Critics Urge China to Consult on Dam Plan

Chinese and foreign opponents of dam say vast project must include assessment of human costs of resettlement

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN what is the first step of an enormous project, China is resettling some of the 1.1 million people whose homes are in the way of plans for the world's largest dam.The undertaking involves convincing workers to leave cities and peasants to leave ancestral homes, turning steep, infertile hills into farmland, and building factories and dwellings high above the Yangtze River. But officials cannot use the threat of natural floods to goad residents from their homes. Settlements at the Three Gorges on the Yangtze, the site of the proposed dam, have been comparatively untouched by the flooding that has killed more than 1,500 people this month. Still, officials have already moved 40,000 people, even though the government has yet to approve the dam's construction. The settlers have been relocated to work on 8,235 acres of rice paddies, citrus orchards, and tea plantations hewed out of hillsides. The area is equal to almost half of the farmland that would be flooded by the dam's reservoir, officials say. Evacuees involved in smaller resettlements elsewhere in China have greatly suffered because of poor planning and insufficient funding for the resettlement programs, officials acknowledge. Some residents of Maoping and Sandouping, the sites of the proposed dam, expressed mixed feelings in interviews with the Monitor over their resettlement. Many residents say they will voluntarily abandon their homes because the government promises them a better life on higher ground. But an outspoken minority opposes the move. "The government will force us out and make us live a life in exile," says Wang Yunnan, who grows mandarin oranges in Maoping. Popular resentment and the high cost of moving people make the dam wasteful and unfeasible, say some Chinese and foreign opponents of the dam. About $1 out of every $3 of the dam's $10.8 billion cost would go toward resettlement.

No use protesting "If the government decides to build the dam and you don't agree to move, you can't do anything about it," according to Mrs. Wang. She dreads the prospect of surrendering her family's ancestral home and small grove of fruit trees to the rising water. "It really doesn't matter what I think; there's no point in resisting," Wang says. The government acknowledges that it has begun the resettlement without consulting people in the gorges. Consequently, China's leaders are debating whether to begin the 18-year dam construction without an assessment of the human cost. "Consultations with people to be resettled are vital if you want to carry out a successful ... resettlement plan," says William Partridge, an anthropologist at the World Bank. But Wang Jiazhu, chief engineer of the dam, says, "It's out of the question to ask people if they want to be moved or to consult with them." "The decision to build the Three Gorges dam was made seven years ago and so every one has known that they must move," says Mr. Wang of the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO). In 1984, China's leaders made the latest of several decisions to build the controversial dam over the past three decades. People who refuse to give way to the man-made flood will eventually be compelled to do so, says Zheng Ping, a Maoping official. "Every villager will make a sacrifice for the country and persuasion will surely work," Mr. Zheng says. Most officials claim that people in the gorges overwhelmingly welcome the dam. "If you tour the prefectures, counties, and cities around the reservoir site, you'll find that all the people support the Three Gorges project," says Guo Shuyan, governor of Hubei Province and a leading dam-booster. Dam builders must convince foreign lenders that their resettlement program is popular and generous in order to secure critical overseas aid, Chinese and foreign observers say. Officials behind the project raised annual spending on resettlement 150 percent this year to $9.4 million. By next year the officials would have spent a total of $32 million on 74 resettlement "pilot projects," according to the YVPO. This year they will move 10,000 people, raising the total number of resettled residents to 50,000, according to the official China Development News. Officials also completed a highway and bridge to the dam site last August. They have taken measurements of homes in Sandouping as part of a compensation plan and constructed three large apartment houses there for the dam's engineers. The 607-foot-high dam is designed to control flooding, generate electricity, and aid shipping. It would hold back a reservoir 372 miles long and less than a mile wide which would inundate 326 cities and villages.

Human cost unassessed Officials acknowledge that programs to resettle 10 million other people in the way of reservoirs since 1949 have brought hardship to many. "We paid a good deal of attention to dam construction but not enough to resettlement," says Fu Xiutang, director of resettlement at the YVPO. This time the government promises that everyone in the gorges will enjoy a livelihood as good or better than the one he gives up. Still, Mr. Fu declined to rule out the possibility of resettling people in remote, barren, and impoverished regions. Publicly, top officials have said that the government has halted this practice and that people in the Three Gorges will remain in the area. Also, the government will rely on local cadres to distribute up to $2,500 in compensation to each settler, according to Mr. Guo. Critics of the dam are skeptical of the government's generosity. "The Communist Party has always made very beautiful promises to the people but the promises come to nothing," says Dai Qing, a journalist who led a campaign against the dam in 1989. "This is typical for reservoir refugees: They are very, very poor; their lives are very hard and wretched," according to Ms. Dai. Take the travails of a retired boatman who spoken on condition of anonymity. The government forcibly moved him from his home in 1981 to make way for the Gezhouba Dam which lies just downstream of the Three Gorges site. Yichang County officials resettled him in a nearby village and gave him just a third of the $217 they had promised for a new house. Five years later, the same officials appeared at the door of the boatman's new home and told him to move again, this time to make way for a bridge and highway to the dam site. The government bulldozed his home, tore out his orchard of peach, pear, apple, and cherry trees, and gave him half of the $1,886 they had promised him for a new house. "Local cadres simply take for themselves money that is meant for the masses," says the boatman. Yichang County officials declined to comment on the case. Now there are rumors of plans to build a railway to the Three Gorges dam site that would run through the boatman's front yard.

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