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The Three Gorges Dam was built on the third longest river in the world, Yangtze River. The river is around 6300 kilometres long. The dam is located in Xi Ling Gorge, near Yichang city (Bridle, 2000). The geographical site of the river and the dam are shown in Map1. This paper is an environmental justice case study about the Three Gorges Dam project in China. First, I will briefly describe the origination and physical summary of the dam in background. After that, key actors related to the project will be discussed. Then, I will talk about what environmental justice issues are generated by the project, what are the solutions adopted by Chinese government, and I will examine why the problems occur in the last part.
The idea of building a dam at Yangtze River is initially proposed by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. According to Plan to Develop Industry in 1919, he stated that it was feasible to construct a dam at Yangtze River. The National government actually prepared a few preliminary works such as surveying for the plans. However, the project was stopped in 1947 because of the Chinese Civil War.
Chairman Mao Zedong also had the same thought as Dr. Sun. Mao intended to start a dam project at Yangtze River in the early 1950s because severe flood always occurred in upstream of Yangtze River. For example, in 1954, flooding along the Yangtze River caused 30,000 people died and one million people became homeless (Gleick, n.d.). It threatened the safety of many cities along the river. Nevertheless, the plan had to be postponed because related technology in China at that time was ill-equipped to deal with such a large project.
The project was eventually begun in the 1990s. When the Cultural Revolution was over, Deng Xiaoping proposed that China should accomplish industry, farming, science technology, and defence modernization. Thus, the Three Gorges Dam Project was mentioned again, and became one part of political agenda. In 1992, National People’s Congress approved the Three Gorges Dam proposal. The construction of Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River was put into practice in 1994.
The Three Gorges Dam is the biggest hydroelectric generator in the world. In 2006, the dam body was completed. The date of full completion was extended from 2009 to around 2011 as a result of additional projects such as underground power plant, and complexity of the ship lift (Mufson, 1997). The concrete gravity dam is about 2309 meters long, 185 meters high (Wertz, 2008).
The Three Gorges Dam has three main functions. The most important one is flood control. Other functions are electricity generation, and the increase of navigability.
III. Key Actors
Chairman Mao Zedong:
He urged to build a dam at Yangtze River to control flooding, so he appointed late premier Zhou Enlai to begin planning about the project.
Late leader Deng Xiaoping:
He pledged to develop the Three Gorges Project after inspecting the suggested dam sites.
National People’s Congress:
In 1992, it formally approved the Three Gorges Dam Project.
The State Council:
It confirmed the feasibility report of the Three Gorges Project conducted by The Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power in 1984, and then submitted the proposal to National People’s Congress to make further decision. The State Council established Three Gorges Project Construction Committee (TGPCC) to represent it to make decision and regulate issues related about the dam in 1993. Late Premier Li Peng was the director of the committees.
International Financial Institutions:
The financial burden of the Three Gorges Dam Project is vast. It is necessary to be supported by foreign financial institutions. Approximately $2 billion bonds have been issued by some foreign banks such as Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, and Barclays Capital (Shen and Bosshard, 2003).
Affected ordinary people:
Large scale resettlement practice is required if the Three Gorges Dam Project is to be accomplished. Those residents living in reservoir areas of the dam are forced to leave. They are offered compensation and relocated to other regions.
China’s polices related to the Three Gorges Dam Project obviously break some of the Principles of Environment Justice (EJ).It means equal environmental treatment for all people in general. According to delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (1991), environmental justice affirms self-determination in all aspects including environmental one, demand the rights of equal participation in all level of decision making, protect the right of environmental injustice victims to be fully compensated, and regard governmental practices of environmental injustice as human rights violation (p.121). All of them are violated by Chinese government. Based on the principles mentioned, two major environmental injustice problems created by the project will be discussed.
