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Harnessing the Waters: Nature Conquest in China's Past and Present

Perhaps no other issue in China today receives more news media attention than construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Speakers reflect on past legacies, present problems, and future impacts of China's "conquests" over nature.

Date & Time

Jun. 27, 2003
10:00am – 11:30am

Harnessing the Waters: Nature Conquest in China's Past and Present

Perhaps no other issue in China today receives more news media attention than construction of the Three Gorges Dam. On billboards and in state-run media, the Chinese government trumpets the dam as a sign of the country's ability to achieve advanced engineering feats on par with the West; while concerned scientists, scholars, and activists around the world condemn the project as an ecological and social catastrophe. On 1 June 2003, the dam's reservoir officially began to take water. Within a month the lake quickly boasted a 200-foot water depth and the Yangtze's flow was slowed to half its previous amount. The dam is now very much a reality for the environment and people living alongside the Yangtze River. Critics of the construction, however, have not given up the fight—while many still contend that dam's flood control and electricity generation potential will be limited by siltation, most are devoting attention to the economic, social, and environmental costs of the project.

In her new book Before the Deluge: The Vanishing World of the Yangtze's Three Gorges, Deirdre Chetham profiles not just the changing landscape of the Yangtze but also the disruption caused to both urban and rural populations in the region. Though the Three Gorges Dam is of an unprecedented scale in China (and the world), this project is not the first time that China has battled nature and attempted to harness the country's waters. Judith Shapiro, author of Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, argues that to understand the motivations behind the Three Gorges Dam and other massive development projects, one must look to China's past. At this 27 June 2003 China Environment Forum meeting, both speakers reflected on past legacies, present problems, and future impacts of China's "conquests" over nature.

Mao's War Against Nature

While Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms of the 1980s sparked rapid industrialization and ecological degradation, environmental problems and struggles between humans and nature have a much longer history in China. In ancient times philosophical debates even centered on controlling rivers: Confucianists contended that it was necessary for humans to control the flow of water, to both protect populations and benefit from hydropower; Daoists, conversely, believed that humans must simply move out of flood plains and let rivers run. In the 6th century BCE, engineer Chia Jang reflected the Daoist view when he said, "rivers are like the mouths of infants—if one tries to stop them they only yell the louder or are suffocated." Ultimately, the Confucian view of nature control became more influential among the Chinese ruling classes, all but silencing Daoists. Chinese development policy, both pre- and post-1949, became littered with nature conquest-themed chengyu (idioms): "man must conquer nature" and "change the heavens, change the earth." Another idiom directly contradicts Chia Jang by recommending a path to prosperity: "encircle the rivers and create arable land."

Although much of this rhetoric predates the communist revolution, Judith Shapiro suggested that it was not until the Mao years that nature conquest reached an extreme when environmental degradation became, in effect, state policy. The rules of science were ignored while those who questioned the decisions were labeled counterrevolutionaries and the struggle between man and nature was re-branded as a war against nature. Not surprisingly, the Mao years resulted in increased environmental degradation and greater human suffering—in Mao's War Against Nature, Shapiro sought to explore the environmental and social casualties of this war.

During Mao's 27-year reign, four distinct periods of environmental and societal degradation emerged:
(1) During the mid-1950s, the Chinese government began large dam projects often against the advice of experts, who were often subsequently punished. In the politically repressive atmosphere of the anti-rightist campaign, intellectual freedom suffered alongside the environment.
(2) The Great Leap Forward campaigns to produce steel in backyard furnaces and achieve unrealistic harvests led to ecosystem collapse in many of China's rural areas, creating a famine that claimed 30 million lives. During the same period numerous small dams—built with shoddy "tofu" construction—collapsed and claimed more lives.
(3) In an attempt to avoid the famines of previous years, the government promoted the "grain first campaign" in the mid-1960s, resulting in widespread reclamation projects, which forced hundreds and thousands to labor in construction campaigns. These reclamation projects filled in lakes and narrowed rivers, which exacerbated future flooding on major rivers such as the Yangtze.
(4) During the war preparation movement in the 1970s the Chinese government quickened the pace of deforestation and engaged in more widespread wetland reclamation; not only was wildlife's natural habitat lost, but humans were forcibly relocated across the country.

The historical perspective, provided by scholars like Shapiro, is crucial in not only understanding the devastation of past development on human and environmental health, but also the roots of today's infrastructure development policies. Shapiro noted that the Chinese government has not internalized the lessons from the past causalities of the wars against nature—as evidenced by the political repression and forced relocations in the Three Gorges Dam project. Shapiro contended that the lasting legacy of the Mao years is not just environmental degradation and human suffering, but also mistrust, cynicism, and corruption.

