Three Gorges Probe

Three Gorges project sticks to schedule amid SARS crisis

(May 7, 2003) The current health crisis in China will have no impact on plans to fill the Three Gorges reservoir next month, state media reports.

The sluice gates at the world’s biggest dam are to be closed as scheduled on June 1, the official Xinhua news agency has announced. Water will rise behind the dam for the following 15 days until the 135-metre level is reached, the May 3 report said.

However, the emergency related to severe acute respiratory syndrome has affected other water bodies, with Beijing announcing tight restrictions on as many as 80 reservoirs in the vicinity of the capital.

To prevent the SARS virus from contaminating city water sources, municipal authorities have closed roads leading to the reservoirs, and banned swimming and fishing at the popular recreation spots.

Of all the SARS-affected regions, Beijing has been hardest hit. The Chinese capital has recorded about half of the 230 known SARS fatalities in China (outside of Hong Kong), according to World Health Organization figures released May 9. Globally, the SARS death toll now exceeds 500.

In addition to the reservoirs, Beijing has closed its schools, libraries, Internet cafes, theatres and other entertainment venues. Authorities in the capital have charged four people with “causing public panic” by spreading SARS rumours on the Internet and through mobile phone messages, Xinhua reported.

In the Three Gorges area, local tour companies and travel agencies had been anticipating a bonanza year, and a particularly lucrative May Day holiday period. The weeklong break was expected to be much busier than usual, with tens of thousands of domestic and foreign tourists planning “farewell tours” of the legendary Three Gorges before they are flooded next month. Tour boats were standing by, and plans were readied to handle an expected surge in passengers.

But with China drastically scaling back the May Day holiday and imposing travel restrictions, SARS dealt the industry a body blow. On May 1, Tanziling — the highest vantage point near the Three Gorges dam, affording the best view of the whole site — was quiet, the Three Gorges Project Daily (Sanxia gongcheng bao) reported on May 7. Only 62 tourists could be counted, when in normal times the spot would have been packed with thousands of sightseers.

At the port of Maoping on the upstream side of the dam, about 1,000 people from seven boats –mostly business travellers rather than tourists — made the trip overland around the dam on May 1, about a quarter of the normal number, the newspaper reported.

With the temporary shiplock at the Three Gorges project taken out of service on April 10, China’s longest river is effectively blocked until the permanent shiplock that will allow vessels to get through the dam goes into operation on June 15. During this 67-day interruption to navigation, all boat passengers must disembark and go around the dam by bus.

The first local case of SARS has been reported in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, about 600 kilometres downstream of the dam, the Chutian Gold Daily (Chutian jin bao) said. A professor became ill after attending an academic conference in Beijing in early April, and more than 40 people who came into contact with him were sent into quarantine at an isolated location outside of Wuhan, the newspaper said. Students and staff at local universities have been confined to their campuses.

Meanwhile, Chongqing, at the upstream end of the reservoir that will stretch for 600 kilometres behind the Three Gorges dam, newspapers have reported one probable case and eight suspected cases of SARS (as of May 5). Sichuan province, not far from the dam, has reported 33 cases, and Hubei province, where the dam is located, has had 18 cases and at least one death. Reports said a migrant worker who contracted the virus in Beijing had been unable to secure proper medical attention in the capital, and died shortly after returning to his home in Tianmen city, Hubei.

Zhou Guobing, director of the health bureau in Yichang, near the dam site, expressed confidence that his city is well prepared to deal with SARS. He said that all travelers must fill out a health form and have their temperature taken before boarding trains or buses in Yichang. Anyone with a temperature above 38 degrees Celsius is immediately sent to a nearby hospital for further tests, he said.

Kelly Haggart, May 7, 2003

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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