China’s great leap of faith in the flood of the century

Concerns grow about the Three Gorges Dam and the world’s largest hydroelectricity plant

News broke this week that China’s ongoing floods had inched their way over the toes of the Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan Province.

By Wednesday, the feet of the world’s largest pre-modern statue – it soars to 71 meters (233 feet) – had reemerged from the floodwaters. But as upriver rains continue, flooding records are being broken along the length of the Yangtze River.

The Yangtze is a river of superlatives, and the Giant Buddha is just one of them. The Yangtze is also the longest river in Asia at 6,300 kilometers (3,900 miles) and accounts for an estimated 20% of China’s GDP. It is also home to the world’s largest – and most controversial – dam, the Three Gorges, which is also the world’s largest hydroelectricity plant.

In its latest superlative, the Yangtze is the source of China’s worst flooding since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949.

All eyes are focused on the dam, which was expected to be holding back peak inflows of water on Thursday of 76,000 cubic meters per second, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. The dam is expected to reach maximum capacity by Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Discharge from the dam is significantly lower than inflow, straining at a record 48,000 cubic meters per second – and from all 10 sluice gates. Dam water levels are expected to reach a record high of 166 meters on Thursday.

The dam’s threshold for flood prevention is 145 meters.

Sichuan Province, which is upriver from the dam and affected by banked-up Three Gorges reservoir waters and releases of floodwaters from other dams upstream, has raised its emergency response to “maximum level.” The municipality of Chongqing, also upriver and with a population of more than 30 million, continues to be at the highest flood warning level.

Covid-19 pandemic

Downstream, Wuhan, the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, has so far been spared, but the city of 11 million has been on flood alert for weeks. The city is protected by dikes patrolled by tens of thousands of volunteers, according to reports.

It is the fifth wave of flooding to strike central China this year. During the past two months, “disasters and direct economic losses of 179 billion yuan ($26 billion)” have affected more than 60 million people, while four million have been resettled, the Deputy Minister of Emergency Management Zhou Xuewen reportedly said at a press conference.

Claims that the Three Gorges Dam is at imminent risk of collapse – rumors of which have circulated in China on almost an annual basis since the dam went into operation in 2003 – are widely claimed to be “exaggerated.” But Chinese-born hydrologist and engineer Wang Weiluo, who was involved in planning the project, has publicly expressed concerns about its structural integrity.

Mao Zedong’s frequent dips in the Yangtze River generated front page headlines in the state-run People’s Daily and the Liberation Army Daily. Image: Courtesy of the People’s Daily

Wang told the Chinese-language media there were grounds for “serious concern over cracks” while “substandard concrete was discovered” during the dam’s construction. He also claimed that a failure of the massive engineering project would impact 400 million lives downstream.

Chinese state media has dismissed such claims – including others, such as structural distortion and a shifting of the dam wall – as Western media “hype.”

The integrity of the Three Gorges Dam is an unknown equal to that of how much rainwater it will have to harbor in the lower reaches of the Yangtze in the weeks ahead. But the fact that it is an issue that refuses to go away – and to the point that the Chinese government and its media mouthpieces are repeatedly compelled to assure the public of its safety – places it in that peculiar region of vaulting ambition that defines the modern Chinese project.

Historic swim

It was first raised, after all, by Sun Yat-sen, the so-called father of modern China, who overthrew the Qing Dynasty. It later went into the planning stage under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and was considered by the Japanese invaders of China during World War II. The Great Helmsman Mao Zedong also dreamed of such a dam after taking a historic swim in the Yangtze from Wuhan in 1956.

In verse, Mao wrote: “Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west, To hold back … clouds and rain, Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges, The mountain goddess if she is still there, Will marvel at a world so changed.”

The world has changed. China has changed. The dream of a great dam to harness China’s greatest river was realized some 80 years after the death of Sun Yat-sen and 30 years after the death of Mao.

Whether it is China’s Achilles heel or its greatest triumph is a question the weeks ahead – the months ahead, perhaps even the years ahead – will prove, but on June 29, CCP leader Xi Jinping, broke a long silence on the subject and called on China to “put people first and value people’s lives most in the fight against the floods.”

In this year of unique challenges for China and for the world, in other words, engineering prowess and Xi’s much-vaunted system of governance are likely to take a back seat to the resilience of the Chinese people. Mao’s mountain goddess, if indeed “she is still there” will determine the fate of every Chinese within the penumbra of not just this flood season, but all the flood seasons to come.

Chris Taylor is a former China and Taiwan-based commentator, now resident in Bangkok. Follow at @chrisvtaylor