Saturday, June 4, 2011

Lessons of the Three Gorges Dam

Peter Bosshard, Policy Director of the NGO International Rivers, in Thanh Nien News (Vietnam): The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is the world’s largest hydropower project. It has often been touted as a model for dam building around the world. Now the Chinese government has officially acknowledged that the project has serious social, environmental and geological problems. What are the lessons from the Three Gorges experience?

…Given the project’s global significance, it is important to draw lessons from the experience with the Yangtze dam. First and foremost, the Three Gorges Project shows that damming the mainstream of major rivers is particularly damaging, in that it will interrupt the migration of fish and the transport of sediments throughout a river’s ecosystems. As the World Commission on Dams recommended in its path-breaking report, Dams and Development, a river’s mainstream should not be dammed as long as there are other options.

Secondly, the Three Gorges experience demonstrates that large dams on major rivers are massive interventions into highly complex ecosystems. Their impacts can occur thousands of kilometers away and many years after construction has been completed. It is impossible to predict and mitigate all social and environmental impacts of such projects. As a team of international hydrologists coordinated by The Nature Conservancy found in a study in 2010, downstream impacts in particular are often neglected.

A Strategic Environmental Assessment prepared for the Mekong River Commission predicts that damming the lower Mekong mainstream would cause the loss of riverine and marine fisheries, reduce agricultural productivity in Mekong Delta and Cambodia’s floodplains, and erode the river channels and coastline of the Mekong Delta. All these impacts have been borne out by the Three Gorges Project. The recommendation by the Commission, and now by the Vietnamese government, not to dam the Mekong for the next 10 years reflects the experience of the Yangtze dam.

Finally, the Three Gorges Dam demonstrates that affected communities and other stakeholders should be involved in decision-making regarding large infrastructure projects from the beginning. China has a strong state and spent tens of billions of dollars on resettlement programs for the Three Gorges Dam. But because the affected people were excluded from decision-making, the program often ignored their needs and desires, and resulted in wide-spread impoverishment and frustration….

Locks at the Three Gorges Dam under construction back in 2004, shot by Yogho, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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