My piece on the Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River has finally come out in Ricepaper.
Losing Ground—The human cost of the Three Gorges dam
Author: Andrea Warner
Its body is long, curving around the hips of mountains, navigating spaces both narrow and grand. A tempestuous nature makes it an unpredictable companion for the people who dwell along its banks. It is thoroughfare and communication channel; resource and tourist trap; graveyard and lifeblood to a culture rich with myth and memory. Along the way, cities that slowly grew from its depths now burst with concrete skyscrapers, neon lights, and millions of harried business people. In other spots, the soil along its banks feeds lush green leaves, dense with vegetables, where generations of farmers have worked the land and know no other life. It hosts human artifacts dating back 27,000 years, has resolved battles between North and South, and boasts over 700 tributaries.
It is the Yangtze River, China’s largest and most important waterway, and it’s now home to the controversial Three Gorges dam, the biggest hydroelectric project on the planet.
The Three Gorges area is thought to be over two million years old, and was at one point a series of hills and dales for the Yangtze to wind through. Erosion has helped create the modern Three Gorges—the Qutang, Wuxia, and Xiling—extending approximately 200 kilometres along the Yangtze. Seasonal rivers like the Yangtze make for beautiful, but dangerous, neighbours. Millions of people live downstream from where the Three Gorges dam has been built. Major cities like Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai sit next to the river, as do thousands of acres of farmland and China’s critical industrial area. According to sources, the Three Gorges dam will minimize flooding for those downstream from once every ten years to once every hundred years.
The people on the other side of the dam aren’t so lucky.
The dam’s original proposal indicated that approximately one million people would be relocated to accommodate the Three Gorges project. The number has now soared to two million, and the government recently revealed that another four million people residing in the metropolitan city of Chongqing will likely be displaced by 2020. “Farewell cruises” have become profitable and popular tourism opportunities within the Three Gorges region, but few visitors realize the magnitude of what these cruises mean to the people who are being relocated.
Yung Chang, a 25-year-old Montreal-based filmmaker, was inspired to make his award-winning documentary, Up the Yangtze, after taking one of the “Farewell” cruises. Chang grew up with his grandfather’s stories about the region, and couldn’t help seeing his own family reflected in the faces of the people who were being displaced. Armed with a Chinese crew, some cameras, and a reasonable ability to speak Mandarin, Chang spent months interviewing various families, looking for the bigger story about the human impact of the Three Gorges Dam.
“I think China’s a country full of contrasts. What struck me when I arrived in Chongqing, the city where the movie takes place, is that when we approached the waiting cruise ship, this marching band started playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. That immediately was my inspiration to make the film,” Chang says. “As I took this cruise boat, I couldn’t help but think of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. Along the embankments of the Yangtze there were ghost towns and to me it looked quite apocalyptic, [but] it’s much more than meets the eye. One has to get off the boat, so to speak, to find the story, and I realized there was a human side to all these vacant, surreal landscapes. There was something actually going on with peoples lives.”
Relocation itself promises a variety of modern comforts drastically different than the shacks erected on many farms. The new communities are multiple family dwellings, concrete villages that stack apartments into the sky, offering running water, electricity, and air conditioning. What they don’t offer are new livelihoods for people who made their living off the land—in particular, the older generations who often lack even rudimentary literacy skills, whose lives have been devoted to harvesting the earth.
“And you know what their careers are now?” Chang asks. “They cater to tourists and they sell mats and it’s like a whole way of life upturned and displaced. Their incomes are probably being tripled because of the tourist attraction that they have become, but that’s another aspect of the film I wanted to explore: the tourism of culture. That’s what’s really happening in the Three Gorges dam region. Entire lives of people and communities are being twisted around and it’s become this kind of sad way of selling an indigenous culture.”
So how did China arrive at the resettlement of two million people? It started with a dream in the mind of Sun Yat-sen in 1919. After years of starts and stalls, the National Peoples Congress approved the project in 1992, amid a record amount of dissention. Though the dam was conceived for a number of reasons, its primary function was to generate electricity for China’s rapidly exploding population. According to one source, it was expected the dam could generate 10 percent of the electricity China consumes. However, consumption has increased at a much higher rate than originally projected, and now the dam is expected to generate just three percent of China’s electricity needs.
This is just one of the failings that Probe International, an organization based in Toronto that investigates Canadian aid and investment projects, accurately predicted almost 15 years ago.
