Dams and Landslides

Fearing for its safety, Three Gorges’ Fengjie town plans another move

(January 28, 2009) Fearing for their safety, residents of landslide-prone Fengjie in the heart of the Three Gorges reservoir have no choice but to move their town for the second time in a decade. In this article, South Weekend looks at the debilitating effect landslides and geological problems have had on the ancient town’s reconstruction efforts, and suggests that geological disaster management is becoming a ‘financial black hole’ for Fengjie and other at-risk areas.        

Fearing for its safety, Three Gorges’ Fengjie town plans another move

Chen Jiang and Chen Yiwei
South Weekend (Nanfang zhoumo)
January 8, 2009
Translated by Three Gorges Probe
Fengjie, Chongqing – Within a three-hour voyage upstream from the Three Gorges dam site, Fengjie, popularly known as “Poets’ Town,” lies beneath the rising Yangtze. Here in the heart of the Three Gorges reservoir, the rising waters have forced tens of thousands of Fengjie residents to move into the hills, several kilometres from their old town.
Ever since the plan to build the Three Gorges project was put on the table in the 1980s,  the plans for moving the ancient town of Fengjie have changed again and again, always racing to meet the tight schedule for filling the reservoir. Late last year, county officials decided to move the new town again to escape the growing threat of landslides and other geological disasters.
Moving Fengjie: three plans, 13 years
As early as 1983, nine years before the National People’s Congress approved the plan to build the Three Gorges project, Fengjie’s government began looking for a new location for the county seat. Based on a poll of over four hundred top officials, more than 90 percent favoured Baotaping (Pagoda Hill), five kilometres east of the old town. Local residents also favoured the site because it was still close to the Yangtze River, it was close to White King City (Baidicheng), one of the most spectacular attractions in the whole Three Gorges area; and it was as close as possible to the old town with all its 2000-year history.
1993: the move east to Pagoda Hill 
Construction at Baotaping began in December 1993 but had to be suspended less than two years later due to serious geological problems and at least five landslides. After hundreds of millions of yuan RMB had already been spent on reconstruction, the survey bureau from the Wuhan-based Changjiang (Yangtze) Water Resources Commission (CWRC) concluded that Baotaping wasn’t a suitable location for the new town because of the high risk of geological disasters. They recommended that a new location be selected following a series of geological surveys and investigations.
1995: the move west to LotusTemple
So the local government and residents had no choice but to find a new place to rebuild the county seat, and they chose Lianhuasi (Lotus Temple), not far from Baotaping but west of the old town. But then in December 1995, a heated debate among 12 experts took place in Fengjie. The experts, again from the Wuhan-based CWRC, insisted that moving tens of thousands of people up to Lianhuasi was not a good idea. They were concerned the elevation was too high, which would make transportation and water supply difficult, and resettlement too costly. After rounds of debate and discussion, the proposal to build the new town at Lianhuasi, the residents’ second choice after Baotaping, was shelved.
1996: the move west to Three Houses Mountain and Liu Family’s Hill
Finally on February 3, 1996, 13 years after the National People’s Congress approved the Three Gorges project, the government of Sichuan province approved a third plan to move the county seat of Fengjie to two nearby locations: Sanmashan (Three Houses Mountain) and Liujiabao (Liu Family’s Hill), each about five kilometres west of the old town. [TGP Editors’ note: Fengjie and other cities in the Three Gorges area were administered under Sichuan province until 1997 when the State Council made the city of Chongqing a municipality encompassing the 660-kilometre reservoir area.]
New town, old landslides
Residents call the new town of Fengjie “a town hanging on the mountain slopes.” Unstable geological conditions and complicated terrain have made it really hard to find enough land on which to safely build the new town. The best place was where the old town was, which is now at the bottom of the rising reservoir.
A story was going around Fengjie recently that several huge rocks fell from the top of the mountain and damaged two cars that were parked at the local police station. Nobody was injured because it happened at night but the incident has locals wondering if the filling of the reservoir could trigger an old landslide.
In early 1999, two years after construction of the new town had begun, a group of experts from the Beijing-based Ministry of Land Resources questioned the wisdom of building the new town in the Sanmashan area, saying the downtown core of the new town is being built on a huge old (inactive) landslide. “Despite a current stable state,” the experts commented, “the old slide is likely to reactivate due to intensive construction work and human activity in the area, and the filling of the reservoir.”
Subsequent surveys and investigations identified old landslides at 54 places, and another 54 high slopes at risk of collapse, all within a 23-square kilometre radius of the new town. In the whole county of Fengjie, as many as 800 places were classified “at risk of geological disaster.”
These findings shocked local officials and residents. In their 1999 report to higher authorities (document No. 13), Fengjie officials wrote: “It’s hard (for the county government) to take responsibility if huge losses and damages to peoples’ lives and property result from the area’s geological problems. But as much as 400 million yuan RMB [of the county’s reconstruction budget] would be wasted if construction is suspended.”
And so construction of the new town of Fengjie continued despite the warnings from experts and concerns voiced by local officials. As the reservoir waters rise, more and more people are resettling to higher ground. Commenting on efforts to stabilize the town’s steep slopes, one expert from the CWRC said Fengjie looks like a warrior with lots of wounds, equipped with armour, wrapped with bandages, protected by splints, fixed on the hillside. If not for these efforts, the “warrior” would have no chance of survival.
Since the Three Gorges reservoir was filled to 172 metres last year, most of the Yangtze’s dangerous sections and perilous shoals, along with its original human resettlements have been flooded by the huge reservoir, bringing tremendous benefits in the form of hydropower and improved navigation. At the same time though, the rising reservoir not only makes the task of dealing with geological disasters more difficult but funding the work becomes a black hole. Based on official statistics, as much as 12 billion yuan RMB (US$1.75 billion) has been spent on managing geological disasters [in the Three Gorges area] so far.
The experience in Houzishi (Monkey Rock), which is south of the new town of Fengjie and close to the Yangtze, illustrates the problem. The area was confirmed as an active landslide area after construction of a new port, commercial plazas, shopping centres, and residential buildings where tens of thousands of people now live. A geological disaster management project was launched which took 159 million yuan RMB and over two years to complete. The work passed inspection by a national agency but local residents still feel anxious, wondering whether they are living in a safe place. They know the real test is not the government inspection but the rising Yangtze.
2008: the move west to Zhuyi-Maofeng
In the People’s Square of new Fengjie town hangs a huge planning blueprint for a “new town in the west.” The new town site is about 7 kilometres to the west of Fengjie in the Zhuyi-Maofeng area, “where a new town centre will be built as a modern and multi-function urban district.” According to the sign, construction began on December 28, 2008. Four units of the state will be moved to the new town first: the party, government, people’s congress, and people’s political consultative congress. One official who attended a closed meeting about the plan told South Weekend that the county plans to finish the move “within four years.”(1USD = 6.84 yuan RMB)Chen Jiang and Chen Yiwei, South Weekend (Nanfang Zhuomo), January 28, 2009

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