Chinese officials responded on Tuesday to alarming photos of the Three Gorges Dam posted on social media by insisting the dam is completely safe and has suffered only a few millimeters of structural distortion over the years.
The photos showed a segment of the dam warped badly out of shape, unleashing rumors the structure has suffered dangerous cracks and splits that might be harbingers of catastrophe.
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) July 7, 2019
The Three Gorges Dam is located in the central Hubei province of China, which is also currently dealing with widespread public anger over poor civic planning for the huge amounts of trash created by rapidly growing cities. A pointed atmosphere of skepticism for official pronouncements has developed in the region.
The dam spans the Yangtze River and is among the largest hydroelectric installations in the world, measuring over 7,600 feet in width and 600 feet in height. It was also pitched as a solution to the perpetual flooding experienced by residents of the Yangtze basin.
The dam created a reservoir so deep that massive freighters can sail across it and so huge that foreign geologists worry about the massive volume of water triggering earthquakes that could shatter the dam.
The Three Gorges project has been controversial at every stage of conception and execution, from concerns about its environmental impact to allegations that it was an unnecessarily large and poorly planned vanity project. Opponents of the project denounced the displacement of huge numbers of local residents by the lengthy construction project as a human rights violation.
The Chinese central government eventually conceded some of these charges and promised billions of dollars in compensation for social and environmental damage, although at least half of the money remains unpaid eight years after those promises were made.
Foreign observers and dissident Chinese have been worried about the integrity of the dam ever since construction was completed in 2006. The latest round of anxiety was triggered by a social media user who posted satellite photos taken over the past ten years that showed a portion of the dam’s middle section twisted out of shape.
Chinese officials responded by insisting the dam is “absolutely safe” and has shifted only a tiny amount over the past decade, remaining well within its tolerance parameters. They also claimed the distortion evident in the satellite photos was the result of a problem with the satellites that took the photos, supplying their own satellite image that showed the dam in much better shape.
China’s state-run media howled that “rumors” about the dam becoming unsafe have been “manipulated by domestic and overseas forces, who intentionally tarnish the project and the Chinese government for their own purposes.” An engineer was quoted predicting the dam will stand for another thousand years.
Radio Free Asia noted these reassurances are not being taken at face value by Chinese citizens who have grown distrustful of their government, particularly on environmental issues or anything pertaining to the Three Gorges Dam, treated as an unimpeachable symbol of national pride. Memories of the callous treatment given to inconvenient locals during construction linger in Hubei province.
Reuters quoted Chinese geologist Fan Xiao worrying that heavy government censorship of all Three Gorges Dam criticism has made it difficult to hold a rational discussion about whether the “national treasure” is imperiled.
“If talking about problems is stigmatized, then it is nothing more than putting one’s head in the sand and deceiving oneself. It will solve no problems and could make them worse,” Fan warned.
The Epoch Times quoted both foreign and Chinese engineers who said the Three Gorges Dam probably has less than 50 years left before it experiences severe structural failure, a timeline that lines up with estimates published in Chinese media during early construction in the 1990s, before the party line became wild boasts of a thousand years or more.
These engineers pointed out that the reassuring images posted by Chinese state media were shot from different angles than the alarming photo circulating on social media. The Epoch Times also reported the dam, normally a popular tourist attraction, has been closed to visitors since July 5, fueling local skepticism of the reassurances offered by government officials.