Damming evidence

By Briony Penn, July 2011

China’s premier admits the massive Three Gorges Dam has created “urgent problems.” Is anybody at BC Hydro listening?

The premier of China, Wen Jiabo, recently made an official announcement that the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, which has created a reservoir twice the length of Vancouver Island and displaced 1.3 million people, is experiencing “urgent problems.” Urgent on every front—dead water zones, pollution of drinking supplies, siltation, landslides, earthquakes, erosion, and drought. The project is also generating less power than it was designed for because of the danger of raising the reservoir to optimum levels; there’s been more displacement of residents, and massive destruction of the river ecosystems. 

Canada can take part of the blame for this fiasco: it was a Canadian consortium of engineering companies—including BC Hydro International, a subsidiary of BC Hydro—whose feasibility study for China’s Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power gave the green light to the Three Gorges dam. Financed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for $14 million, the study was completed in 1988. 

Those who did stand against it—like Probe International—have been vindicated. One of Canada’s most respected environmental advocacy groups focusing on Canadian-backed international developments, Probe blew the whistle back in 1990. They assembled a team of international experts to review the CIDA-funded feasibility study. One of them—University of Manitoba professor Vaclav Smil, an expert on Chinese energy and environment issues—stated of the study, “This is not engineering and science, merely an expert prostitution, paid for by Canadian taxpayers.” The results of Probe’s review were published in Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam Builders Don’t Want You to Know. 

Probe also filed complaints against the Canadian engineers who conducted the feasibility study, accusing them of professional negligence, incompetence and professional misconduct. 

Though CIDA withdrew from the Three Gorges project in 1992, Canadian companies gleefully participated in this project over a 20-year period, despite its failure on every test for technical, ecological or economic feasibility, not to mention the reality of people in China being arrested, beaten, and threatened with execution for criticizing the project. 

Now that Probe’s expert reviewers have been proven right, will those Canadian firms who gave it the green light—British Columbia Hydro International, Hydro-Quebec, SNC-Lavalin and Acres International—take any responsibility? (Acres was later convicted of bribing officials in projects in Lesotho and has since been bought out by the Canadian company Hatch, while still owing millions in fines.) 

And how about our politicians who pushed it forward? This was a project that no political premier of any stripe dared question because of the money to be made. Even Mike Harcourt, then-BC premier, was part of a booster delegation to China back in 1993, along with then-BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen, vying for work in the project that mushroomed from a projected $10-$20 billion to one in the range of $25-$75 billion (Harcourt later instructed BC Hydro not to bid). 

The fact that Canadian and BC companies and politicians jumped on the bandwagon for such a problematic mega-project should give British Columbians pause about our own huge scale dam proposal: Site C on the Peace River. The proposed dam is just south of Fort St. John, downstream of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and the Peace Canyon Dam. Despite being far away, the two Peace dams have become an essential part of every Victorian’s life. The electricity generated there lights up our houses and runs our appliances. The Site C project would flood 5340 hectares of a stunningly magnificent river valley, including highly productive river bottom lands and agricultural land. All so we can run our flat screen TVs, microwave ovens and video-game players.

Site C has already been the subject of intense critiques, especially amongst First Nations and Peace River residents who suffered first hand the devastating effects of the W.A.C. Bennett dam—including huge declines in wildlife through loss of critical habitat and migration corridors, to the mercury contamination and impoundment of native migratory fish in the reservoirs. 

As with Three Gorges and earlier phases of the Peace River dams, communities were relocated and traditional hunting and fishing areas and sacred sites were flooded. Like the Three Gorges dam, compensation for the first dam wasn’t forthcoming. BC has only marginally compensated surviving members of Fort Ware and Ingenika Point. Most of the victims, the Tsay Keh Dene people of the Kwadacha First Nation, have argued that there is no compensation for destroying vast river valley systems, water quality, wildlife corridors and their cultural traditions tied to that river.

BC Hydro argues that this is a climate action strategy to generate “clean” energy, but data, even from their own engineers, suggests that the carbon and climate benefits aren’t there. 

First, there is the loss of all the carbon stored in the forest and soil which will be released when they are logged, excavated and flooded, coupled with the lost opportunity thereafter for that sink to capture carbon. And when you factor in the release of methane, a highly concentrated greenhouse gas with 21 times the impact of carbon dioxide (from rotting vegetation bubbling up through the waters), the argument that dams offset fossil fuel emissions for equivalent energy starts losing its potency. In a well-documented 1995 case study of a dam in Brazil, researchers found that there were more greenhouse gases produced by the dam than would have been released through fossil fuels to generate an equivalent amount of energy. Critics also argue that the power generated by Site C will mostly be sold to the US, rather than addressing provincial energy needs.

Site C is now into Stage 3—the environmental and regulatory review phase of the planning process. Back in September, the launch of Stage 3 was met by over a thousand protesters coming in convoys from northeast BC to the provincial Legislature, including some of the original elderly victims who spoke of the impacts of the first dam. Everywhere there were signs asking British Columbians to “Keep the Peace” and “Say No to Site C.” All the First Nations in the region, groups like the Peace Valley Environment Association, Citizens United to Save the Peace Sierra Club of BC and Suzuki Foundation have all come out against the project. BC Hydro is stating that they “have a duty to consult and, where appropriate, accommodate Aboriginal groups.” Given BC Hydro’s past, it seems reasonable to question its ability to be the arbiter of what is appropriate accommodation of aboriginal groups. 

In China, long-time Chinese critic and journalist Dai Qing, who went to jail for editing and publishing the landmark report Yangtze! Yangtze! with independent scientists in 1988, has always argued that very small energy projects are far less costly on all fronts than mega-dams. Now 70, Qing is dismissive of her government’s claims that it can resolve the many problems with the Three Gorges Dam. “The government built a dam but destroyed a river…My role is to dig out what really happened and tell the truth to my reader.” 

The truth appears almost more robust in China than back here in Canada, where we have precious few of Qing’s ilk left standing in the media. Let’s hope the Three Gorges project will be widely seen as evidence that mega-projects projects don’t work, and an example of why it would be wise to listen to the critics before the shovels hit the ground and 16 million tonnes of concrete have been poured.

Naturalist, journalist, artist and environmental educator, Briony Penn is doing her best to reduce her demands on electricity to eliminate the need for projects like Site C.