Dams and Landslides

Geological threats loom over new towns

Kelly Haggart
June 12, 2003

Residents of Badong, Wushan and Fengjie are working around the clock to strengthen the foundations of their new towns, which are being built in a geologically fragile region prone to landslides and riverbank collapses.

Residents of Badong, Wushan and Fengjie are working day and night to strengthen the foundations of their new towns, located along the banks of the Yangtze River upstream of the Three Gorges dam.

They have good reason to be concerned: The new settlements, being built to house people who have been moved to make way for the world’s biggest dam, are situated in a geologically fragile region prone to landslides and riverbank collapses.

It was this very instability that forced the abandonment of two previous sites selected for the new county seat of Badong. The first site, known locally as Huang tu po (yellow soil slope), turned out to be right on top of an old landslide. The second site, at Yun tuo, had
to be abandoned for the same reason, even though some roads, bridges and buildings had already been built. Finally, the new town is being built upstream of Yun tuo at Xi rang po (west soil slope), where the Badong Yangtze Bridge is also under construction.

Workers can be seen labouring intensely at close to a dozen landslide-prevention project sites near Badong, working just above the water line, racing the rising reservoir. Referring to these projects, local newspapers write that “Badong is wearing skirts: The latticework
that now reinforces the slopes for kilometres along the river is thought to resemble skirts.

Guanduzhe, a few kilometres upstream of Badong, was the site of a riverbank collapse at the end of May, just before the Three Gorges reservoir began storing water on June 1. Thirteen homes and 1.4 km of riverbank were affected.

Wushan, about 50 km upstream of Badong, is famous for the Wu Gorge, the most spectacular of the Three Gorges, and for its location at the confluence of the Yangtze and Daning rivers, the site of the “mini Three Gorges.” But, like Badong, Wushan faces major geological problems. Due to the particularly rugged topography of the surrounding area,
finding flat land on which to build the new Wushan was difficult. But a new town is taking shape, carved at great expense into the mountainside and still looking like a vast construction site. People are working tirelessly around the clock, building houses and strengthening the foundations of the new town.

“I am really concerned about the landslides, which are everywhere in our town,” a local man confides to a visitor. “Look, a big one hangs right over the new town, just above our heads.” Grill-like latticework can be seen near the top of the mountain on which the new town is located.

A young taxi driver is happy to take a fare-paying customer to see the landslide “even though, he says, it has been active of late, most recently on May 1. Asked why he takes on such dangerous work, which involves hair-raising drives along steep mountain roads, the young driver says: “What else can I do? So many people need work here. Don’t
believe the government” they finished their job after we were relocated, and we “had to find our own employment.” The zigzagging mountain road becomes so steep, and the potential plunge down the cliff so precipitous, that the visitor wants the driver
to stop talking, and concentrate.

A group of people with survey instruments can be seen working on this dangerous slab of mountainside, which is about 100 metres wide and 50 metres high. They‚Äôre from the State Seismological Observation Station in Beijing, here to train local people in  monitoring the landslides in Wushan and Fengjie counties.

“This landslide is very serious, with the whole town just below it,” one of the engineers says. “Human activity is responsible for this – blasting the mountains, quarrying for building materials, constructing new roads and bridges. It will be disastrous if this slip cannot be controlled.” Some of the rock and stone quarried from the fragile mountainside can be seen discarded beneath Wushan Yangtze Bridge, whose vivid red arch links the two banks of the river. Some say the structure stands out as an eyesore amid the spectacular natural landscape at the entrance to Wu Gorge.

Visitors are struck by another unattractive sight 40 kilometres upstream of Wushan, at the port that has taken shape below the new county seat of Fengjie. (The new settlement replaces the 2,000-year-old Fengjie, popularly known as “Poets’ Town,” which was demolished in the reservoir cleanup campaign.) The huge slope facing the river is a study in contrasts: The left side has been fortified with good-quality concrete and looks strong, while the right side has been reinforced with earth and irregular chunks of stone, and looks shoddy. Will the flimsy bank be any match for the surging floodwater?

A man working at the port explains that the sturdy side of the slope was built with Three Gorges project funds, while the vulnerable side was constructed by a local shipping company with no public money but a strong desire to have a port of its own.

“The company is poor and this is all it could do,” the man says. “Will it be safe when the floods come? Of course not. But who cares? The Three Gorges project inspection conference is over, the reservoir filling is going ahead. I really don’t know what will happen with this slope after the reservoir is full, or when the floods, even small ones, occur.”

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