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Three Gorges Dam in China Threatens Fish And Fishermen

By James L. TysonThe Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 1992


CHINA'S Communist leadership is ignoring the plight of more than 137,000 Chinese whose hand-to-mouth livelihood will be ruined by a massive dam on the Yangtze River.

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Beijing does not plan to aid thousands of fishermen and their families when the planned Three Gorges Dam project dramatically reduces the number of fish in the Yangtze and two adjoining lakes, government officials say.

The subsistence fishermen are only the most obvious casualties of the ecological damage downstream from what will be the world's largest dam.

Thousands of farmers, factory workers, and other people downstream from the giant dam will also suffer without government compensation, foreign and Chinese ecologists say.

China's nominal parliament acted to approve construction of the dam last month.

"The Three Gorges Dam will completely change the ecology of the Yangtze River and profoundly damage the ecology for fish and fishermen below the dam," says Chen Yiyu, director of the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan.

But, "There are no arrangements to compensate or train the fishermen and farmers for a new livelihood and I don't anticipate there will be any," says Dr. Chen.

During more than three decades of debate over the dam, Beijing has disregarded the harm to the fishermen and farmers, say Chinese ecologists and some parliamentarians.

For their part, fishermen readily voice resentment.

"The government should at least help us to find other jobs," Wang Jiushan says, who sits in his fishing boat anchored to a riverbank.

"We have to find a way to live on," Mr. Wang adds, as a son, daughter, and his wife huddle around him on the bow of his small wooden boat. [See related story on Page 21.]

China's propaganda apparatus has ignored the damage below the dam while hailing its benefits for power generation, flood control, and shipping.

Until now the foreign news media have inadvertently aided the government by overlooking the harm downstream from the dam.

As a result, foreign banks offering to fund the project are oblivious to its toll on people along China's most important waterway.

The banks have suggested loans of more than $1 billion, Guo Shuyan, governor of Hubei Province, recently said. He did not, however, identify the banks.

Yet without "information on downstream social costs, foreign lenders shouldn't touch the project with a 10-foot pole," says Joseph Larson, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Massachusetts (UMass).

CRITICS say the dam will exhaust the state budget and stand as a monumental disaster for the environment and society.

The government has begun compelling 1.1 million people to abandon their homes to make way for the dam's reservoir.

In addition, the dam will amass a vast plain of silt that will cause flooding in nearby Chongqing and obstruct shipping, according to critics.

Moreover, the dam will cost far more than the government's $10.5-billion estimate and worsen China's debilitating budget deficit.

China could more cheaply meet its energy and flood control needs by reinforcing dikes, building dams on the Yangtze River's tributaries, and promoting efficiency in industry, say the critics.

Local fishermen see the threat from the dam.

"The dam will turn us back into fish beggars," says Yuan Dahai, recalling an old nickname for rag-clad fishermen as he ties his boat alongside the Wangs' boat.

The dam will severely reduce the numbers of more than half of the 160 species of fish in the river, according to institute director Chen.

The dam will curtail vital spring floods that coax fish from Lakes Dongting and Poyang into the river to spawn. It will also hold the water temperature below the 64 degrees F. many fish require to lay eggs, Chen says.