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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

China's Three Gorges Dam

Air Date: Week of

A project of vast proportions is underway as the Chinese government works to harness the water power of the Yangtse River in the Three Gorges region of China for electricity. With a plan to relocate more than one million people, the impact for this most ambitious project since the building of the Great Wall could also be great. Lucie McNeill reports from China on some concerns for the region and its dam project.


CURWOOD: Business is booming on boats visiting the fabled Three Gorges region on China's Yangtse River. Tourists from China and the rest of the world are flocking to see the high mountains which rise on both sides of the turbulent river, and the sheer rocky cliffs which seem to play hide and seek through the mist.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: I just feel my heart open right up and my spirits soar. Such big waves and steep cliffs, and all the waterfalls. It's like they come down from heaven.

CURWOOD: People are rushing to see this sight because within 15 years much of this breathtaking landscape and its rich cultural heritage will be underwater. More than 1 million people will be displaced when their towns, villages, and homesteads disappear. This sacrifice is for China's most ambitious project since the Great Wall: the Three Gorges Dam, a gigantic $30 billion hydro power station and reservoir. Government officials say they need the dam to generate electricity for the power hungry cities of the south, to improve navigation on the river, and to control flooding. But the project has also generated unprecedented criticism. Lucie McNeill recently traveled to the Three Gorges region and has this report.

(Motors on the water)

McNEILL: In 1956, Mao Zedong himself envisioned a huge dam across the Yangtse. In the great tradition of Communist gigantism, where man's mission is to tame nature, the mighty river must be harnessed. Now that vision is becoming reality. For the past 3 years an army of 18,000 workers has been transforming the lush scenery into a mega construction site so huge that workers look like ants and giant trucks resemble dinky toys. For those who work here, like Huang Mugeng, this is a grandiose undertaking, a patriotic task, a heroic deed. Huang's state factory supplies machinery for the project.

HUANG: [Speak in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: This dam is all our own, our own design, our own investment. It's the biggest hydro project in the world. China's great, and it's all thanks to the Communist Party. In the past foreigners used to say China was the sick man of Asia. Now they see we are the strong man of Asia.

(Motors on the water)

McNEILL: The Three Gorges is more than a hydro project. It's a concrete demonstration of China's emergence as a superpower. The dam itself will rise 200 yards above the riverbed and stretch one and a half miles across the river. Imagine a 50-story building the width of 20 football fields. As for the reservoir, it will stretch 360 miles upriver. That's as long as Lake Superior. The power station's 26 gigantic turbines will turn out over 80 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year: 12 times what Niagara Falls generates.

(A foghorn, and other horns)

McNEILL: Chongqing Harbor is one of the busiest on the Yangtse River. This city of 4 million people is also one of the most heavily industrialized in China. But because it's located far inland a long way from the lucrative export markets, Chongqing has lagged behind booming coastal cities like Shanghai. The Three Gorges Dam is supposed to improve navigation on the river and hence the city's economy. It's a very appealing proposition, until you consider this: the muddy brown waters of the Yangtse River are laden with silt. With the Three Gorges Dam a lot of that sediment will accumulate in the reservoir near Chongqing. It's a prospect that scares Lu Gotie. Mr. Lu heads Minchung Shipping, one of the largest, most profitable firms on the river.

LU: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: The government is reassuring the people that Chongqing will become a dead port. That's our biggest worry. If that can't be solved, we'll have to move our whole operation downriver.

(More foghorns and boat traffic)

McNEILL: Even the government's own experts predict silt could gradually clog up the reservoir, flooding Chongqing Harbor in 60 years time. In the past, China has underestimated the sedimentation problem. Much ballyhooed methods to flush the silt from reservoirs haven't worked. The useful life of some of China's biggest dams has been vastly reduced.

(Industrial sounds)

McNEILL: While silt builds up in the reservoir, so too many fear will pollution. Countless bustling commercial and industrial centers produce billions of tons of waste every year. Most of it is dumped untreated directly into the Yangtse. Chen Caiti is deputy director of Chongqing's Planning Department.

CHEN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: People are worried about environmental problems because the water will flow slowly and pollution will accumulate. Once the dam is built we really need to treat all our sewage here. And we've been asking the government to give us funds so we can build treatment plants. They keep promising money. They tell us they're looking into it. Their priority is to build the dam first, then to spend the money on pollution control. We disagree. We want the money as soon as possible so we can get started.

McNEILL: But even if they are built, those treatment plants will only take care of domestic sewage. Industrial waste is another matter. Each enterprise is supposed to treat its own effluent. But China has a poor enforcement record. That's why there's so much concern for water quality in the reservoir. Drinking water will be affected and so will the fish. Biologists fear farm fish and wild species will decrease. The Yangtse River sturgeon and the Chinese paddle fish, both rare species that swim upriver to spawn, could become extinct. Scientists also predict the dam's impact on water levels and water temperture will affect the fish and wildlife that life in the delta of the river, way downstream.

