Critics of China's Three Gorges dam said an unusual Chinese government statement this week acknowledging serious flaws in the project, while unlikely to mark a major shift in policy, could provide ammunition to those opposing other hydropower projects in the world's biggest dam-building nation.
In a statement approved by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the country's cabinet, the State Council, said Thursday that the $23 billion Three Gorges project, while providing 'huge comprehensive benefits,' also suffered from a number of problems that were 'urgently in need of resolution.'
Among the problems were ecological deterioration, the potential for geological disasters and the uncertain status of the more than a million people relocated to make way for the dam.
Beijing has publicly recognized problems associated with the dam on several occasions before, but activists said Thursday's statement was unique in bearing the imprimatur of Mr. Wen, the country's No. 2 leader.
Mr. Wen, like his predecessor Zhu Rongji, has long had reservations about the Three Gorges project, according to veteran environmentalist Dai Qing.
'Both Wen and Zhu have made remarks about disliking this project, but because of their position, both had no choice but to support it,' said Ms. Dai, herself a vocal opponent of the dam for many years. 'Now that the problems can no longer be covered up, I think Wen is seizing the opportunity to bring them more into public view.'
Mr. Wen, a geologist by training, is reported to have talked about the need to address environmental concerns around the dam at State Council meetings in 2006 and 2007.
The world's largest dam at 600 feet tall, the Three Gorges has been shrouded in controversy since long before it was built.
The project encountered rare opposition in the country's normally docile legislature when it was submitted for approval in 1992, fed by concerns over the enormous social and environmental costs, as well as the geological risks of walling off such a huge expanse of water.
Arguing that the dam would help control flooding on the Yangtze River and provide a much-needed source of clean energy─not to mention stand as an emblem of Chinese engineering prowess─proponents of the project eventually prevailed.
The dam has largely delivered on its promise to deliver low-carbon electricity, producing roughly 84 billion kilowatt hours in 2010, according to state-run media. But issues ranging from pollution-fed algae blooms to mountainous islands of floating trash to worrying cracks in the earth in nearby fields have revived concerns over the project.
Torrential rains and precipitously high water levels last year strained the dam and led officials to downplay its ability to control floods.
What may have finally tipped the balance, dam critics say, is a severe drought affecting swathes of central and eastern China. The result of record-low rainfall, the drought has all but drained nearly 1,400 reservoirs in the central province of Hubei and 'severely affected' 4.2 million people, according to state media reports.
'The water shortfalls from this spring have spread through many of China's provinces, making it impossible for the central government to cover up the problems,' Ms. Dai said.
The severity of the drought has forced officials to discharge massive amounts of water from the Three Gorges reservoir, prompting fears that rapidly falling water levels could lead to landslides, or even earthquakes.
While offering an unusually frank assessment of the problems associated with the Three Gorges project, Thursday's statement offered few specific solutions, saying that the government planned to increase efforts to mitigate water pollution, improve the lives of those displaced by the project and 'further build out a long-range geological disaster prevention mechanism.'
Ms. Dai said she was encouraged by the government's willingness to address flaws in the project, but cast doubt on Beijing's ability to make good on that pledge, particularly in the case of geological disruptions. 'It's already too late to solve a lot of the problems,' she said.
Wang Yongchen, another prominent environmentalist, argued that some of the smaller issues like water pollution and a loss of wetlands can still be addressed but agreed that the government is limited in its ability to tackle more serious issues.
'Those problems, you can't do anything about them,' she said. 'You can't blow up the dam, can you?'
Still, Ms. Wang said, the statement was a potentially valuable weapon in the fight against future big dams. 'It makes it easier for us to push for change.'
The National Energy Agency announced in January that China plans to add 140 gigawatts of new hydropower capacity over the next five years, with the goal, outlined in the latest five-year plan, of producing 11% of its energy from nonfossil fuel sources by 2015.
The plans include a long-debated cascade of 13 dams along the Nu River in the country's ecologically diverse southwest, which is home to dozens of endangered species.
Mr. Wen has been a consistent and vocal opponent of that plan and is credited by Ms. Wang with preventing the dams from being built despite intense lobbying from local governments and proponents of hydropower.
Ms. Wang is not alone in interpreting Thursday's statement as a sign of the Chinese leader's continued reservations about the country's hydropower push.
Calling the statement 'unexpected,' Peter Bosshard, policy director at International Rivers, a California-based advocacy group, noted comments Mr. Wen made earlier this year warning against sacrificing the environment in pursuit of rapid economic growth.
'By recalling the unresolved legacy of the Three Gorges Dam,' Mr. Bosshard wrote in a blog post on the International Rivers website, 'he may be sending a shot across the bow of the zealous dam builders which would be only too happy to forget about the lessons of past projects.
Imaginechina / Zuma Press
美國加州遊說團體國際河流組織(International Rivers)政策主任波斯哈德(Peter Bosshard)說﹐國務院這則聲明讓人意外。他提到溫家寶今年早前說不要為了追求經濟高增長而犧牲環境的言論。