Firstly, one of the main problems of the Three Gorges Dam Project is mismanaged resettlement. When the Three Gorges Dam was constructing, size of reservoir created by the dam would gradually rise and flood many buildings. 326 villages and 140 towns were submerged under 418 square miles of water (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). Millions of people living in the reservoir area are required to be resettled to other regions. Over 1.2 million populations living in 19 counties and Chongqing municipality are involved in the resettlement (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). Chinese government had made certain promises in regard to the resettlement. In 1991, Li Boning, the top official in charge of resettlement for the project, claimed that many of the relocatees would benefit from new industrial occupations in new settlement areas (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). In 1993, He also added “Our goal is to ensure that those resettled will have better working and living condition” and “The compensation we are offering is much higher than their expected losses” (Shen and Bosshard, 2003:1). However, the actual pictures about the resettlers are far worse than what Li expected. In 1999, Premier Zhu announced that slopes deeper than 25 degrees cannot be farmed for the reason of reducing soil erosion, which reduced availability of land for resettlement, and largely increase people required to relocate outside reservoir area from 83000 to 125000. These new resettlers did not have any rights to chose where to settle. Instead, the government moved them in large group because of the changed compensation policy (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). Some of them even need to settle in remote townships without satisfied infrastructures like Gaoyang. Most of the resettled become jobless after the resettlement. For example, 800 villagers from Yunyang County relocated in Sheyang City in Jiangsu resented that they could not find any jobs (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). Some relocatees suffer discrimination from their host communities. They are regarded as threats in labour market. Certain people involved in the replacement also feel isolated in their new habitats. The government relocated them in scattered villages which have only 3 to 5 households per village (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). They complained they had “no connection to fix things in their host communities” (Shen and Bosshard, 2003:10). In addition, the compensation for the resettled people is not enough to cover the relocation cost such as buying new houses and furniture. As Shen and Bosshard(2003) claim, “compensation offered to resettlers has fallen short of the replacement cost for their property” (p.2). It is hard to understand how they have better living quality after the relocation. The victims of the project not only do not have self-determination in resettlement arrangement, but also do not get full compensation for their loss.
Lastly, the practice of Chinese government violates human right in the process of resettlement. Due to the defective resettlement, many relocatees organize protests and petition to ask for more compensation and express their discontent. However, most of them are repressed by government. Many of them are severely punished because of their actions. “Many peasants who have tried to pressure the local authorities by collecting information and organizing other villagers to make joint petitions or protests have been thrown in jail” (Shen and Bosshard, 2003:12). The resettled are also forbidden to express anything about their resentment through media. Some of the resettled media have been charged with interfering with Three Gorges resettlement as a result of contacting foreign media (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). In February 2001, two old peasants, He Kechang and Wen Dingchun were imprisoned for three years after they approached Western media in Beijing, and assisted in coordinating the protests (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). We can see that the resettlers do not have freedom of speech, which is basic human right actually. They just want to let Chinese government know their situations, but the government give them such a harsh response. Even though the resettlers are not aggressive in their struggle, the government still violently repress them. Some locals complain that non-aggressive protests are curbed by excessive force from the police (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). The Three Gorges Dam Project is environmental injustice practice per se. Although the residents living in the reservoir area are victimized by the project, they cannot equally participate in decision making about their needs assessment and resettlement planning. Their human rights are abused.
In response to the general dissatisfaction in the resettlement, new polices are implemented to tackle the needs of the relocatees. First, Gaoyang government has created self-resettlement scheme. It allows people originally resettled in Gaoyang to leave and get a new hukou of residence in other provinces after they receive a lump sum of 20,000 yuan issued by Gaoyang government (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). This scheme had its drawback because the lump sum is a fortune for the relocatees in Gaoyang. They may use it to squander once they have obtained the money. According to an article in Strategy and Management (as cited in Shen and Bosshard, 2003), those resettled migrants are not willing to become labour force after receiving compensation and productive resettlement expenses (p.17). They can still live in Gaoyang as well although they lose their residential hukou in Gaoyang. It is easy to do so. Say, staying with friends in Gaoyang is a feasible method. Besides, a few trial government-operated resettlement programs were organized by Yunyang County government. To quote Shen and Bosshard (2003), the government got factory occupations in Yunyang city for resettled villagers by using budgeted resettlement funding, and established resettlement villages in XinJiang Province. Nonetheless, the program failed to succeed due to bankruptcy of related factories and poor living condition in the resettlement villages (p. 18). Lastly, central government adjusted the planning of resettlement. It drafted a new resettlement scheme after 1999, in which the relocatees were sent either to 11 provinces in eastern China or to Sichuan (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). Those areas are relatively blooming compared to less developed resettlement areas like Yunyang. The resettlers may get better living condition and more job opportunities.
