Damming the Yangtze

Article excerpt

Will China's controversial dam project prove an environmental disaster or an economic boon?

Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west To hold back Wushan's clouds and rain Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges. The mountain goddess if she is still there Will marvel at a world so changed.(1)

Mao Tse Tung

Chairman Mao anticipated construction of the Three Gorges Dam on China's Yangtze River in a poem he wrote after swimming in its turbulent waters in 1956. Now, more than 40 years later, the partially built dam, which is located on the world's third longest river, not only divides northern China from southern China, but also divides environmentalists from developers, historical preservationists from flood controllers, and a million to-be-displaced residents from government planners who envision the dam - and the electricity it will generate - as agents of economic growth.

Recently, I joined three other Western journalists on a fact-finding trip along the section of the Yangtze that is slated to become a 420-square-mile (1,100-square-kilometer) reservoir when the dam is finished in 2009. We flew first to Chongqing at the far western end of the area that will be affected, some 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) inland from the river's mouth in Shanghai.

Many Western, as well as a few Chinese, critics predict the project will cause massive damage to the environment, including siltation and pollution in the reservoir, plus risks to endangered species of aquatic life and potential devastation in an area that is not only earthquake-prone but vulnerable to military attack.

Human rights activists are concerned that more than a million people will be resettled involuntarily. Archaeologists worry that hundreds of ancient sites will be moved or inundated. Agronomists fret about the thousands of acres of fertile land that will be flooded in a nation that struggles to feed itself. Economists predict that the expense of the dam will never be recovered from the power revenues it eventually will generate. And tourists lament that the scenic splendor of the gargantuan gorges will be hidden forever.

The issue is not all one-sided, however. First, most observers agree that the Yangtze valley needs the flood control a dam could provide. The disastrous flood of 1931 inundated an area the size of New York state and left 14 million refugees in its wake.2 In 1954, floodwaters covered 6.9 million acres and killed 30,000 people.(3) And in the summer of 1998, flooding triggered by heavy rains has resulted in nearly 14 million displaced people and a death toll as yet unknown.

Second, nobody disputes that China desperately needs more electric power. Damming the Three Gorges would allow more electricity to be transmitted to Pudong - a major new industrial development zone near Shanghai - and to inland areas where electricity is now often unavailable one or more days a week.

In addition, the Yangtze River has been notorious throughout its history for its treacherous shoals; raising the water level would make navigation safer and allow larger ships to ply farther into China's underdeveloped interior. And the dam's construction, along with efforts to house displaced farmers and urban residents and build new factories to employ them, will boost the valley's economy.

To witness both sides of the controversy for ourselves, we arranged interviews with a dozen officials working on Three Gorges and leaders in cities along the river to learn why they back the dam. We wondered if any would be willing to voice doubts about the controversial project. We also sought out residents of the affected area and tourists on a Chinese cruise boat to get a sense of public opinion.

Navigation

Like a bamboo full of joints is Xiling with its shoals. And each one baffles even supernatural beings.(4)

Chongqing - known as Chungking when Japanese bombers were using the Yangtze as a guidepost to pound Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek's World War II capital - claims to be China's largest city, with a population of 15 million. …