CITIES AND SCENERY SINK BENEATH YANGTZE DAM

Surveying the impressive scenery at the site of the massive Three Gorges dam last year, the Chinese prime minister, Li Peng, looked up at the Baiyanjian mountain above the Yangtze river and asked: "What is the height of this mountain peak?" A loc al cadre replied: "Some 240m above sea level."

If the official account of the visit is to be believed, Mr Li, a former hydro-electric engineer, then solemnly remarked: "After completion of the Three Gorges Project, the distance between that mountain peak and the 185m dam will only be 50m to 60m. You should build a forest park there to preserve the beautiful scenery and excellent ecological system in the dam zone."

Some 75 years after Sun Yat-sen first proposed a dam across the Yangtze, construction of the Three Gorges dam officially starts today. But opponents insist it will take more than Mr Li's forest park to quell their scepticism about the technical feasibility and environmental impact of one of the world's biggest hydropower developments.

The scale of the £22bn project is forbidding. A reservoir 600km long with an average width of 1km will be created, forcing the moving of 1.13m people, several counties and cities, 140 towns and 4,500 villages. When built, the 175m-high dam wall, nearly two kilometres across, will hold back up to 40 billion cubic metres of water. It is equivalent to creating a lake the area of Singapore.

Scepticism will be off the agenda during today's official ceremonies. For Mr Li, the Three Gorges project, scheduled to be completed in 2009, will symbolise China's triumphant entry into the 21st century. It is an acutely sensitive subject, particularly since, in the 1992 vote by the normally docile National People's Congress, one-third of delegates abstained or opposed the project.

The dam's supporters insist that the 18,000 megawatt capacity power station is essential to meet future electricity demand in the region. The project is also designed to control flooding in the lower Yangtze. Irrigation and transport benefits will boost the development of central China. As for the environmental impact, proponents point out the hydro-station will provide as much electricity as burning more than 40 million tonnes of coal a year.

Opponents of the dam are just as convinced of their case. They claim: engineers have not solved the problem of the build-up of silt upstream from the dam; escalating costs will make the project uneconomic; the forced moving of more than a million people is inhumane; seismic activity in the area could threaten the dam; some species of fish and fauna will be eradicated; and that the series of locks and the "ship-lift" will be unreliable. Added to this, the world renowned Three Gorges scenery will be submerged forever, as will hundreds of archaeological sites.

The mass relocation is the most controversial issue. Some 30bn yuan (£2.3bn) will be spent on relocation in compensation and to build new towns and factories. Only 10,000 people have been moved so far during the two years of site preparation.

The biggest problem may be finance. The official $10bn price-tag for the project, fixed in May 1993, does not include inflation (currently 27 per cent) or the cost of bank loans. Chinese officials accept a figure of $34bn is more realistic, and some foreign analysts believe it could end up at twice that.

To raise funds for the dam, China has imposed a 2 per cent electricity tax, and plans to increase electricity prices further and float other power companies on the stockmarket. It also wants foreign capital, and is considering bond issues, bank loans andexport credits. Last month, Yan Guolin, vice-president of the Yangtze River Three Gorges Project Development Corporation, was in the US touting big contracts for machinery, turbines and transmission equipment, but made it clear China would expect soft loans.

The US administration is assessing the dam project on environmental grounds, and will decide whether to back US business involvement with export finance. Over the past year, Western governments have shifted to a policy of "constructive engagement" over human rights in China. Lured by massive contracts, they may well do the same over the Three Gorges dam.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker