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 …