A Review by Charles Francis, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
For serious students of contemporary natural resource and environmental issues, a welcome break from textbooks and journal articles comes in this compelling novel by Dan Armstrong. Set in the here and now, the book weaves a story of national and international intrigue around the financing of the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the largest such structure in the world, that has just gone on line to help satisfy the voracious Chinese demand for electricity. In taming the planet's third-largest river, the Yangtze (the dragon), a series of ecological, economic, and social changes is put in motion that will likely alter the face of this large country and its people. Initially planned as a major source of electricity for China, the project results in a range of emergent properties that were scarcely imagined in the planning and financing stage. The 2009 destructive earthquake in Guantunxiang in Sechuan Province may even have links to the pressure of a massive impounding of water behind the new dam, an unforeseen potential consequence of this massive project.
The story opens in a time of drought. Less than normal snow pack in the Himalayas and lower than average rainfall have resulted in a sharp drop in the level of the dam's 400-km long reservoir, exposing a silt and mud-encrusted lakescape that includes the remains of homes and factories that were covered with water when people were displaced to higher ground. The plot centers around a young German hydrologist who is assigned the task of doing an assessment of the project from an ecological and operative point of view before his employer, a German bank, decides whether to provide the final loan to help complete the project. We follow his adventures from a chance encounter with skeptical U.S. engineers in a hotel bar in Singapore to multiple meetings with the on-site managers and technical specialists working to complete the project in China. What he discovers is truly shocking.
With youthful dedication, the hydrologist scuba dives in the murky waters to examine the silty bottom, explore the factory ruins, and collect water samples in a number of locations while cruising up the huge lake. His discovery of heavy metals, biological contaminants, and other forms of pollution confirm his suspicions that this project is creating an ecological disaster. Of course, this is not what his employers or Chinese colleagues with large investments in the project want to hear.
In an unlikely but engaging twist to the story, the German falls in love with a Chinese beauty he meets on a plane flight, then pursues her up the reservoir to her home and a somewhat far-fetched scenario unwinds around their liaison, the Chinese mafia, and even the international grain trade. In a conversation with the author, I learned that he considers the romance dimension essential to sell books–whether or not this lends credibility to the important environmental message.
Taming the Dragon is rich with cultural details, assuring the reader that Dan Armstrong has indeed taken this same trip, met many people, developed some insight about the broad situation, and acquired some stereotypes to be sure. Yet his ability to combine hydrologic engineering detail with economic impacts and environmental consequences of the massive project leave us many questions about the advisability of such an undertaking. One comes away convinced that there is a compelling need to look at economic development from many angles, not the least of which is the social impact on local people and culture. It is one thing to look at statistics, blueprints, and photos along with an economic balance sheet when sitting behind a desk in Germany, but yet another to smell the rotting fish, see the incredible load of silt, and witness the human excreta floating slowly along in this virtual open sewer as described eloquently in the book. Essentially, there are hugh externalities in such a large project, and a broad systems approach is necessary when looking at its consequences.
Author Dan Armstrong has presented a strong environmental statement, closely connected to economics and social issues. It is woven into the current global economy, and makes reference to the wheat futures that were a central issue in his other popular novel Prairie Fire, also published in 2007. Taming the Dragon is highly recommended to students of environmental science who want to see how their discipline is strongly integrated with national and global economics, power struggles, and political alliances. The message to all of us should be to look below the surface of projects and decisions, just as the hydrologist dove into the waters of the Yangtze, to better understand the broad implications of large changes in our ecosystem.