• Three Gorges dam a 'toxic bomb'

  • The mirage of normal monsoon rainfall

  • Three Gorges dam a 'toxic bomb'

    THE HINDU [17 MARCH, 2002]

    FENGJIE (CHINA): MARCH 16. With a year to go before the waters begin to rise behind the Three Gorges dam, a last-minute campaign to clear up the bed of its future reservoir has been condemned as dangerously inadequate by Chinese academics and Government advisers.

    Critics say officials are rushing the job. Leaving a "time bomb" of toxic waste in the Yangtze river. That would create a tragedy of astonishing proportions the Yangtze basin is home to 350 million people.

    The dam threatens a double blow to the Yangtze’s water quality. Not only will pollutants on the reservoir bed ooze into the water, but some 155 billion cubic feet of waste water which currently reaches the sea will concentrate behind the dam.

    That will store a cocktail of arsenic, mercury, lead, cyanide and other cancer causing heavy metals in a reservoir de signed to water some of China’s most fertile farmland. It is also due to provide drinking water for millions.

    The pollutants also threaten a national tragedy. Beijing gave final approval last year to the largest water diversion project in history, the "South-to-North" project, which will divert fresh water from the Yangtze to the parched northern cities.

    The authorities have 15 months to avoid this grim out-come. The clear-up of the 600-km-long reservoir site began only in January and is due to end in May next year.

    A month later, in the first of three phases of inundation, the Yangtze will rise by 150 feet, making 300,000 people home-less. Almost half have yet to leave. A total of 1.13 million people must move by the time the flooding is finished in 2009.

    A senior official in charge of building the dam said earlier relocations and a longer clean up would have been a waste of "economic resources".

    Zhang Chaoran, chief engineer of the Three Gorges Project Development Company, dismissed any suggestion of delaying the first inundation, saying the dam had to begin generating electricity as soon as possible. "We must consoled the problem from the perspective of gaining the greatest economic profit." Prof. Zhang said. "Delaying for just one year would he a huge loss for the company." Prof. Zhang said "If the project is delayed, the economic development in these areas will be negatively influenced. "

    Critics say the clean-up plan concentrates on removing physical threats to navigation such as buildings, trees and bridges and largely ignores the domestic and industrial pollution which encrusts the river’s banks or lies buried in the earth The dam will flood 137 cities and towns; 1,300 factories; 1,100 villages; 4,000 hospitals and clinics; 40,000 grave sites and at least 178 rubbish dumps containing 2.8 million tonnes of garbage.

    The reformist Southern Week-end newspaper, quoting an official survey, recently disclosed that the waters would also cover a 123 sources of radioactive debris". A tour of the reservoir site revealed the sham nature of much of the clean-up.

    The campaign officially began in the river town of Fengjie, with the demolition of an office building and power plant. State television carried the blasts live, hailing them as a "wonderful scene".

    Television, however, did not show the mountain of garbage which has been collecting for more than a decade on the banks of the Yangtze, ready to be washed away by the reservoir.

    A few miles down river, the clear up of Baidi village has yet to begin. Peasants said their forced emigration to Fujian province, hundreds of miles away, was being held up by corrupt officials who had diverted relocation funds. One widow said officials had ordered all graves less than 15 years old to be dug up and moved.

    Her husband’s grave was to move up the hill, in return for ś 2.50 compensation. Other villagers said brick privies were to be demolished, but cesspits filled with 30 years of human waste were being left to the flood waters.

    Prof. Zhang conceded that "some problems" with pollution would emerge when the reservoir was first flooded. A planned clean-up would solve the problem, he said, though it might take 10 years. ©Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2002.


    The mirage of normal monsoon rainfall


    Why has GDP growth ZA/ and consumer demand been so sluggish in recent years? First, the Pay Commission award has ruined the finances of Central and state governments and greatly reduced public investment. Second, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-99 and global recession of 2001 have been external body blows.

