Enviroment: China's greatest ambition may prove her greatest folly

Barring last-minute delays, China will today divert the mighty Yangtze from its natural course so that work can start on the 600ft-high main wall of the controversial Three Gorges Dam. The Chinese government is hailing the event as proof of the country's
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Never before has a dam site been so used as the backdrop for such political theatre. Today, a 1,200 square yard Chinese national flag will be spread out above the site of the planned dam, flanked by 14,000 potted flowers arranged in a sunflower design.

As the last blocks of the preliminary "coffer dam" across the river are put in place, the waters of the Yangtze will be forced into a man-made channel around the stretch where the dam itself is to be built. Guest of honour for the nationalistic celebrations will be the dam's most powerful protagonist, the prime minister, Li Peng.

The sheer scale of the concrete and earthworks so far already make the dam site an awesome vista. As far as the official propaganda machine is concerned, the diversion of the Yangtze is also all about the re-emergence of China as a global power. The diversion of the Yangtze "will demonstrate to the world that the Chinese people have the ability to build the biggest and most beneficial irrigation and hydroelectric project in the world at present", said Mr Li this week.

"It is an event that not only inspires people, but demonstrates the greatness of the achievement of China's development," he added.

It is to be the last glorious act in the triumphant year of 1997, which has already seen the return of Hong Kong to the motherland, the 15th Communist Party Congress, and President Jiang Zemin's state visit to the United States. Today the Chinese government is out to show it can command Nature as well.

China likes world records. It is crucial that, if completed as planned in the year 2009, this 18,200-megawatt hydroelectric project will far outsize the generating capacity of the current market leader, the 12,600 megawatt Itaipu dam on the border of Brazil.

Critics of the dam who attack it on social, environmental and economic grounds, argue that it would have been far less risky, and just as effective, instead to build a series of smaller dams along the various tributaries of the Yangtze. But China preferred the biggest dam in the world.

The Three Gorges Dam is hailed as China's largest construction project since the Great Wall. But will it work? No one likes to admit that the Great Wall failed in its purpose of keeping out the barbarians from the north, and that re-modelling Nature on this scale also offers no guarantee of success.

When serious planning for the dam started, it was promoted publicly inside China for its electricity generating potential. As the estimated project cost rose to around 203 billion yuan (pounds 16bn), this became a trickier argument to win on economic grounds. So the propaganda began to focus on the need for flood control downstream from the dam site.

Flooding in the lower reaches of the Yangtze is an annual event, with many deaths. The most severe floods, in 1931, 1935 and 1954, together killed a total of 317,000 people. If it works, the flood control ability of the Three Gorges Dam will be its strongest selling point.

But even within China, where public criticism of the dam is nowadays stamped upon, the government knows that many people are still not convinced. Over the years there has been plenty of unease about the the huge costs. This reached a climax in the first quarter of 1989 when the outspoken journalist, Dai Qing, and other mainland anti-dam campaigners published Yangtze! Yangtze!, a book of essays and interviews which is now banned in China.

Within weeks, a group of 272 delegates to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference recommended that the project be postponed until the 21st century.

Then came the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and public debate was silenced. In a final demonstration of disaffection, when the crucial vote was taken in April 1992, almost half the delegates in the normally rubber-stamp National People's Congress, did not vote in favour of the project, either casting their ballots against, abstaining, or not voting at all.

Since then, China has literally steam-rollered ahead with the project, dismissing all worries as ill-founded. This past week, the official media has particularly been trying to ease public fears of a catastrophe if the Three Gorges Dam were to be blown up during wartime. The dam "could withstand conventional weapons because of the thickness of its concrete walls", promised the China News.

"Simulated tests show that if there was a nuclear attack, and the dam was destroyed, flooding could be controlled to a certain degree by adjusting water levels in the reservoir," the newspaper tried to reassure its readers.