Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed January 1998
Copyright ©1997 by Jason Klein

Damn the Chinese government for damming the Yangtze

Jason Klein, of Oradell, N.J., is a sophomore at Brown University.

"Eight hundred sites of archeological importance will be lost, and two million people living in the watershed, half of whom are farmers, will be displaced"

The federal government, in an effort to augment clean, efficient sources of power and derail the possibility of tragic floods inundating the lower Mississippi plains, decides to initiate construction of the Mississippi Dam. The reservoir formed by this dam will sink everything and everyone between New Orleans and St. Louis. Despite criticism, the government initiates this project of unforeseeable ecological, social, agricultural and economic impact.

The fictitious scenario above may seem outrageous, but it is significantly based on fact. Currently, the Chinese government is constructing the largest-scale dam project ever on the world's third-longest river, the Yangtze. Called the Three Gorges Dam, its purpose is threefold, according to the Chinese government: to control floods that perennially ravage people on its banks; to produce clean and efficient hydroelectricity; and to allow ocean-going vessels to penetrate as much as 1,500 miles into the heart of China.

Experts have clearly demonstrated major flaws with the government's plan. The river's high silt content, plus millions of tons of raw sewage pumped into the river annually, could create a 400-mile-long cesspool behind the dam, which would nullify government goals for hydroelectric production and inland penetration of sea-faring vessels. Countless indigenous species will become extinct and China's equivalent of the Grand Canyon will be submerged eternally. Eight hundred sites of archeological importance will be lost, and two million people living in the watershed, half of whom are farmers, will be displaced.

Despite these consequences, China's government refuses to halt the project. In fact, the dam is being pursued with intense vigor as it becomes more of a political statement of China's emergence as a world power rather than a means of social, agricultural and economic improvement. What the Chinese government fails to see is that this project may lead to the downfall of what has been a steady climb toward global acceptance. If the dam collapses (China's dam failure rate is six times the global dam failure rate), washed away will be the heart of China's agriculture - half of China's rice production and 70 percent of its commercial fishing - along with any acceptance China has gained in the world community thus far.

Keep in mind, too, that China holds more than one-fifth of the world's population. The substantial loss of agricultural production and increased unemployment caused by the dam are certain to compromise China's programs to alleviate hunger. Not only will the Chinese government be facilitating the irreversible destruction of the environment, it will also be facilitating the demise of its own citizens. And because these citizens constitute such a significant portion of the global community, the impact of the dam will be felt internationally. Grain production will decrease. Grain prices will increase. How will the world adjust to such sweeping economic and agricultural change?

The answer is it won't. China could control flooding and produce electricity along the Yangtze by constructing a series of smaller dams that would involve markedly less risk. But the monstrosity has become more than a dam. It is a political monument to the Chinese government itself.

The point of no return is fast approaching. If the Three Gorges Dam project is not contained by a global consortium of informed opponents, the future of China may likely take a turn for the worse. The global community knows there will be significant adverse ramifications. If we don't take action now, in a sense we are all equally responsible for the dam's consequences.