Three Gorges: China is warned of 'catastrophe'

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The Independent Online

An ecological disaster looms around the Three Gorges Dam, a potent symbol of China's social, economic and technological progress, despite years of insistence the project is safe. The banks of the mighty Yangtze are being eroded by the weight of the water behind the dam, hazardous landslides blight the area as water levels fluctuate wildly and huge waves crash against riverbanks.

Ever controversial since planning of the project began decades ago – it sparked the biggest political debate in communist China's history – the massive project is as potent a symbol of centrally planned technical prowess as you will find.

The left side of the dam began generating power in 2005, and turbines on the right side started sending electricity to the power grid earlier this month but the dream of cheap and efficient hydropower is turning sour.

While the dam has served as a barrier against seasonal flooding on the lower reaches of the Yangtze and the hydroelectricity generated has led to a decrease of 100 million tons of carbon emissions, the benefits have come at a potentially disastrous ecological and environmental cost. A group of experts and political grandees at a conference in the central Chinese city of Wuhan agreed the dam had had a "notably adverse" impact on the environment of the reservoir and along the Yangtze river since last year and "if no preventive measures are taken, the project could lead to catastrophe", the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Frequent geological disasters have threatened the lives of those who live around the reservoir area, said Huang Xuebin, head of flood control. He described landslides around the reservoir that had produced waves as high as 50 metres, which crashed into the adjacent shoreline, causing even more damage.

Tan Qiwei, vice-mayor of the huge metropolis of flood-threatened Chongqing – the biggest city in the world by some reckonings – said the shore of the reservoir had collapsed in 91 places and a total of 36 kilometres of land had caved in.

The Hubei vice-governor, Li Chunming, said clear water discharged from the dam had also threatened protective embankments downstream.

The State Council's director of the dam project, Wang Xiaofeng, said: "We can by no means relax our vigilance... or profit from a fleeting economic boom at the cost of sacrificing the environment."

The Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao said the dam's ecological and environmental woes were primary problems to be addressed.

For environmental activists such as the journalist Dai Qing, whose book Yangtze! Yangtze! earned her 10 months in a maximum security prison and the threat of the death sentence, the official admission that the dam is a potential environmental disaster was received with bitter irony.