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Anger, triumph fill Three Gorges

Swiftly rising waters behind the new Chinese dam have already submerged villages and factories.

By Jasper BeckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2003


As the waters rise behind China's massive Three Gorges Dam, the controversial project continues to stir fears and protests.

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June 1, 22 sluice gates in Yichang were shut, blocking off the flow of the Yangtze River. Strengthened by summer storms, the waters have been swiftly mounting the towering walls of Three Gorges. Tuesday, the silt-laden waters had already risen more than 400 feet, submerging dozens of villages, towns, factories, temples, and tombs under a 365 mile-long reservoir.

The Three Gorges project has faced widespread protest - from those worried about the loss of ancient artifacts to those who question its feasibility. Yet the most difficult challenge facing Beijing has been the resettlement of some 1.2 million people by 2009 - the largest resettlement program ever attempted. Many of the 700,000 residents who have been moved so far remain dissatisfied, saying promises of better lives have not been kept.

"No one cares about our sufferings. The village and township leaders still owe us a lot of money for compensation," says Xu Sanming. Mr. Xu's village, house, and fields in Kaixian County will soon disappear. "Many people have been refusing to leave until the last moment because the local government owes each household more than [$600] in resettlement compensation," he says.

Yet for some, like former Premier Li Peng, who played a key role in the 1989 crackdown on student protesters at Tiananmen Square, this is a moment of triumph. The Soviet-trained hydroengineer pushed ahead to complete a massive engineering feat that many international experts criticized.

The project is vital to the government's plan for economic growth and for developing China's interior. The government says the reservoir will reduce the risk of floods.

In addition, its huge ship locks and deeper waters will enable much larger cargo ships to reach the inland city of Chongqing. Proponents also tout environmental benefits: The electricity generated will be equal to burning 50 million tons of coal a year.

"After 10 years of construction, the Three Gorges project will begin to pay dividends this year, playing an important role in flood control, power generation, navigation, water diversion, and environmental protection," says Li Hongjia, an official from the office of China Yangtze Three Gorges Development Corporation based in Yichang.

Yet some sources claim Chinese and foreign teams of experts have struggled to complete the final inspection, forcing China to postpone the flooding by several months. Senior engineer Pan Jiazheng admitted that repairs on the 300-foot high face had not been completely successful.

"Some of the vertical cracks on the dam that were repaired have reopened, even though we put a great deal of money and effort into the repair work," he said in a speech published by the Changjiang Water Resources Commission. "We have a long way to go, as we enter the third phase of the dam construction. I hope we will do our best to build a first-class project rather than a dam with 10-meter-long cracks."