VI. Analysis of the Problem
Mistake in calculation of resettlement cost, and China’s political structure induce the resettlement problem. First, people are discontent with the resettlement largely because of insufficient compensation. They do not have adequate budgets to maintain their daily lives in new places. Many of them have to buy houses in resettled areas by themselves as well, but the price of houses is higher than their compensation. In fact, the real cost of the new housing is 3 or 4 times higher than the total resettlement budget of 40 billion RMB. The involuntary resettlers have to bear the difference (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). It shows that Chinese government undervalues housing cost. In addition, the inadequate compensation can attribute to serious corruption in China. Many officials use public powers to achieve their private goals. They embezzle the resettlement budget into their own pockets. Xinhua reported that “some 473 million yuan in resettlement funds were embezzled, misappropriated or illegally used in 1998 alone” (Shen and Bosshard, 2003:13). In 1999, Xinhua also added that 140 cases were related to the project, in which billions of RMB was involved (Shen and Bosshard, 2003). Corruption practice prevails in China because China is a state of Neo-patrimonialism. It is a form of organization, in which a broadly patrimonial type relationship pervades a political and administrative system which is formally constructed on rational legal authority. Within Neo-patrimonialism, officials hold positions in bureaucratic organizations with formally defined power, but they exercise those powers as a form of private property rather than a form of public services. The behaviour of officials also displays personal status rather than perform official function. Therefore, officials easily treat their posts as personal fief, and use them to achieve private benefits such as pocketing the resettlement budgets. The characteristics within Neo-patrimonialism indeed encourage corruption.
Weak civil society in China makes many of the resettlers suffer human rights abuse. They want to have a say in decision making about the resettlement plan, and voice their situations to the government. However, they are not permitted to do so. In china, people do not have freedom of speech and gathering. The reason is that China is a nation with authoritarian regime. It is perceivable civil society in China is not lively. There is no public space beyond state, so people are no way to engage in free discussion in all ideas and issues, and express their thoughts. If they try to do so, they will suffer punishments like torture and imprisonment.
Under the pushing of Chairman Mao Zedong and Late leader Deng Xiaoping, the Three Gorges Dam Project was successfully implemented. It will be fully operated around 2011. The Three Gorges Dam body was completed in 2006 and regarded as one of the world class architectures. However, the project has created some environmental justice concerns, which are the problematic arrangement in resettlement and a lack of freedom of speech for the victims of the projects. All these concerns can ascribe to inaccurate evaluation on the real cost of resettlement, Neo-patrimonialism, and dictatorship in China. In fact, Chinese government has tried to solve the problems by launching adjusted or new policies, but the results seem to be dissatisfied. The victims involved in the project are countless. It is nearly impossible to solve the problem in the short term. Furthermore, because Chinese government seriously control the right of speech, the hardships born by the resettlers are difficult to know. It makes the problems even complicated.
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Mufson , Steven. 1997. “The Yangtze Dam: Feat or Folly?” Washington Post, November 9, 1997, P. A01. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/yangtze/yangtze.htm, on July 30, 2009.
Shen, Doris and Peter Bosshard. 2003. “Human Rights Dammed off at Three Gorges. An Investigation of Resettlement and Human Rights Problems in the Three Gorges Dam Project.” International Rivers Network. Retrieved from http://internationalrivers.org/files/3gcolor.pdf, on July 30, 2009.
The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. 2001. “Principles of Environmental Justice.” Pp. 121-122 in the Environment and Society Reader, edited by R. Scott Frey. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon.
Wertz, Richard R. 2008. “Special Report: the Three Gorges Dam – Quick Facts.” Retrieved from http://www.ibiblio.org/chinesehistory/contents/07spe/specrep01.html#Quick%20Facts, on July 30, 2009.
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