The central government has for the first time acknowledged downsides to the Three Gorges Project, but vowed to correct the mishaps and improve disaster prevention mechanisms, as a severe drought in central and southern China threatens millions of people.
In a statement issued after a meeting presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, the State Council said the project had played a key role in flood prevention and power generation, but admitted it had caused severe problems to the environment, shipping, agricultural irrigation and water supplies in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, an area of 633,000 square kilometers shared by eight provinces.
It added that the government would properly handle all negative effects caused by the Three Gorges Project, the largest hydropower project in the world, and improve long-term mechanisms for geological disaster prevention, ecological preservation and the promotion of biological diversity.
Efforts should be made to increase oversight and control of water pollution to ensure drinking water safety, it added.
The statement also pledged to raise the standard of living for the 1.24 million relocated residents through economic restructuring and infrastructure improvements, as well as ensuring the social security system covers all urban and rural residents by 2020.
The statement came as a lingering drought has left residents and livestock without drinking water and dried up rivers across the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. The problem has mainly been centered in Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces.
According to the People's Daily, the region has seen no significant rainfall since November. The water level in 1,392 dams in Hubei is below the minimum threshold, rendering them unable to irrigate farmland.
Media reports said two ships were grounded near Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, due to low water levels, and authorities shut down more than 200 kilometers of river for safety reasons earlier this month.
The extreme weather has stopped virtually all agricultural activities in north Hunan. Jiangxi's Poyang Lake, the country's largest freshwater lake, has shrunk to 1,326 square kilometers, its smallest area since satellites record began, as compared to its normal 4,000 square-kilometer surface area during the rainy season.
According to media reports, China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGPC), the dam's managing body, has been ordered to increase flows to lower reaches to help curb the drought.
The corporation resorted to the same measure in early 2010, which resulted in drought for the river's upper reaches, affecting people in Chongqing, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
"Extreme conditions have increased since the Three Gorges Dam started to store water, but more scientific research is needed to prove a link between them," Fan Xiao, head of Regional Geological Survey Group of Sichuan Bureau of Geological Exploration of Mineral Resources, told the Global Times.
Concerns about the dam's knock-on effects have existed since the project's inception. In the past, authorities generally denied any such questions, casting an aura of perfection on the project.
"The government's acknowledgement of these problems is a step forward as in the past, we only talked about the project's merits," Kong Qingdong, a Peking University professor and a news commentator, told online video news channel Thursday. "It is a reminder that we should gather more dissenting opinions before approving any large-scale projects."
The State Council statement acknowledged that some of the problems were known even before construction began 17 years ago. Furthermore, new problems arose along with the project's development because of increased economic and social demands.
The project was approved by the National People's Congress in 1992 with 67 percent of votes in favor, far more than the 50 percent needed for approval.
According to CTGPC chief Cao Guangjing, floodwaters reached the dam at a speed of 70,000 cubic-meters of water per second on July 20 last year, a velocity surpassing the 1998 flood that left millions of people homeless. The dam blocked 40 percent of the flood waters and reduced velocity to 40,000, significantly reducing the pressure on lower-reach areas.
Cao also pointed out that the dam's 175-meter-high reservoir will put pressure on surrounding lands and cause underground water to rise, potentially causing earthquakes and landslides.
"We have spent 12 billion yuan ($1.84 billion) on studies of geographic structures near the dam and on disaster-prevention measures," Cao told the Chongqing Economic Times in October.
The Three Gorges Project, built with a budget equivalent to $22.5 billion, is a multi-functional water control system, consisting of a dam, a five-tier ship dock and 26 hydropower turbo-generators.