'We failed to think of all the impact that the dam might bring about when designing the dam.' Mr Wang Jingquan, who works for an agency affiliated with the Yangtze River Water Resources Committee
'The drought would have been more severe without the dam.'
By Grace Ng, China Correspondent
Mr Liu Xuefeng, an official at the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters
A dead turtle on a dried riverbank of the Yangtze River under the Jiujiang Yangtze River Bridge in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province on Thursday. Critics say the Three Gorges Dam exacerbates the shortage of water downstream and inflicts huge ecological damage. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
BEIJING: A top Chinese environment official insisted yesterday that the worst drought in 60 years across central and southern China is caused by a lack of rain and not the controversial Three Gorges Dam.
'We believe that (the drought) is primarily caused by prolonged lower rainfall,' said Mr Li Ganjie, Vice-Minister for Environmental Protection, in a terse response to a question about whether the world's largest hydroelectric project has contributed to the latest dry spell.
His comment, made at a press conference on China's environmental issues, is the latest and supposedly most authoritative in a series of conflicting official statements on whether the dam is to blame for severely depleted downstream lakes.
The 183m-high dam, which provided 84 billion kilowatt hours of electricity last year, has been widely criticised for changing the levels of regional water tables.
Besides exacerbating the shortage of water downstream, critics say, it inflicted a huge ecological impact on fish and plant populations while displacing 1.4 million people.
On Thursday, a Chinese official admitted that the planners of the dam had failed to anticipate its impact in lowering water levels in two of the country's largest freshwater lakes. This raised the risk of them drying up during droughts.
Mr Wang Jingquan, who works for an agency affiliated with the Yangtze River Water Resources Committee, told local newspaper Xinmin Evening News that the reservoir behind the dam, which stored water from the river, cut off supply to the two lakes.
'We failed to think of all the impact that the dam might bring about when designing the dam,' said Mr Wang.
His comments come two weeks after China's Cabinet admitted that there were 'urgent problems' linked to the dam, including the negative impact on downstream water supplies.
It vowed to restore order and address these issues within the next eight years. But in subsequent days, various newspapers cited local officials claiming that the dam is not at fault and is instead helping to alleviate the drought.
Among them was Mr Liu Xuefeng, an official at the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, who said on Thursday that the dam has played an important role in increasing the downstream flow of the Yangtze River.
He told the Beijing Daily that from May 20 to 24, the dam accelerated its discharge rate to 10,000 cubic metres per second, and even higher - to 12,000 cubic metres per second - on May 25.
'The drought would have been more severe without the dam,' he said.
Local media has also weighed in on the debate, with People's Daily Online columnist Li Hong lauding the State Council for acknowledging the dam's possible problems.
Financial magazine Caijing argued that the high-profile government project is indeed not a key cause of the drought, but the Chinese public has blamed it anyway to vent their anger over the government's failure to control environmental problems. China's massive development projects, many driven by state giants, have taken a huge toll on its environment, sparking public concern and social unrest.
Last week, protests erupted in Inner Mongolia over damage to traditional pastureland caused by coal mining. Local herders have raised animals there for centuries.
Vice-Minister Li said yesterday that the government will limit development projects in Inner Mongolia and other environmentally vulnerable areas.
'If local enterprises had indeed breached environmental-protection laws, I believe the local government and environmental authorities will certainly mete out serious punishment,' he added.
He also vowed to clamp down on heavy metal pollution from mines and other factories, which has led to entire villages being struck by lead poisoning.
While some of China's environmental indices such as air quality in cities improved last year, the country's 'overall environmental situation is still very grave', Mr Li noted.
'We have entered a period where sudden incidents impacting the environment or pollution accidents are occurring frequently.'