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Three Gorges, lots of questions

Marketplace Staff Jun 9, 2006

CHERYL GLASER: You’ve probably seen it on tv by now. The spectacular footage coming out of China this week. Officials there used more than 190 tons of dynamite to blow up the last temporary wall between the Yangtze River and the huge new Three Gorges dam. The dam was completed last month. But the power generating facilities probably won’t be up and running for another two years. And debate over the value of the project could drag on even longer. Ruth Kirchner went to Hubei province in central China to check out the dam for herself.

RUTH KIRCHNER: The project’s chief engineers praise the Three Gorges Dam as an historic achievement. China’s government says it will eventually generate 18 gigawatts of electricity per year. Back in 1993, when construction began, that would have been quite a contribution to the country’s power needs, but demand has soared in the last decade and now, says energy analyst Theresa Fallon, the dam will contribute just 3 percent of China’s total electricity production.

THERESA FALLON: The total electricity generation in China at the moment is at 540 gigawatts. If you look at that it’s not huge but it’s still substantial.

But the dam’s purpose is not just to generate energy . It’s also meant to control deadly floods on the Yangtze, China’s longest river, and improve transportion. Dai Qing is the country’s most prominent critic of the project. She says because of its multiple functions, the dam won’t even produce the 18 gigawatts that were promised.

DAI QING [interpreter]: The turbines won’t be able to run at full capacity. If they did, water levels in the reservoir would have to rise considerably. That in turn would hinder flood control.

Celebrations were held last month to mark the completion of the main dam structure. The authorities’ optimism was evident. Workers waved red flags on the enormous grey-coloured barrier that stretches one-point-four miles across the river. The government estimates that the dam cost 25 billion US-Dollars. But critics say the environmental and social costs are huge and the electricity generated is not cost effective.

DAI QING: The electricity of the Three Gorges Dam is the most expensive in China. About one third of the money has been spend on resettling more than 1 million people. The government did not budget for the protection of the environment and cultural relics. They had to approve extra funds for those projects several times.

Many other countries avoid constructing dams on such huge scale because of environmental concerns. But not China. The next grand scheme is harnessing the Nu River in the country’s Southwest with a chain of up to 13 hydroelectric stations. That project would be even bigger than the Three Gorges dam. But the unpredictability of the electricity market can turn these structures into White Elephants, according to energy analyst Theresa Fallon

FALLON: These mega-projects are just far too big, the lead times are too long and its not really responsive to the economy and things are changing rapidly here in China.

Back at the Three Gorges site, workers continue installing the turbines needed to complete the project. Deputy manager Cao Guanjing says the last turbine will go online at the end of 2008. Despite all the criticism of the dam he is in jubilant mood.

CAO GUANJING: We have paid a lot of attention, we have spend a lot of money, a lot of scientific work, we have done a lot. The advantages are much bigger than the disadvantages.

Cao admits that the Three Gorges Dam is not perfect. But he says it’s impossible to know yet if the whole thing was really worth it. You have to look at the big scheme of things, he says, and assess it again, perhaps in 30 years.

In Hubei Province in Central China, I am Ruth Kirchner for Marketplace.

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