books energy human rights

The Most Dammed Country in the World, by Dai Qing

I expect you already know which country is being referred to in the title of this book. It’s China, which has 23,841 large dams. That’s comfortably over twice the number of dams in the US in second place. Among them is the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, also the world’s largest power station and by any account one of the most impressive feats of engineering in human history.

The dam has saved hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal and its associated emissions, but it was not without cost. There were environmental impacts, including significant changes to river ecology. 1.2 million people (officially) were relocated, some losing their farmland and taking jobs in factories instead. There were heritage losses, including three ancient cities that are now entirely underwater. These cities were rebuilt on higher ground and given the same names, essentially erasing their legacy.

The costs were not well understood or discussed when the dam was proposed. Environmental assessments that delivered the ‘wrong’ result were ignored and re-commissioned. Local authorities who wanted the kudos of a record-breaking dam didn’t do due diligence on the project. The official final financial and social costs don’t tally with reality. The actual number of people re-located is closer to 4 million. The risks of landslides, floods and earthquakes were glossed over. The new towns built for re-located communities weren’t good enough, and have led to dereliction and in some cases a second mass re-location.

It was the journalist Dai Qing who led the charge in investigating the corruption, the human rights abuses, and the way that local concerns were being overruled for the sake of big infrastructure. The planning of the dam was being done in state-censored silence, and even those most directly affected had no idea what was coming. So she compiled the case against the Three Gorges Dam in a book called Yangtze! Yangtze!, published in 1989 and describing it as “the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world”. For this she went to prison for 10 months, and has been banned from publishing in China ever since.

Dai Qing’s books have been published in Taiwan and Hong Kong instead, and The Most Dammed Country in the World presents a small selection of her writings as part of the Penguin Green Ideas series. It summarises the concerns about the dam, and how China uses “the advantage of low human rights” in its development. It’s an insight into the local corruption among China’s elites, how they are “free to do anything, as long as they remain silent about politics.”

It also documents a particular moment in China’s history that explains the absence of an established environmental movement in the country. Qing describes how the Tiananmen Square massacre chilled any sense of dissent or protest for generations. All sorts of things unfold in China that would be next to impossible in a democracy, but protest is just too risky.

For those of us in countries like the UK, it’s a reminder not to take our freedoms for granted. I’m not sure I could write this blog in China, but as Qing’s little book makes clear, protecting the right to protest isn’t about maintaining our own freedom to express ourselves. It’s about preventing huge mistakes. When governments clamp down on protest, they silence the warnings and the alternative arguments. It feeds group-think, enables corruption, and turns a blind eye to abuses of people and nature.

The Most Dammed Country in the World is short. I picked it up from the library and read it in my lunch break. It’s one of many worthwhile little volumes in Penguin’s Green Ideas series, and if you are yet to dip a toe into the collection, I recommend them as a little shot of fresh perspective.

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