On China Yangtze river, giant dam’s legacy blocks revival

The Three Gorges Project has affected many communities, including this one on the Yangtze river, forcing several to move as a result of rising waters and increased seismic activity. (Reuters)
Updated 15 November 2019

On China Yangtze river, giant dam’s legacy blocks revival

  • Earthquakes, landslides, changing water levels and damaged ecosystems among the many issues facing Beijing

CHONGQING: The 2,000 residents of Muhe, whose village was moved to higher ground a decade ago to escape the rising Yangtze river, have tried to make the most of their remaining land by planting orchards of oranges and persimmons along its banks.

With just 110 hectares on the edge of Asia’s longest river, Muhe lost half its territory to make way for the colossal Three Gorges Project, a 185-meter dam and 660-kilometer reservoir designed to control flooding, aid navigation and generate electricity.

Beijing has allocated more than 600 billion yuan ($86 billion) since 2011 to alleviate the dam’s long-term impacts on villages like Muhe and bring the region’s deteriorating environment under “effective control.”

But many problems are unresolved, and the government has promised to spend another 600 billion yuan by 2025, said Xie Deti, a member of the Chongqing delegation of the National People’s Congress who lobbied the government to release more funds in March.

Protecting the Yangtze has become a priority for China after President Xi Jinping promised to end big and “destructive” development along the river, which stretches 6,000 kilometers from Tibet to Shanghai, supplies water to 400 million people and irrigates a quarter of the country’s arable land.

Since Xi’s orders in 2016, local governments have dismantled dams, dredged plastic junk from the water, relocated factories, banned waste discharge and restricted farming and construction all along the river.

“You can say we have undergone earth-shattering changes, especially when it comes to increasing our awareness of environmental protection,” said Liu Jiaqi, Communist Party secretary in Muhe.

But the region has been unable to evade the earth-shattering impact of the dam itself, which sits near two fault lines and has been blamed for a surge in earthquakes and the fragmentation of ecosystems, among myriad other problems.

China’s environment ministry said the region saw as many as 776 earthquakes in 2017, up 60 percent compared with a year earlier, with the highest magnitude at 5.

The total number has risen significantly since the project began, with one study from the China Earthquake Administration showing a 30-fold increase between 2003 and 2009, when the reservoir was filled.

Xie, who is also a professor at Chongqing’s Southwest University, said other challenges include algae blooms caused by fertilizer, and wastewater from tributaries polluting the river.

The government has long insisted the benefits of the dam outweigh the costs and disruptions.

But in 2011, Beijing promised to spend 1,238 billion yuan ($177.24 billion) by 2020 to try to fix them. It pledged to raise living standards, heal the environment and create a long-term mechanism to prevent geological disasters.

But less than half of the money had been spent by the end of last year, said Xie, who told Reuters he had received assurances from Beijing that the rest would come between 2020 and 2025.

So far, farmland has been restored by dredging up submerged soil. Riverbanks have been strengthened and reforested to reduce landslide risks, and “ecological barrier zones” have been built along vulnerable parts of the river.

But one government figure, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the additional funding might not be enough to solve long-term problems.

Sediment accumulating near the dam threatens to undermine flood controls. A specialist research team has been examining the problem in the Three Gorges region for more than 30 years and China has built two giant dams upstream to block silt.

The massive reservoir, which absorbs more heat than dry land, has also been blamed for increasing regional temperatures. Warmer water and the fragmentation of habitats have wreaked havoc on local fish stocks, with the Yangtze sturgeon close to extinction.

HIGHLIGHT

• China to spend extra $86 billion to fix Three Gorges.

• Giant dam hindering Xi’s Yangtze cleanup goals.

• Earthquakes in region surged 60% in 2017.

• Algae, landslides, silt still posing problems.

The dam has also caused water levels to dwindle at Poyang lake, a habitat for the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise.

Since the dam was built in 2006, some leaders have distanced themselves from the project. Wen Jiabao, premier from 2003 to 2012, openly criticized how it was built and castigated officials for failing to take care of more than a million displaced residents. During his visit to the Three Gorges last April, President Xi berated officials for failing to clean up the “grim” environment of the Yangtze, and reiterated his pledge to end “big construction” on the river.

But Xi also described the dam as a testament to China’s talent and self-reliance, saying it made him proud of its staff and his country.

“The issue is obviously very complicated, and it is not black and white,” said Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-governmental organization in China that tracks water pollution.

“It does have both flood control and power generation functions, but on the other hand, whether the cost is too high, whether there are alternatives, I think those are what we need to study,” Ma added. “For good or bad, the heyday of dams has passed.” 


Dubai counts on pent-up demand for tourism return

Updated 11 July 2020

Dubai counts on pent-up demand for tourism return

DUBAI: After a painful four-month tourism shutdown that ended this week, Dubai is betting pent-up demand will see the industry quickly bounce back, billing itself as a safe destination with the resources to ward off coronavirus.

The emirate, which had more than 16.7 million visitors last year, opened its doors to tourists despite global travel restrictions and the onset of the scorching Gulf summer in the hopes the sector will reboot before high season begins in the last quarter of 2020.

Embarking from Emirates flights, where cabin crew work in gowns and face shields, the first visitors arrived on Tuesday to be greeted by temperature checks and nasal swabs, in a city better known for skyscrapers, luxury resorts and over-the-top attractions.

Tourism chief Helal Al-Marri said that people may still be reluctant to travel right now, but that data shows they are already looking at destinations and preparing to come out of their shells.

“When you look at the indicators, and who is trying to buy travel, 10 weeks ago, six weeks ago and today look extremely different,” he said in an interview.

“People were worried (but) people today are really searching heavily for their next holiday and that is a very positive sign and I see a very strong comeback.”

The crisis crushed Dubai’s goal to push arrivals to 20 million this year and forced flag carrier Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East, to cut its sprawling network and lay off an undisclosed number of staff.

But Al-Marri, director-general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, said that unlike the gloom after the 2008 global financial crisis, the downturn is a one-off “shock event.”

“Once we do get to the other side, as we start to talk about next year and later on, we see very much a quick uptick. Because once things normalize, people will go back to travel again,” he said.

The reopening comes as the UAE battles stubbornly high coronavirus infection rates that have climbed to more than 53,500 with 328 deaths.

And as swathes of the world emerge from lockdown, for many travelers their holiday wish lists have shifted from free breakfasts and room upgrades to more pressing issues like hotel sanitation and hospital capacity.

With its advanced medical facilities and infrastructure, Dubai is betting it will be an attractive option for tourists.

“The first thing I’m thinking is — how is the health-care system, do they have it under control? Do I trust the government there?” Al-Marri said. “Yes they expect the airline to have precautionary measures, they expect it at the airport. But are they going to a city where everything from the taxi, to the restaurant, to the mall, to the beach has these measures in place?”

Tourists arriving in Dubai are required to present a negative test result taken within four days of the flight. If not, they can take the test on arrival, but must self-isolate until they receive the all-clear.

While social distancing and face masks are widely enforced, many restaurants and attractions have reopened with business as usual, even if wait staff wear protective gear and menus have been replaced with QR codes.

“When it comes to Dubai, I think it’s really great to see the fun returning to the city. As you’ve seen, everything’s opened up,” Al-Marri said.