May 18, 2006

China’s controversial Three Gorges Dam nears finish

By Lindsay Beck

YICHANG, China (Reuters) - China's Three Gorges dam draws a
step nearer to completion with the pouring of the last concrete
on Saturday, but debate rages over the environmental and social
consequences of the world's largest hydropower project.

The dam, where workers are still toiling on the 2,309-meter
(7,400-ft) long expanse of concrete spanning the Yangtze River,
will generate 18 gigawatts of hydropower when it is complete
and, it is hoped, tame floods on the notorious waterway.

But the $25 billion project is as much a symbol of China's
own power as anything else.

The broad streets and new towers of Yichang, the city of 4
million that is the gateway to the project, attest to the
investment poured in since the dam was approved.

But some residents are also eyeing critics' warnings of
environmental damage they say in the long run will outweigh the

"We hear there could be problems related to geology and
ecology, but it won't really be clear until the future what
those problems are," said a resident surnamed Xie, holding his
baby son as he headed out to buy steamed buns for breakfast.

Environmentalists say the water quality in the river has
already deteriorated, fish species are declining and silt
trapped behind the dam is causing erosion -- even as far away
as the estuary in coastal Shanghai.

They warn the dam's reservoir, which will reach a depth of
156 meters (515 feet) by October, will turn into a cesspool of
raw sewage and industrial chemicals backing onto Chongqing, the
metropolis of 30 million upstream from Yichang.


For the more than 1 million residents already flooded out
of their homes, the dam's consequences are all too real.

"Resettlement will determine whether the Three Gorges
project is a successful one or not," Li Yongan, president of
the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation, told
reporters. "If they are dissatisfied, people can report to the
local government."

But petitioners say it is the local governments that are
the problem, pocketing some of the 25 billion yuan ($3.1
billion) Li says has been spent on resettlement.

The government said this week it will provide funds to
support resettled migrants for the next 20 years, but critics
say no amount of money can replace the whole cities and
archaeological treasures submerged by the waters.

"They had their communities, their relatives, their ways of
life and their skills," Dai Qing, an activist who has lobbied
against the project, told Reuters.

"A lot of migrants still haven't adapted to their new

Another 300,000, about 80,000 of them this year, are still
to be moved before the reservoir rises to its full level by

The effects of the sheer weight of the 600 km (375 mile)
lake are also not understood, with some geologists saying it
could make the area more prone to landslides and earthquakes.

The list of concerns about the project have led critics
such as Dai to argue that it is political folly, pushed forward
to prove a point about China's prowess despite the human and
environmental costs.

"They had to realize this project to say 'this is something
you foreigners couldn't do, but us Chinese could do it, our
socialist system could do it'," she said.

Cao Guangjing, vice-president of the Three Gorges building
company, said he had complete confidence in the dam.

"The Three Gorges proves China can build anything well," he
told reporters. "I personally have never had any doubts. I
believe in it 100 percent."