    But a third reason has not received adequate attention. It now seems that India has suffered three bad monsoons in a row. In a country that is still 72 per cent rural and mostly unirrigated, that necessarily means slower growth and sluggish demand.

    Some readers may wonder what I am talking about. The agriculture ministry says the monsoon this year has been splendid, and a record foodgrain harvest of 209 million tonnes is in the offing.

    However, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) is far more pessimistic. NCAER uses four different models to generate four alternative crop estimates. These range from 194.5 million to 204 million tonnes, giving an average of 199.7 million tonnes.

    This is far below the agriculture ministry’s prediction. NCAER estimates are also lower than the ministry’s for cotton and oilseeds. They are, however, higher for jute and sugar cane.

    The accompanying table, extracted from the Economic Survey, shows three ways of measuring the normalcy or otherwise of the monsoon.

    The met office gives rainfall data for the 35 meteorological sub-divisions of the country. No less than 29 out of 35 sub-divisions had normal rainfall in 2001, and one had excess rainfall. Overall, 30 out of 35 sub-divisions had normal or excess rainfall, which looks pretty good.

    However, these sub-divisions are very large areas that can hide many pockets of distress. So it is more instructive to look at district-wise rain-fall data. We have over 400 districts in India, against 35 met sub-divisions.

    Only 68 per cent of districts had normal or excess rainfall in 2001.The figure was 66 per cent in 2000 and 67 per cent in 1999. By this measure, we have suffered three poor monsoons in a row. The percentage of districts with normal/excess rain-fall was much higher in earlier years-79 per cent in 1995,82 per cent in 1996, and 81 per cent in 1997 and 1998.

    A third way of measuring normalcy is to com-pare total rainfall in a year with the long-term average. This again suggests three poor monsoons in a row. Rainfall was only 92 per cent of the long-term average in 2001, 92 per cent in 2000, and 96 per cent in 1999. It was above 100 per cent in preceding years.

    Now, I do not wish to exaggerate the impact of sub-normal monsoons. The rabi harvest now accounts for a big chunk of food-grain production, though much less of cash crops. Besides, evenly spaced rainfall can be more important than total rainfall. In 1997-98, for instance, poor spacing caused grain production to fall 3.6 per cent even though total rainfall was above normal. The agriculture ministry believers that good spacing has helped reduce a record grain crop this year, even though total rainfall has been the lowest for a decade.

    Who is closer to the truth, the agriculture ministry or NCAER? I personally favour NCAER, mainly because it seems to better explain the sluggish-ness-for more than two years of mass-con sumption items like detergents, toiletries and biscuits. Besides, even agriculture ministry data shows that the production of oilseeds, cotton and pulses hit a peak in 1998-99, and fell to lower levels in the last three years.

    When rainfall is sub-normal, it affects not just farmers, but all agricultural labour. A poor monsoon means less labour for ploughing, weeding, harvesting, and post harvest operations like transport.

    Since farmers have less rady cash, they hire less labour for land improvements like drainage, levelling and terracing. So, rainfed farmers and agricultural labourers have mush less to spend after a poor monsoon.

    Producers of fast moving consumer goods, such as hindustan Lever, are disappointed that rural demand has not p icked up as rapidly as expected despite a supposed record kharif crop.

    One explanation could be that NCAER is correct, and the crop is much smaller than the government thinks.

    In the short run this is bad news. But the long-term implications are altogether more favorable. If poor rainfall has slowed growth for three years in a row, surely better rains will accelerate growth in coming years.

    Optimists like me believe that the slowing of GDP since 1997 is largely a temporary phenomenon caused by temporary circumstances (the Pay Commission, Asian financial crisis and global recession), and could soon be reversed. Pessimists hold that the reasons are not temporary and reflect a deeper structural malaise of non-reform. The jury is still out on this issue. But I can now cite an additional reason for optimism. Three lean monsoons will, hopefully, be followed by three fat ones.