China: Valley of the dammed

China is clearing hundreds of towns and thousands of hectares of land to make way for the giant Three Gorges dam. But will official promises of new cities and replacement jobs be honoured - or are two million people about to be left high and dry?

China, the world's largest, most populous country, does not do small. It is a nation whose leaders have always reached for the grand vision. And now they are about to transform one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world: the Yangtze river will soon be stopped mid-flow by the giant Three Gorges Dam. This project, first planned by Mao, is one of superlatives: the dam will be 185m tall and 2km long, contain 680 turbines, a twin five-stage lock system, and the world's highest vertical shiplift. Behind its vast walls, a reservoir will stretch over 650km to the port city of Chongqing, forming the biggest artificial lake in the world. Thirty nine billion cubic metres of trapped water will flood the famous Three Gorges. Thirteen cities, 400 towns, 1,352 villages, 1,283 archaeological sites and 30,000 hectares of agricultural land will be submerged. Two million people will lose their homes. But the country is also being promised miracles on an equally impressive scale: a 10 per cent increase in energy supp

China, the world's largest, most populous country, does not do small. It is a nation whose leaders have always reached for the grand vision. And now they are about to transform one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world: the Yangtze river will soon be stopped mid-flow by the giant Three Gorges Dam. This project, first planned by Mao, is one of superlatives: the dam will be 185m tall and 2km long, contain 680 turbines, a twin five-stage lock system, and the world's highest vertical shiplift. Behind its vast walls, a reservoir will stretch over 650km to the port city of Chongqing, forming the biggest artificial lake in the world. Thirty nine billion cubic metres of trapped water will flood the famous Three Gorges. Thirteen cities, 400 towns, 1,352 villages, 1,283 archaeological sites and 30,000 hectares of agricultural land will be submerged. Two million people will lose their homes. But the country is also being promised miracles on an equally impressive scale: a 10 per cent increase in energy supply, and an end to the deadly floods which threaten millions of lives almost every year.

The project has an increasing number of opponents, however. It is widely suspected that the dam is not financially viable, that it is being poorly constructed, and that it threatens the ecology of the region. Some experts believe it may even trigger earthquakes. But the major concern is the resettlement programme and the bleak fate awaiting the millions of people who are to be relocated.

New cities are being built to replace those that will be submerged in 2005, but official government pledges are broken one by one. Farmers will not get as much land as was originally promised and compensation money has been embezzled by corrupt officials. Locals, especially the elderly, are reluctant to move because they are convinced that they will be worse off. According to the current plans, the move should be in full swing by 2003. However, this is still uncertain as the project remains behind schedule and only one city has so far been relocated.

The Yangtze is at the heart of people's lives. It is where women wash the clothes and where men fish. It is the main means of transportation in the region, an unceasing traffic jam of ferries and barges. The docks here employ thousands of workers. But China's leaders show no signs of changing their plans. For them, big is beautiful.

Low tide at Chongqing Chongqing is one of China's most populated cities and will be at the head of the artificial lake. Currently, when the tide is low, people cross the riverbed on foot, jumping from stone to stone, to get to the other half of the city. Silt deposited here by the river allows them to grow vegetables on the banks but, when the river stops flowing and the water becomes stagnant, this will no longer be possible. And without regular, and protective, deposits of silt, experts say the area could suffer serious erosion.

In the Three Gorges area the river acts as a motorway, carrying a constant flow of human and commercial traffic. Thousands of commuters use the ferries which link all of the villages between Chongqing and Shanghai. The river is the most convenient means of getting around as roads are few, ill-maintained and often treacherous.

In addition to the ferries, an army of small buses and vans are used for travel between remote villages and towns. Many of the inhabitants, curious about their future homes, have already visited the new cities that are under construction: located high up in the mountains, at the end of tortuous roads, they are, for the most part, difficult to reach.

Most of the boats used by river users are old and uncomfortable, dating back to the Fifties. In the majority of the vessels bathrooms are communal, cabins have six to 10 beds and the air-conditioning is usually out of order. Fast hovercraft bought from the former USSR are the favoured way of travelling for members of the emerging middle class.

The area is not only agricultural, it is highly industrialised but the future of these industries and the commodities they trade in is not promising: 78 per cent of the factories in the existing towns are on the verge of bankruptcy and, despite the original official pledges, they are not going to be rebuilt after the floods.

The steep riverbanks mean that trucks and vans are often unable to get to the docks, so when ferries and barges disembark, hundreds of local porters rent out their services to passengers. In the background are the traditional floating homes of the region. Many families live permanently on these simple craft.

It is estimated that 40 per cent of the new land set aside for them is too steep to be safely or economically farmed. According to Chinese regulations, such land should not be put into production anyway because of the risk of soil erosion from ploughing. To develop the 70,000 hectares that officials have promised, entire swathes of mountainsides will have to be filled with illegal developments.

Ferries are used as much to travel short distances as for the longer journeys, such as those between Chongqing and Yichang or between Wuhan and Shanghai, which can take anything up to a week.

In March last year, officials admitted that they were pounds 1.9bn short of funds for the second phase of construction. The estimated cost of the project is constantly being increased: in 1990 the total budget was pounds 6.92bn, 10 years later, it exceeds pounds 15.38bn. In part this is the consequence of corruption. The official newspaper, China Daily, recently reported that pounds 400m had been embezzled.

Even though the housing is an improvement on their previous living conditions - in the doomed town of Zigui - the inhabitants miss their old lives.

Unemployment here is over 50 per cent and the level of the compensation has proved disappointing. "We were given 600 yuan [pounds 46] for our family of three to leave Zigui: it didn't even cover the cost of the move," says Wang Hui, a waitress in Mao Ping. "This is because our flat was rented. Only those who own their house get 10,000 yuan per person. There is no work here and the prices are much higher. We are much worse off now."

Most people in the Three Gorges area are reluctant to move. Traditionally Chinese people are very attached to their land, to where their ancestors are buried. For Dai Qing, a writer opposed to the project, "The dam is not just about the loss of beautiful tourist landscapes, but about the damage the nation will do to itself through the patent disregard and ignorance of its spiritual wealth".

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