floods were in 1998, and they killed four thousand people along the central Yangtze. Generally, there have been substantial floods every decade or so for as long as history has been recorded. But such floods are also caused by tributaries downstream from the current dam—in other words, rivers that won't be controlled by it. That's why experts have been saying for decades that, if you're worried about flood control, it makes more sense to build a series of smaller dams on the tributaries.
Part of the problem with the project is that the costs are very hard to estimate. The simple dollar cost has been estimated at between twenty and thirty billion dollars—nobody knows for certain. But even trickier is the social cost, because China has never had much luck with resettlement programs. Problems always result when large numbers of people are uprooted against their will.
Do you think that the implications have been fully debated in China?
Not at all, and, in the end, this is the most troubling aspect of the project. I've lived in these parts as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I am well aware of the poverty; I realize fully why the government feels compelled to take big steps. As an outsider, I think one has to be careful about dismissing the desire to develop economically and gain some of the comforts that are common in a country like America. But, at the same time, I believe that a project of this size should be discussed much more carefully and that the people should have a better idea of how they will be affected. In the late nineteen-eighties, when many Chinese technical experts and environmentalists were identifying the drawbacks, the government cut off debate. It's not simply a matter of the peasants and the other river residents being in the dark; even educated people were not allowed to investigate the project in a critical manner.
You describe the panic of animals in response to the rising water. What will the effect of the dam be on wildlife?
I saw swarms of insects crawling uphill, and it was quite striking. It made me realize how quickly this instinct was kicking in, to get to higher ground. But there aren't a lot of big animals in the immediate river areas, which are quite settled, or, at least, well travelled by humans. During my most recent trip, I did see some monkeys on the banks of the Daning River, but from my brief glimpse they didn't seem to be confused or distressed by what was happening. They live higher in the hills and they were probably just down near the banks to forage. The threats in those parts have more to do with people than with the rising river.
But the dam is a serious issue for river life. There's a rare freshwater dolphin that possibly won't survive the changes—there are very few of them left. The same is true for the Yangtze sturgeon.
You have some evocative images of architecture being buried under the rising water. Lately, we've been hearing a lot, with regard to Iraq, about the early civilizations in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, and about how much archeological work remains to be done there. The Yangtze Valley also has a history going back thousands of years. Are there sites that haven't been explored, and now never will be?
There are plenty of unexcavated sites, as well as underexcavated ones. For the past couple of years, there has been a big push to excavate as much as possible, and Chinese archeologists from all over have worked in the Gorges. But they didn't have enough time, of course. And it was sad to see so many of these things slip away, sometimes right before your eyes. The day that I was out on the Yangtze, on June 8th, I passed a former riverside temple whose roof eaves were just barely above the water. All you could see was the head of the dragon that poked up at one end of the roof, and the tail at the other. By the next day, even that was underwater.
The truth is that there is so much history in China, and the rush to modernize has taken priority across the nation in recent years. Lots of old buildings have been torn down in cities like Beijing to make way for modern structures. Sometimes I think that it's the idea of the past that matters more to the Chinese, rather than any actual objects that represent the past. There has always been a stronger emphasis on history as written than on history as embodied in physical objects. I think this might be part of why the Chinese didn't construct huge buildings out of stone in the manner of the Europeans and other cultures—stadiums, pyramids, cathedrals. It's striking how little of that you find in China. There wasn't much natural stone in the central plains, in the regions where what we think of as Chinese culture developed, and, perhaps in response, the people discovered other, more literary ways to create lasting monuments.
Even the Great Wall is really more an idea of a structure than a physical structure—most of those defense walls are nothing more than tamped earth, a few feet tall. There are huge stone walls that exist near Beijing, but those sections are not very long, relatively speaking. But people apply a vision of these sections to their image of a structure crossing the country. This is how it's written about, and this is how they imagine it. To a degree, this is where the Great Wall actually exists—in people's minds. Sometimes I think this contributes to the ease with which relics disappear in China. People will still talk about the long history of the Three Gorges. They'll just have even less to show for it.
How does the Yangtze River figure into Chinese history?
It has been a subject of poetry and legend for centuries. "Three Kingdoms," one of the Chinese classics, takes place in part in areas of the Yangtze. Some of the rebellions that eventually toppled the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century were quite strong in these areas—Dachang, one of the villages I mention in the story, was the site of a major battle. And, of course, the nationalist government retreated up the Yangtze, through the Gorges to Chongqing, when the Japanese invaded in the nineteen-thirties.
Generally, history has passed through these areas, rather than having been initiated there. This is how I felt when I lived in Fuling. South of town, there were entire valleys full of derelict military factories that had been moved there during the sixties. The old propaganda signs were fading on the mountains: "Prepare for War, Prepare for Famine." And yet the campaign itself was long gone. Locals are accustomed to this kind of thing.
You write that more than a million people have been displaced to make way for the rising waters. Where are they all going?
The total number will be about 1.2 million, although they haven't all moved yet—some will be moved at later stages as the reservoir is being filled. Most of them moved to new settlements just up the hillsides, like the new city of Wushan. But some have been transferred to distant provinces where people speak entirely different languages and have quite different climates.
How much of an impact will the mass migration have on the larger economy? Is this a new pool of cheap labor for the factory towns?
