Wall of silence over the great dam of China

Engineering/ Yangtze project `folly'
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IT IS the biggest building site in the world. Senior engineer Li Junlin pointed to where there had once been an island, and then to the huge new man-made earthworks which will be used to divert the mighty Yangtze river. As he spoke, hundreds of workers with bulldozers and cement machines toiled away below him, shifting millions of tons of soil and rock. But it was not until Engineer Li identified two markers high on opposite sides of the river that the audacity of China's Three Gorges Dam project hit home. Between these points, a 180-yard-high concrete curtain will divide the valley, flooding land equivalent in area to Singapore.

The statistics of China's plan to redesign nature tell their own story. Upstream of the dam, along 415 miles of the Yangtze and with an average width of 1,000 yards, the river level will rise 300ft, half-drowning the famous Three Gorges scenery and creating a reservoir of 40 billion cubic yards. Construction of the dam and hydro-electric plant probably represents the largest earthmoving exercise in history; by the scheduled completion of the project in 15 years' time, some 103 million cubic yards of soil and rock will have been excavated and 29 million cubic yards of landfill built. Most controversially, 1.13 million people, several cities, 140 towns, 4,500 villages and 1,600 enterprises will have been relocated.

It is a 90-minute bumpy drive from Yichang city to the dam site in China's central Hubei province, but from the start of the journey the project's monumental ambition is apparent. The present road winds its way around a new highway being blasted through the mountains to provide access.

Engineer Li, now 62, has worked on the world's biggest dam project since 1976. Standing on the preliminary earthworks, he unfolds a linen map of the site and gives a well- rehearsed argument in favour of the scheme, which will have the capacity to generate about a tenth of China's present electricity requirement. "Not only me, but a lot of experts both abroad and at home think it a good idea."

Within China, the people who think it a bad idea have largely been silenced. So it was even more of an embarrassment for the dam's champion, the prime minister, Li Peng, when in 1992 one-third of the delegates to the normally compliant National People's Congress either abstained or voted against the project. Abroad and at home, the question lingers: is this the Communist world's last great Stalinist folly?

It is certainly unlikely to produce cheap electricity. For a long time the official price-tag was 90bn yuan (£7bn) for construction and resettlement. But that ignored inflation and interest on debts. Lu Youmei, the urbane president of the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corporation, now admits the total cost will be "two to three times" that figure, or up to £21bn. A quarter of the money is supposed to be raised abroad. In China, electricity bills already carry a surcharge to help finance the project.

The most sensitive issue is the mass relocation of farming communities. Foreign visitors to the dam site are ushered to Zhujiawan village, the "model" resettlement for some of the 23,000 people so far moved. In total, 56 of the 284 households here had to be demolished because they were inside the construction area. The rest then sold out to businessmen attracted by a site near the dam. But for these happy ex-farmers, resettlement is a relative term; they have simply moved a few hundred yards up the hill and, with the compensation money, converted themselves into entrepreneurs. Wang Zhong Xue, 41, proudly shows off his two new four-storey residential buildings and grins: "We all make money." The village deputy chief, Li Xiangjie, can be found in his new, smoke-filled office managing the affairs of his Honglo Industrial Company, and having a friendly chat with the local taxman.

Venture a question about those who have had to move farther afield, however, and the authorities are less obliging. From the new earthworks, a substantial village can be seen two miles upstream, on land which is due to be inundated by the reservoir. A request to visit some families there elicits the answer that there is "no road". An inquiry about going to Moping, a new village on the far side of the mountain to which some families have already been moved, is "not convenient". Nor is it possible to meet the People's Resettlement Bureau, which over the next 14 years will have to relocate 1.13 million villagers in Hubei and Sichuan provinces.

Other officials admit later that there are already problems with the allocation and distribution of the compensation money. Accusations of corruption are rife because a large proportion has been given to local government organs rather than directly to villagers.

Public Security department documents, obtained by the US-based Human Rights Watch/ Asia, paint an alarming picture of the social costs of relocation. An internal February 1994 report from the Yichang Public Security Bureau said: "At present, acts such as collective petitioning and collective blocking of construction have already taken place among the relocatees of the dam area . . . Past incidents that have occurred among relocatees, such as demonstrations, storming party and government organs, surrounding and attacking party and government leaders, and seizing food to eat, can occur again." Mr Lu admits there have been some incidents but adds: "It was not caused by the resettlement . . . it is natural for us to have social problems such as theft, quarrels, fights after people drink too much."

The dam site has acted as a magnet for thousands of China's migrant workers, another issue over which the authorities seem unnaturally sensitive. Some 15,000 contracted workers are employed on the dam and highway, and only "a few" casual labourers, according to Zhang Xiaoya from the corporation.

Howevere, members of China's vast "floating" population seem to be everywhere. Three men in their forties who were mixing a vat of roofing material had arrived on the site the previous day after a two-day journey from their rural homes. "If we can make money, we will stay a year," said one.

The most difficult questions to answer concern the environmental impact and technical feasibility of the dam. No World Bank or Asian Development Bank funds are involved, so it has avoided international scrutiny.

Big dams may be out of fashion in the West but Mr Lu confronts his environmental critics head-on. "The Three Gorges Dam will reduce China's coal-burning by 40 million tonnes a year. Annually the project will reduce the emission of carbon dioxide by 120 million tonnes. It will also reduce the emissions of sulphur dioxide."

On the technical front, the biggest challenge is the amount of silt in the Yangtze, which threatens to accumulate behind the dam wall. Engineer Li says: "We have done more research work on the siltation than the foreign experts."

Landslides into the reservoir, and the possibility of earthquakes in the region must also be taken into account. The authorities insist they can accommodate all these problems. But they forbid the free debate and access to information which might allow their own people, as well as the outside world, to judge for themselves.