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May 20, 2006
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Three Gorges: Tragedy and Triumph
I have been concerned from the beginning about the Three Gorges Dam project. But the more I consider what has been accomplished as the project nears completion, the more I must reluctantly express my admiration for what has taken place.
The national Chinese grid will have its electricity supply augmented by up to 10%, with the power coming from hydroelectricity, which is far less environmentally damaging than the dirty coal-fired plants that have popped up across China over the last couple of decades as short-term solutions.
Yes, there have been costs. Aside from the US$25 billion paid to make this dream a reality, a million people have had to have been moved, from prime arable land to marginal land. Some of the areas they have been moved to have been contested areas with ethnic minorities.
There has also been a lot of corruption. Huge embezzlement, especially in the funds earmarked for helping the displaced start over, has been de rigeur.
But I do not buy the arguments put forward that the environmental damage does not justify the cost of building the Three Gorges Project. What possible environmental impact could be worse than 10% of China's electricity requirements generated by coal? Sitting in Hong Kong, I marvel at the scale of the audacious project, I feel sorry for the million people that have had to be moved from their ancestral homes, and I thank them for their sacrifice. It may have just added a few years to our collective lives.
It also highlights the stark difference between China and India. The compulsion requisite of the Herculean labor is beyond the beyond any government of India. But in China, if it is deemed necessary, it shall be done. Tragedies are part and parcel of such decisions, no doubt. But as much as I am against taking away everything a million people have ever had or known, China's unflinching pragmatism, its ability and will to compel sacrifice, and a canny, calculating Central government are surely a combination of great power.
I suppose a government that is, in its own way, compelled to deliver perpetual growth in order to ensure order and legitimacy, must see this end justifying every means.posted by HK Dave on 05.20.06 at 04:27 PM in the China economy category.
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It's fine that you come up with such a balanced perspective - but I don't think it stands up to the facts (if we are to believe what e.g. The Guardian and Interfax China report; links below):
I think that these costs you mention include the resettlement of the 1 million villagers. That is what makes the cost high, and this was regrettable. Purely from a hydroelectric power perspective though, the costs are not actually as high as you say relative to other energy sources. Given that the people have already been moved and are at this point a sunk cost, what is the right way to look at current options?
I suspect you do not live in or around China at the moment, because if you did you would consider any solution to the terrible killing smog that blankets China very, very seriously. Whether it is 3% or 5% or 10%, the absolute amount of coal that would be required to make up that shortfall if the dam did not exist would be a significant marginal increase on what is already a clear and present danger to 1 billion people. This consideration outweighs any environmental impact to wildlife.posted by: HK Dave on 05.20.06 at 11:10 PM [permalink]
Ouli, regarding the relative economic efficiencies of China, Japan and the US, did you factor in the fact that most of the products from Japanese and American companies are in fact manufactured in factories in China, using energy in China? I would suspect there's a huge difference in amount of energy used between manufacturing and service industries.
So in a way, the cleaner air in Japan and the US is built on top of the lives of billions of people in China...posted by: spacehunt on 05.21.06 at 01:51 AM [permalink]
No, I definitely agree that much more can be done. Regarding whether the Chinese government is taking the issue seriously or not, it depends on which part of the Chinese government you're talking about; for example, the Central Government to me appears that it does. At the end of the day it again comes down to how much command (or lack of) the Central government has over the local ones. And then you have swaths of selfish cold-blooded businessmen to deal with...posted by: spacehunt on 05.22.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]
the problem with the dam is mainly ecological. the river ecosystem is cut off into two sections. HEP itself is a clean energy.
i disagree with ouli's comment about cost. the gorge project may be expensive judging by today's cost. but if oil/coal price rises in future (the power plant can last many many decades) the plant would prove to be more economical.
re: ouli's question about $ / GDP output. i do not think this is a fair comparison.
one more minor point: re: 3%
when the project started china's energy consumption is perhaps 1/3 of what it is today, so the power of the gorge project accounts for almost 10% of the consumption back then.posted by: sun bin on 05.23.06 at 09:39 AM [permalink]
i have some problem with the guardian report by the famous jonathan watts (remember taishi?). he is quite uncritical when compared to the usual "guardian standard".
"But the output is not as significant as had been originally imagined. At first, it was envisaged the dam would supply at least a 10th of the country's energy, but electricity supply has grown rapidly along with the economy, and by the end of this year, it will provide less than a 30th."
the output is the same as planned. it is just a smaller percent of the total consumption today.posted by: sun bin on 05.23.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]
the interfax article reported that the cost/kWh is 10 cents, and it will be sold at 3 cents, subsidized by govt.
so i did a simple calculation on the 10 cent number. (used some numbers from this site, http://www.threegorgesprobe.org/TgP/index.cfm?DSP=content&ContentID=15281)
cost to built = $22.5bn
so the (depr) cost per kWh is
let adds operating costs, maintenance, and generator cost/etc, which are not too much different from that of coal fired plants. there is no way the cost could become 10cents/kWh.
if the upfront investment is under 0.225 cents/kWh, less than 10% of the price. I do not see why it costs much more than fossil fuel, esp if there is no fuel cost.
If those beneficent central planners in Beijing simply had more powers of command and control over those provincial, shortsighted locals and those selfish, greedy businessmen, everything would be much, much better. In fact, it could be a "Worker's Paradise"!
The sacrifice of those millions who gave all so that the rest may have 10% cleaner air, aye that's noble!
After all, one must break a few eggs to make an omelette, comrade.posted by: kennycan on 05.23.06 at 03:06 PM [permalink]
I think one can marvel at how one can achieve the greatest good for the greatest number through authoritarian government without buying into the philosophy. I am very much for democracy and for freedom, but I also have to recognize when authoritarian governments occasionally have a capacity to change things for the better in ways that would not be possible in a democratic polity.
Look, pollution is far from the only reason for building the three gorges dam project. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that harnessing hydroelectic power in a country almost wholly dependent on coal is a good thing.
I feel always a little astonished (not so much, really) when I see people who declare themselves "very much for democracy and for freedom" praising a dictatorship fo its "effectiveness".
Enzoposted by: Enzo on 05.23.06 at 10:07 PM [permalink]
Projects of overwhelming size and sometimes doubtful value pockmark Chinese imperial history -- Grand Canal, Great Wall, etc. The lure of one's name "eternally" cast in the annals of history is a powerful lure and most assuredly not a modern phenomenon.
Rich Kuslan, Editor
I believe in democracy. But I also grew up in Singapore. While as a non-citizen and a teenager I stood outside of the political landscape, it was obvious to me in my decade there in the 1980s that the city was transformed, through authoritarian government, from a sleazy, backward Asian port city into a dramatic success story that has inspired developing nations from around the world.
Tough problems often require tough solutions. In democratic and poorer developing states such as India, democracy is inevitably wedded with populism and political machines that subvert the ability of government to make difficult decisions that would improve the overall quality of life of the people (witness Bombay, for instance). Authoritarian governments can be awful too. But when they also have a basic desire to improve the lot of their people, rather than just being content with the usual oligarchic kleptocracy, they can accomplish a great deal that democratic governments cannot.
I only have in principle two reservations with benign authoritarianism. The first is the mindset that it engenders - it can be stultifying beyond a certain point for the education and mindset of people in a country in terms of their creativity and ability to express themselves. The second, and I think bigger problem is simply the issue of regime change and legitimacy. The biggest benefit of democracy in my view is that it provides an orderly, usually bloodless method for regime change within a certain time period. Benign authoritarian regimes do not have this mechanism, especially necessary when they become, in the view of the majority of the people, not so benign. The problem of legitimacy when 'good' authoritarian regimes turn 'bad' is one that ultimately undermines the benefits they offer, particularly in more advanced countries where my first problem (that of lack of a creative spark) is a major issue as they transition from manufacturing towards being service, creativity and information-based economies.
So back to this Dam issue - I think there is a knee-jerk reaction to condemn most big projects coming out of China, particularly one that tramples on the rights of some of its own people. The Three Gorges Dam has received so much universally bad press in the West, that I would like for us to take a step back, and just ask, could it be that this project has some benefits as well? I can certainly see some modicum of good, from a self-interested point of view, from there being less air pollution.posted by: HK Dave on 05.24.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
"declare themselves "very much for democracy and for freedom" praising a dictatorship fo its "effectiveness"."
Only the simple minded child will believe in one-dimensional characters in moveis, and in real world:
look at US/Iraq and Singapore for counter-examples, loads of.posted by: sun bin on 05.24.06 at 11:22 AM [permalink]
Your faith in repressive regimes is really worrying at this point of history.
Enzoposted by: Enzo on 05.24.06 at 08:21 PM [permalink]
no, i do not have faith. i am agnostic.
Repressive regime can do good things.
i used to believe US stands for fairness and freedom. but Dubya continuously disappointed me. I used to believe overthrowing CCP is the only way to change China, but the turned out to be not totally repressive.posted by: sun bin on 05.25.06 at 10:00 AM [permalink]
no, i do not have faith. i am agnostic.
Repressive regime can do good things.
i used to believe US stands for fairness and freedom. but Dubya continuously disappointed me. I used to believe overthrowing CCP is the only way to change China, but they turned out to be not totally repressive.posted by: sun bin on 05.25.06 at 10:01 AM [permalink]
I don't have more faith in authoritarian regimes than in democratic ones. I don't take anything on faith, in fact, and much more from results and consequences.
I understand you probably come from a European background, where terrible events in living memory make any acknowledgement of the legitimacy of any authoritarian regime difficult (although Merkel, Chirac, Blair or previously, Berlusconi didn't seem to have a big problem in negotiating with China).
However, I simply think that to say they are a priori evil without rationally considering how they may actually be good for the lives of the people they represent seems to me, unexamined thinking.
And yes, I have to agree with Sun Bin that the democracies of the world have hardly been setting the world alight by example, and if nothing else has demonstrated that ignorant, smug stupidity caused by nepotism can happen in democracies too. I feel that democratic idealism will come back to American political life after Dubya finally leaves office, but for now the 'shining beacon from the house on the hill' has gone dim.posted by: HK Dave on 05.25.06 at 04:45 PM [permalink]
Yes, it's obvious that we come from very different backgrounds.
Enzoposted by: Enzo on 05.25.06 at 08:38 PM [permalink]
As Rich says, "Projects of overwhelming size and sometimes doubtful value pockmark Chinese imperial history". The three gorges was originally a Sun Yat-sen project !