Wall of Water
By Jasper Becker
01 June 2003
Today one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects in history
will begin to transform the world's third largest river. Twenty-two
sluice gates will be closed, blocking the flow of the Yangtze. Swollen
by summer storms, the waters will swiftly mount the towering sides of
the Three Gorges, celebrated by generations of Chinese poets.
Over the next fortnight the
Yangtze will rise 400ft, drowning forever the ancient fortresses, temples
and tombs celebrated in China's epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
under a 365-mile-long reservoir. For some, like China's former premier
Li Peng, it will be a moment of triumph and vindication. The Three Gorges
dam, a massive engineering feat which many said never could - and never
should - be attempted, was pushed ahead by the Soviet-trained hydro-engineer
in the face of world condemnation after the Tiananmen Square massacre
in 1989, for which he took responsibility.
Some sources claim Chinese
and foreign teams of experts struggled to complete the final inspection
of the great wall of concrete, stretching one and half miles, forcing
China to postpone the flooding by several months. On Friday officials
denied that alarming cracks in the concrete had been discovered and
that Sars fears had prevented Canadian, Swedish and Swiss inspectors
from reaching the area. "There have been no delays," insisted
a spokesman at Three Gorges Construction Committee.
All shipping on the Yangtze
has been suspended. It will resume later in June, when a series of giant
locks come into operation. But while Chinese leaders celebrate, many
of the 700,000 people displaced by the dam remain bitter, saying initial
promises of better lives and higher compensation have not been kept.
"Thousands are refusing
to evacuate their homes until they get the compensation due to them,"
said a peasant in Kaixian county, where over 100,000 are being moved.
Around 120,000 peasants have
been relocated to 11 other provinces in coastal China, but many have
returned, claiming they were cheated and cannot find jobs. "Instead
of fields, we were offered wasteland to farm," complained another
peasant from Yunyang county, who like thousands of others was forcibly
relocated to Hubei province.
About 100 farmers who decided
to return home staged a protest outside the Communist Party headquarters.
Squads of heavily armed police arrived, and in the riot that followed,
the protesters smashed up the offices of the migration department. Dozens
were arrested and may pay heavily: peasants who have led protests, organised
petitions or spoken to foreign journalists have been imprisoned for
"disturbing social order".
"Corruption is everywhere
in Chongqing [the region's main city]," said another farmer. "Most
of the party secretaries and village heads have falsely reported the
numbers of migrants and pocketed the money themselves. They are living
well, but we are suffering."
Gan Yuping, deputy director
of the project's construction committee, insisted the government was
investing 100bn yuan (£7.4bn) for the relocation of inhabitants,
and made sure their rights were respected. "The government is paying
greater attention to the resettlement than to the project itself, because
people are more important," he said.
When the gigantic project
is eventually finished in 2009, the water will be 600ft deep and up
to two million people will have been moved, making this the largest
resettlement programme ever attempted. By then the dam will have 26
turbines in operation. The 18,200 megawatts they are capable of generating
will save China the pollution from burning 50 million tons of coal a
Yet many still fear the dam
will be an environmental catastrophe. "Decades of accumulated trash
from villages, hospitals and cemeteries, highly toxic waste material
from factories and the corpses of millions of poisoned rats are all
still there," said Dai Qing, an environmentalist.
The government says it has
cleared four million tons of household, industrial and sewage waste,
as well as the rubble from demolishing 12 million square metres of housing.
It plans to invest £3bn in hundreds of sewage and waste disposal
plants, but all the pollution from Chongqing and other industrial cities
still goes straight into the Yangtze, making its water so poisonous
that no one dares drink it or use it for agriculture.
If nothing is done, environmentalists
warn, the Three Gorges could turn from an engineering marvel into a
giant cesspit, filled with sediment washed down from the deforested
slopes of Tibet's great mountains.