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".

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
Review: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Sport
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
News
People
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players