(Honking horns; bustling city traffic)

McNEILL: The streets of Fengdu are alive at night. After supper everybody comes out for a stroll. It's none too peaceful but no one seems to mind. This small riverside town 4 hours downstream from Chunching attracts tourists from all over China. They come to see the ghost city, a complex of temples dedicated to the king of hell. Eerie to think that in a few years it will indeed become an underwater ghost town. Fengdu will disappear beneath the waters of the reservoir. Its 40,000 citizens will be resettled in a brand new town on the opposite bank. Mrs. Li rocks her grandson as she considers her fate.

LI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: If they tell us to move we have to move, even if we aren't willing. We can't say we won't go. But for sure, our new apartments will be much better.

(Horns honking, heavy traffic)

MAN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: It's going to be hard for me to watch the water rise over my old city. I'm deeply attached to this place.

McNEILL: Sun Jinliang was born in Fengdu. This is where he spent his whole life. He's an engineer by trade, but for the past couple of years he's been put in charge of the resettlement bureau of the district. Relocating those who live in town is the easy part of his job. The old town is so run down it makes the new facilities across the river irresistible to the residents. But getting the farmers to move will be a lot more difficult. The land they cultivate along the river is very productive. However, Mr. Sun says he knows how to convince them.

SUN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Those who don't want to move are going to be a problem. But we will do propaganda work with them to show them we're right, and if they still refuse we'll have to force them. The waters will rise eventually. Nothing can stop that.

(Heavy traffic sounds, horns blaring)

McNEILL: The Chinese government is expecting trouble from the peasants. According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch Asia, there have already been riots in some districts. The disturbances have been suppressed, of course, and both the police and the army are said to be ready to swoop down at the least sign of a protest. If the past is any indication, the fate of the 1.3 million people to be resettled could be a bitter one. Since 1949 over 10 million Chinese people have had to make way for dams and reservoirs. According to official statistics, decades later fully one third of these people are still living in extreme poverty, and that's despite the government's solemn promise that their lives would be better after they moved.

(Voices from a speaker amidst engines)

McNEILL: Like his father and his grandfather before him, Zhou Hongwei has been ferrying people on the Yangtse River for the past 15 years. At 30, he's already the captain of the Sunrise Number 4, a large tourist boat. But if Captain Zhou is sad about what's going to happen to his beloved Three Gorges, he's not letting on. He knows it's useless to recriminate. It's much wiser to look on the bright side.

ZHOU: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: After the dam is built, more and more people will come here to see the new Three Gorges. As the water goes up we'll see a different landscape. It's like a flower that blossoms and dies, but other flowers take its place.

McNEILL: In China, few dare to go against the flow. Since the Politburo gave the project its stamp of approval in 1992, critics have been muzzled. In 1989, prominent journalist Dai Qing spent 10 months in prison for opposing the project. She's one of the few who continue to fight it to this day. She's been effectively silenced in China, but she often campaigns abroad against the dam. For her, the Three Gorges project has nothing to do with navigation, flood control, and electricity. She believes this is a costly white elephant to the glory of China's red emperor, Deng Xiaoping, and his right hand man, Premier Li Peng.

DAI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Most Chinese say this project is Li Peng's ticket to ride, his guarantee that he can stay in power, and it's a monument to Deng's dictatorship. Why am I saying this? Well, Li Peng got his job by pleasing Deng. To keep his job he has to carry the project to completion. As for Deng, he's completely cut off from any critical assessments of the dam. He's only told nice things about it. His underlings flatter him. They say: under your reign we're building the biggest dam in the world. This dam is being erected to glorify him.

McNEILL: Critics like Dai Qing believe China could have generated more power by damming upstream tributaries. Those dams are cheaper to build. The sediment problem is not so bad, and there are fewer people to be resettled. They also believe there are better ways to improve navigation and control the river's floods. But time is running short. Next year, when the river is diverted and construction starts on the dam itself, it will be too late to cancel the project.

DAI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: It all hinges on Deng's death. Our biggest hope is that once he dies the project will be postponed. But once the river is diverted in late 1997 it would be hard to reverse the process. The best we could hope then would be to alter the plan and build a smaller dam.

McNEILL: Dai Qing is hoping foreign companies and financial institutions will boycott the project. Major international lenders have so far kept their distance. Western diplomats say the World Bank would have refused financial support had China approached it for funds. The US Export/Import Bank has decided not to back American firms that want to sell equipment to the project. And so far, only Canada is on side.

(Chinese music amidst engine sounds)

McNEILL: Still, China's determined to push ahead with or without foreign funds, and few people here doubt that the dam will be completed. That's why tourists come from far and wide, crowding on board rusty ships like the Sunrise Number 4, to see the Three Gorges before they're changed forever. It's a bittersweet farewell.

MAN: If they remove Niagara Falls I think, I mean the whole country will be shouting up and down and jumping up and down and straight up to the roof. But the Chinese people I don't think are going to do that. I don't know. We have to wait until our son, grandson, and they will do the judgment. We leave it for them.

(Chinese music and engine sounds continue)

McNEILL: For Living on Earth, this is Lucie McNeill on China's Yangtse River.



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