Probe International’s Patricia Adams is an economist who has been following the Three Gorges project since 1986. She helps recount Canada’s involvement in facilitating the Three Gorges: Canada paid for a feasibility study on the Three Gorges project in 1986. When it was completed in 1989, PI accessed the study through the Freedom Of Information Act to determine if the benefits truly outweighed the costs. Nine experts from around the world were asked to independently critique the study and ultimately published Damning the Three Gorges: What dam builders don’t want you to know. Since then, PI has made it their business to bring public awareness to the Three Gorges and the issues arising from the project.
“We feel it’s important to cut through the propaganda, and to ensure the best possible information about the performance of the dam, the economics of the dam, and the social consequences are well-researched and available,” Adams says. “We publish a news service in both English and Chinese. Both were available in China, at least on the mainland, until about a year ago, and they have been locked since then.”
One of the things Adams finds most frustrating is Canada’s complicity in the Three Gorges project.
“We [Canada] like to portray ourselves as being these boy scouts around the world, but in our opinion, had the Canadian engineers been true to their engineering codes of conduct, they would never have come to the conclusion that the Three Gorges dam was the ideal or most efficient or effective or economic way of producing power, facilitating navigation, or controlling floods,” Adams says. “It’s failed on all counts. And, yet the Canadian engineers and the Canadian government wanted very much to help build the dam. The Canadian government recommended it, and the Canadian engineers recommended it, and that gave it great legitimacy. Had they said it’s not a good way to produce power, it would have been a lot harder for the Chinese government to build it.”
According to Adams, the dam was so controversial in the planning stages that foreign financers were unwilling to invest. Unwilling, that is, until Jean Chrétien reversed the Liberal party’s original decision and decided to help fund the Three Gorges through Export Development Canada and Export Credit Financing. As soon as that happened, a half dozen other European countries jumped in, as everyone wanted the contract to build what would be the world’s largest dam.
“The flood gates, dare I say, were opened for foreign financing for the dam,” Adam says. “This is Canada’s dam, and we need to take responsibility for it.”
Up the Yangtze may inadvertently be Canada’s mea culpa to those who have been displaced. The film has earned international attention and acclaim, and has managed to provide a “face” in the Yu family with which the world can connect to the larger issue of resettlement. What is more difficult to wrap one’s head around is forcible resettlement, which the film addresses when we meet the antiques dealer, a reluctant “relocatee”.
It was an accidental moment that Chang stumbled upon while scouting for stories: A farmer who, in his search for a new career, had become an antiques dealer, effectively selling off the castaway items of others who had been relocated. Chang originally believed the story was in the objects, but as the film reveals, the process of forcible relocation is a trauma that lives just below the skin’s surface and could manifest at any time. As protesters against resettlement demonstrate on the street outside the dealer’s shop, he breaks down crying while recounting his own violent relocation. He claims to have been beaten and dragged from his home.
“He was so livid that he’d never been able to express himself before,” Chang says. “That’s rare, from a Chinese male to see that kind of emotion pouring out of someone, especially in China. And, I think having a camera around really does miraculous things, almost therapeutic ways of opening people up, almost like a mirror.”
Though the segment is two minutes of a 90-minute film, it serves to remind the audience of the importance of the media in providing a platform for voices that may otherwise go unrepresented. Probe International has recently started to collect written accounts from the Three Gorges region. Compiled by a team of journalists led by Dai Qing, an environmentalist and journalist banned in China, the Three Gorges Oral History Series collects stories from the riverside towns and villages affected by the Three Gorges dam on China's Yangtze River.
Adams recounts stories of forcible relocation that have turned physically violent, as well as people who have been silenced when seeking compensation or criticizing the dam.
“[Relocation] is a bad way to develop a country and improve people’s lives,” Adams says. “Not only do you wreck their lives, but you undermine the confidence or a willingness of people who aren’t affected to make investments, take chances, and to do good things. If you see how badly people can be treated, you know, there’s no justice for these people. It makes everyone else very nervous and reluctant to make investments in their society.”
Stories like these continue to cloud the Three Gorges project, which keeps creaking forward under heavy criticism. The validity and legitimacy of harvesting hydroelectric power, versus alternative energy sources, has been brought into question. Many critics maintain that the dam will increase the threat to endangered species that make their home in the river and in the wetlands. Others speculate that increased sedimentation could make the region more vulnerable to the flooding the dam seeks to prevent. International relationships, economic stability, and Canada’s reputation abroad are also at stake.
Along the Yangtze River, villages that once brimmed with life have become ghost towns. Tourists catch glimpses from their cruise ships, amidst marks projecting when the towns will be submerged. The Three Gorges project is still two years away from completion. The Yu family’s home, farm, and livelihood have already been lost to the mighty Yangtze. Who knows what other bones it will collect by the time the Three Gorges dam finally reaches fruition?