The seemingly endless series of environmental mishaps caused by China's Three Gorges Dam is forcing another 4 million people to move from near the shores of the Yangtze River after 1.4 million were already forced to move earlier on. Worse, those who were previously uprooted may be made to move again. The gripes of those who have been forced to move are well-known: the government has failed to give several of them the promised amount of compensation and many have been moved to unsuitable locations where making a living is difficult. The clip above accompanies a story in the Wall Street Journal I excerpt below on the political-economic challenges facing China in dealing with the infamous dam. Is the tradeoff between development and the environment really this stark, or is creating megadams simply causing more problems than it's worth?
Now the Chinese government says it plans to induce as many as four million more people to move from homes near the shore and in the surrounding mountains. The Fans' new homestead, up a hill from the old one, may be among them.
The mass uprooting is just the latest controversy to plague the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project. Built to tame the violent annual floods of the 4,000-mile Yangtze River and to harness its power, Three Gorges is now threatening many of the rural residents it was intended to help. Since the dam first cut off the Yangtze's flow in June 2003, parts of the reservoir's shoreline have repeatedly collapsed. Waste from neighboring farms and villages is creating a water-pollution crisis. And by flooding hundreds of square miles of rich farmland, the reservoir has robbed hundreds of thousands of farmers of their livelihoods and overcrowded the remaining land.
How Beijing handles the challenge could have great consequences both for the environment and for political stability in the region. National and local officials have responded to the twin problems of ecological and economic peril in the countryside with a massive urbanization plan, promising jobs for those who relocate -- a move that also meets economic development goals.
The plan could be complicated by simmering resentment over the fate of the people already displaced by the dam, may of whom were left without jobs or government subsidies that were promised. "They had so many problems with moving one million people. How are they going to move four times that many?" asks Wu Dengming, head of the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, a local environmental group.
The government has not called the project, which does provide electricity and has stemmed floods, a mistake. But in September, five days after approving the relocation plan, Beijing's State Council acknowledged the dam's problems for the first time after a meeting called by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Officials of the cabinet-level Three Gorges Commission warned that the dam was having an "adverse impact" and could cause an environmental "catastrophe" unless drastic measures are taken, according to state news agency Xinhua.
For nearly a century, China's leaders dreamed of building a dam to harness the 4,000-mile Yangtze River's power. Mao Zedong, who believed man could control nature, wrote a poem extolling the plans. Dissent was suppressed, and in 1992, construction was approved by the government despite an unprecedented "no" vote by one-third of China's legislature. Environmentalists at the time predicted many of today's problems.
Begun in 2003, the dam created a 400-mile reservoir stretching through the narrow valleys of the Three Gorges, named for a series of canyons once known for their fast currents. On the other end from the dam sits Chongqing, one of China's biggest cities, capital of a municipality with 30 million people in the urban area and surrounding countryside.
Problems started soon after the dam first cut off the Yangtze River's flow in June 2003. Slopes along the riverbanks started to warp, and within weeks on July 14, two dozen farmers and fisherman were killed in a massive landslide. At first, officials blamed heavy rains but Chinese and foreign researchers later showed the rising waters were to blame.
Today, the water has risen about 514 feet and is set to rise 60 more by 2009. Regional officials have declared 60% of the new shoreline too steep to farm, and are moving 141 million cubic feet of fertile earth inland. Critics warn that the riverside port of the region's huge main city here, Chongqing, will be silted shut within a decade because of the slower-moving current.
Already, belts of polluted water surround the shores of cities upstream from the dam along the reservoir, including Chongqing on its far western edge. The dam is preventing the upstream waste from being flushed out to sea, says a study last spring by the World Wildlife Fund. Sewage and other pollution collecting in the stagnant reservoir also have backed up into tributaries, causing blooms of algae. Fish harvests in the Yangtze River basin have fallen sharply because of disrupted river flows. The dam even has increased local rainfall and fog and lowered temperatures because of condensation forming over the huge reservoir, according to a study by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Beijing is providing more than $5 billion to build hundreds of sewage-treatment plants and garbage-disposal centers in the area, and officials plan to clear a riverside greenbelt more than half a mile wide to keep fertilizer runoff or other pollutants from the water. Meanwhile, more hydroelectric dams are planned for the upper reaches of the Yangtze and its tributaries. They might help reduce silting upstream, but the missteps at Three Gorges are spurring criticism of more dams in state-owned media, and Beijing has started to rethink those plans.