In the larger sense, it's a drop in the bucket—China already has an estimated hundred and fifty million migrants, most of whom have left rural areas to go to the cities. So the dam movement isn't that big on the national scale. The difference, though, is that the people didn't move entirely by will, and the displacement is very concentrated. Psychologically, it's a very different situation, and I think it will be hard on people. It makes all the difference in the world when somebody leaves his village by choice, knowing that he can return, in comparison with somebody who is moved by a government plan and knows that his old home no longer exists.
Some of the most compelling moments in your piece involve small children helping their parents pack the family's belongings as the water rises. How do you think this will be remembered by those children? As a fairy-tale moment? A new beginning? Or a defining trauma?
When I was watching the people deal with the rising water, I was struck by how the children often continued everyday tasks—packing, doing their lessons, or simply causing trouble. I thought that it was important to give some sense of the children's resilience. I have no idea how these things will settle in the children's minds over time; I'm sure that they will have vivid memories. But their immediate instinct is to create some situation of normalcy: a little girl sat in a pumpkin patch, copying her lessons, and a little boy teased his older sister. As an outsider, I found that there was something calming about the children's responses.
The children, of course, learn resilience from their parents; the people in these parts are quite tough and resourceful. The difficulty with a story like this is that it can be awfully dark and heavy. China stories have a way of appearing this way—in our press, we see a lot of victims. I'm quite wary of that, because most of the Chinese people I know are optimistic, laugh a lot, and are working hard at improving their lives. Watching the children reminded me of that, and I wrote about them in hopes of letting readers know that one way or another these people will find a way to cope with the changes.
Can what has been done be undone? If the dam doesn't deliver, or if it is a disaster, can the Yangtze be restored?
Dams have been decommissioned in the States and in other places. But none of those instances has involved such a big river, such a big dam, and such a heavily populated region. My sense is that this part of the country has been permanently changed. I think it's possible that the dam will muddle along in certain respects—it might not produce as much electricity as is hoped for—but, after all the resources that have been put into it, I doubt that it will be abandoned. But I have to admit that, after watching the water fill in, my immediate thought was to wonder what it would be like to watch it drain away again in ten years.
More about the Yangtze River Dam
Read more about the Yangtze River Dam in this story from CNN at:
China begins building world's largest dam
China begins building world's largest dam
November 8, 1997
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EST (1646 GMT)
YICHANG, China (CNN) -- Chinese President Jiang Zemin led a celebration honoring the beginning of the building of the world's largest dam as workers began sealing off a dike to divert the Yangtze River.
China's engineers will now begin erecting a permanent wall, nearly 600-feet high, to harness the Yangtze, the world's third-longest river, and provide a huge source of hydropower for the world's most populous nation.
For China's leaders, the event is the realization of a dream dating back to 1919, when revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen first proposed building the dam.
China begins building world's largest dam
"The age-old dream of the Chinese people to develop and utilize the resources of the Three Gorges section of the Yangtze has come closer to being true," Jiang told the crowd of 5,000 who came Saturday to celebrate the official kickoff of the dam's construction. "The diversion of the Yangtze is a great moment in the modernization of our country."
When the dam is complete, it will be capable of pumping out 18,200 megawatts of electricity from 26 generators, each equal to a medium-sized nuclear reactor.
The price of progress
The building of the Three Gorges Dam, in Hubei province, is modern China's most ambitious construction project, and one of the most controversial in the world. It is also China's largest construction project since the building of the Grand Canal in the 10th century.
From start to finish, the project will cost up to $29 billion. More than one million people will be relocated -- 100,000 of them by the end of this year.
When the towering 1.2-mile wide wall is complete, in 2009, it will be used for the metamorphosis of one of China's most scenic and most pristine landscapes.
The result will be a 370-mile-long lake that will consume 19 counties, 153 towns, 4,500 villages, and the scenic canyons that have inspired poets and painters for centuries.
Communist China's founding father, the late Mao Tse-tung, once wrote a poem in which he dreamed of "walls of stone" to hold back "clouds and rain till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges."
Environmentalists say the rising water will doom migratory fish, eradicate rare plants and create water pollution. China says harnessing the river will control flooding and provide much-needed power.
"This great event proves that only socialism has the virtues to concentrate power to deal with this great project," Jiang boasted to the river crowd. But as the Western-leaning communist touted the virtues of socialism, he thanked the world's capitalist investors who will be helping to complete the project on time. "We should bring the initiatives of those foreign-funded enterprises into play and make use of their advantage in capital and technology."
But China won't be counting on help from the United States. The U.S. withdrew its technical support in 1993 because of doubts about the dam's effectiveness in flood control and environmental concerns about the project.
Critics say China could minimize its costs and the project's disruption by choosing instead to fortify existing dikes and to build smaller dams upstream. That would enable engineers to control flooding while increasing China's capability of drawing hydropower, critics say.
There is also concern that the giant lake will become a cesspool as one billion tons of industrial and human waste are projected to flow into the reservoir.
Chinese leaders insist the damage to the environment will be minimal and the disruption to the lives of the 1.2 million people who are being forced to move will be small.
Speaking to the river crowd on Saturday, Jiang tried to reassure the families who will be moved, telling them their relocation is the "highest priority to the success of the Three Gorges Dam."
Only the Nile and the Amazon rivers are longer than the Yangtze.
Correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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