Before the Deluge

Sailing back and forth on the Yangtze River in the 1980s lecturing on cruise ships, Deidre Chetham had many opportunities to learn about the cultural importance of the Three Gorges region and appreciate its beauty—indeed, many parts of the world's third longest river resemble a traditional Chinese landscape painting. Chetham also came to understand the stark contrast between the beauty of the Three Gorges and the area's harsh living conditions. The rural population in this stretch of the Yangtze River suffers from abject poverty. Farming, one of the few ways to make a living, is made difficult by the rocky landscape, while bringing products to market is complicated by the lack of infrastructure throughout the region. Urban areas are only slightly better off. Economic reforms that have benefited coastal provinces are a great burden on cities in the mid- and upper reaches of the Yangtze where the consolidation and closing of state-owned factories has resulted in widespread layoffs. Rural and urban populations in the mid and lower reaches of the Yangtze are victims of chronic floods on the river. Over the past 2,000 years, the region has seen its share of roughly 200 major floods.

A history of economic woes and natural disasters along the Yangtze has convinced many Chinese leaders that only drastic state-led intervention can improve the situation. In the twentieth century, every Chinese leader, from Sun Yatsen to Jiang Zemin, has wanted to build a dam on the Yangtze. By moving ahead with the Three Gorges Dam, Beijing hopes to control flooding, produce hydroelectric power, and improve navigation on the river, benefiting both local people and the country as a whole. Many experts, however, are not convinced. There is great skepticism about the dam's ability to control massive flooding—many floods are, in fact, caused by tributaries below the dam and land reclamation projects that have filled lakes and narrowed the river. Thus floods may continue even after the dam is completed. From an environmental perspective, there is great concern that when the dam's reservoir submerges waste dumps and old factories the water will become a toxic lake threatening the ecosystem and human health. Perhaps most importantly, and often underreported, are the social costs of the project. Chetham's Before the Deluge investigates the social and environmental implications of the massive relocations.

Over the past decade, populations throughout the Three Gorges region have undergone a massive transition in wake of the dam's construction. Although the dam has been debated for over 60 years and planned since 1983, the project has now taken many locals by surprise. Residents ignored warnings to move to higher ground, while local governments even continued building major infrastructure projects on land that would soon be under water. Chetham likened the situation to living on an earthquake fault—residents are told that disaster is inevitable, but until a major quake actually strikes, they do not truly believe the threat. Certainly, the area's entire population now has felt the "quake"—and the aftershocks in the Three Gorges are just beginning.

Of the 1.2 million citizens to be moved, roughly 740,000 have already been relocated. Forty percent of relocated residents are from poor rural areas, half of which will undergo the most disruptive of changes. This large number of farmers is being sent to distant areas, often as far away as Guangdong and Shanghai. Though their standard of living in these major cities is often higher than their old way of life, these residents have lost family homes and communities. Even worse, many are moving to cities with markedly different languages and cultures.

Among urban residents, there is often more enthusiasm for the move, for many towns are being rebuilt higher up the hills and mountains alongside the river. Besides getting new apartments, many urbanites hope the new towns will prosper as bigger ships can come further up river. In theory, the relocation offers a respite from the economic malaise common in China's urban inland. Chetham contended that many urban residents previously blamed themselves for their economic woes. Because this project is a central government directive, the burden for economic success is finally off the residents' shoulders. If the economy continues to falter, it would be considered the government's fault and responsibility to rectify.

The long-term social costs of the Three Gorges Dam will not be known for some time. Certainly, an influx of money related to the construction has benefited some local residents, but the dismantling of local societies has affected many more. The general consensus among those relocated higher up the banks of the river, according to Chetham, is that the only immediate good of the dam would be economic. However, those who move to far away provinces may not be better off in the near of long term, for it is difficult for them to obtain jobs and even communicate with their new neighbors. Many willingly sacrifice their own comfort in order to provide new opportunities for their children, who could obtain better education on the coasts than in the Three Gorges area.

According to the speakers, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam offers a rather sobering example of history repeating itself. Just like the Mao years before, this government attempt to control nature by harnessing the waters has damaged both humans and natural ecology. It is dangerous conceiving the human and nature relationship as adversarial. Judith Shapiro suggested that it is not too late to conceptualize the human-environment relationship based on the Daoist ideal of harmony—perhaps the enormity of the dam and the widespread problems in its wake might convince Chinese leaders to reevaluate their approach to massive infrastructure projects.

Drafted by Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner.

Hosted By

China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge U.S.-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more


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