Three Gorges Probe

Snags and sleaze hit Yangtze dam

August 5, 1999

China’s leaders have ordered urgent measures to bring the controversial Three Gorges Dam project under control following admissions that it is plagued by corruption, shoddy construction and fears of environmental damage.

A visit to farms, villages and an entire city to be drowned by the project in four years’ time has revealed many lives blighted by a string of broken promises.

The intensely political project, backed by some of China’s most conservative leaders, involves the building of a massive hydroelectric dam to counter the country’s energy shortage. It has also been presented as a means of preventing the devastating flooding that hits the Yangtze valley most summers.

Opponents say the project threatens to impoverish many of the million or more people being displaced by it, that wildlife species and cultural sites will be destroyed, that future silting will render the vastly expensive scheme inefficient and that the weight of the huge new lake could cause seismic trouble. Critics point out that a series of smaller dams would be safer and just as effective at generating power.

Supporters of the project had originally claimed that the displaced people and thousands of factories due to be inundated could be moved to nearby land, including newly terraced hills above the Yangtze. But Zhu Rongji, China’s Prime Minister, recently warned officials to stop moving families on to virgin slopes to avoid soil erosion. He said that most of the industrial enterprises were not worth moving as they were outdated and spewed out pollution.

However, Mr Zhu also called for the work of resettling farmers to be stepped up, so that 550,000 people could be moved before 2003, when the first big rise in water levels is to take place. Lang Cheng, a senior relocation official in Chongqing, a big city upriver from the dam, confirmed that some settlers were being encouraged to give up farming and seek work in cities.

Others would be absorbed by local communities, whose land would be shared out between residents and newcomers. But some are being encouraged to join relatives in other regions. With good farmland already crowded, the least fortunate are being urged to move to regions of traditional exile, such as Hainan island off the south coast, or Xinjiang in the far west.

The relocation budget has soared in recent years, and is expected to hit more than £7 billion by 2003. Some officials are accused of registering relatives for compensation, skimming bribes from shoddy building works and inflating the value of assets.

The hideous reality of relocating more than a million people is all too apparent in Fengdu, downriver of Chongqing. A wall plaque marks the spot, 518 feet above the current river level, where the muddy waters will lap after 2003, drowning a city of 74,000 inhabitants.

One resident said protests had been staged there, and a letter sent to the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, reporting local officials for fraud. Investigators had been sent to the city, but the stealing is said to have continued.

Residents heard of their fate in 1993. Since then, officials have banned all local investment and construction beyond essential repairs. The crumbling city has been nicknamed "City of Ghosts" after a Han dynasty legend.

Fengdu’s main money-earner, a pseudo-temple complex built around the legend, will lie just above the waterline. The authorities hope that residents, moved to new tower blocks on the opposite riverbank, will continue to live off the tourist boats that stop off at Fengdu on their way to beauty spots in the river’s Three Gorges.

At Shi Yan, a new village of concrete houses, one relocated peasant said – in earshot of local officials – that, with government assistance, his family’s annual income had risen 10 per cent. However, a few miles down river, far away from the official tour, another family had found the project less bountiful.

The head of the family, who has lived there for more than 60 years, said: "This was a good place. The land is very fertile and you can fish in the river." But recently, officials had taken four-fifths of their tiny scrap of land to build new houses – with no compensation. His son had left for the city, touting for labouring work. His earnings, of about £15 a month, now supported three generations. The father said: "People like us can do nothing."

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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