China’s Symbol, and Source, of Power: Three Gorges Dam Nears Completion, at High Human Cost

Edward Cody – The Washington Post

Copyright The Washington Post
THREE GORGES DAM, China, May 17 — After 13 years of breakneck
construction that displaced more than a million villagers, China is
about to pour the final concrete on an enormous dam across the mighty
Yangtze River, seeking to tame the flood-prone waterway that has
nurtured and tormented the Chinese people for 5,000 years.
Engineers, many of whom have spent their entire careers on the site,
will gather on Saturday for a ceremony to mark their achievement: The
dun-colored barrier at last has reached its full height of 606 feet and
stretches 7,575 feet across the Yangtze’s murky green waters in the
Three Gorges area of central China’s Hubei province, 600 miles
of Beijing.
The Three Gorges Project, with 25,000 workers and a budget of $24
billion, is China’s most ambitious engineering undertaking since the
Great Wall. It has replaced Brazil’s Itaipu Dam as the world’s largest
hydroelectric and flood-control installation, Chinese officials said,
with the strength to hold back more water than Lake Superior and power
26 generators to churn out 85 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a
year when the final touches are completed in 2008. Hoover Dam on the
Nevada-Arizona border, by comparison, generates more than 4 billion
kilowatt-hours a year.
“This is the grandest project the Chinese people have undertaken in
thousands of years,” said Li Yong’an, general manager of the
government’s Three Gorges corporation, which runs the project under the
direct leadership of Premier Wen Jiabao.
In its scope and ambition — as well as its human costs — the Three
Gorges Project has become a symbol of China’s relentless energy and
determination to take its place among the world’s great economic
At the same time, the project has demonstrated the Communist Party’s
willingness to sacrifice individual rights for the country’s general
welfare and to take high-stake risks in the name of progress.
The Chinese have long dreamed of a dam across the Yangtze to alleviate
flooding and facilitate navigation. Sun Yat-sen, revered as the founder
of the Chinese republic, urged construction of a dam as early as 1918.
U.S. engineers suggested one right after World War II. Mao Zedong,
Communist Party took over in 1949, wrote seven years later that “walls
of stone” should rise from the river.
It was left to the present-day Communist leadership, dominated by
engineers and driven to build, to put the project into motion. Li Peng,
a former waterworks official, got the project off the ground in the
1980s when he was premier. The first earth was turned in 1993 under the
president at the time, Jiang Zemin, a Soviet-educated engineer. The
dam’s completion is now being celebrated under President Hu Jintao, who
was trained as a hydraulic engineer and has adopted “scientific
development” as a mantra.
But critics of the project — they are many, in China and abroad —
questioned whether building a giant dam is really scientific in the
century, when the United States and other nations are weighing the
wisdom of damming their rivers. Despite the $24 billion price tag, they
note, the Three Gorges Dam will produce only 2 percent of China’s
electricity by 2010. Moreover, environmentalists have warned that the
backup of water behind the dam could end up as a giant waste-collection
pool for Chongqing, China’s largest urban conglomeration about 250
“There are two sides to everything, and the Three Gorges Project is no
exception,” said Cao Guangjing, the building company’s deputy manager.
“But many studies, undertaken since the beginning, have shown that the
advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”
The government has set aside $5 billion to build sewage treatment
around Chongqing and other upstream cities to prevent the river from
turning into a cesspool, officials pointed out. Tests so far show that
the water quality has not suffered, even though water has been backing
up for several years, they said.
“Look at that,” Feng Zhengpeng, head of hydroelectrics, told reporters
walking atop the dam Wednesday as he gestured toward the river far
below. “Do you think my water looks dirty?”
Li Yong’an, the dam-building company’s manager, said that despite its
difficulties, the project is running ahead of schedule and will solve
“one of the Chinese people’s most important afflictions,” the flooding
that has ravaged the Yangtze basin for centuries. Floods killed more
than 145,000 in 1931, according to Chinese records, and another 142,000
four years later. As late as 1998, with the dam under construction,
than 2,000 were reported killed by river waters that spilled over the
Now, said deputy director Cao, engineers will be able to control the
flow of water during the peak flooding months of summer, letting it
up in a huge basin that will reach as far as 385 miles upstream.
To make way for the impounded water, which has risen to more than 400
feet above its natural level, at least 1,200 villages and two towns had
to be moved. Displaced residents already total about 1.1 million,
according to a government count. Wen, who heads the government’s
Committee for Construction of the Three Gorges Project, last week
authorized a further rise to 470 feet next fall, which will displace
another 80,000.
Zigui, a community of 60,000 people, baked under a warm sun Wednesday
several thousand feet away from its former location — now underwater.
The village of Zhongbao, whose inhabitants once prospered growing
oranges by the riverside, also was submerged, reduced to a reflection
the river’s surface just under the dam. One city farther upstream,
Fengjie, was rebuilt about 10 miles inland from its traditional
riverside location, only to be moved again nearby when engineers
discovered the new site was unstable.
“The displaced people problem is a big one,” acknowledged Li, the
manager, “and ultimately our ability to deal with it will determine
whether the Three Gorges Project is successful or not.”
Li said Wen’s government had guaranteed that all those displaced would
be compensated and provided new houses and livelihoods. But many
displaced families have complained from the beginning that their
compensation was siphoned off by corrupt local officials and that they
cannot make a living in their new locations.
The state audit office reported as early as 1999 that millions of
dollars in compensation funds were being embezzled. Scores of officials
were investigated and many prosecuted, according to the official New
China News Agency. But the complaints have not stopped.
Chen Qun, a disgruntled Zhongbao villager, said Wednesday that his
community’s 2,000 residents were promised $450 each when they had to
pack and leave in 1993. So far, he said, they have received only a
of that amount and corrupt local officials have pocketed the rest.
When they heard that foreign reporters were about to visit the dam,
said, several villagers put up banners urging Beijing to “Punish the
corrupt officials” and “Give us back our space for survival.” But
jailed the activists for several hours Monday and tore down the
he said.
? 2006 The Washington Post Company

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