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China's Three Gorges project: A huge dam with big troubles

After years of denials, China admits its Three Gorges project is destabilizing land around the 400-mile-long reservoir, prompting calls for more costly resettlements.

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Mr. Wang says he expects that one-third of Xiangjiadian's residents will be moved to a local town, since there is not enough safe land for everybody in the village to farm.

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The lack of good land is a matter of bitter contention among the orange farmers who were resettled in 2002 as the reservoir's water level rose.

"Down below, I used to harvest 20,000 pounds of oranges on my six mu [approximately one acre] of land," recalls Xiang. "Now I have only three mu, and the land is poorer, so I cannot grow more than 5,000 pounds a year."

By way of compensation, she says, the government gave her an ungenerous monthly stipend of $300 for her old house and will give her family a monthly stipend of $7 per person for 20 years.

As with most of the adult men in the village, her husband has left home in search of work as a migrant laborer to make up some of the family's lost income. "People couldn't feed themselves, so they had to go out" to find jobs, explains Xiang's neighbor Qiao Shihu.

The steeply sloping land along the reservoir that farmers were given to cultivate after their first move is not just less fertile, it is also subject to erosion, particularly in the rainy season, which makes it vulnerable to landslides. That compounds the structural geological problems that the Three Gorges Reservoir is causing.

Water seeping into the loose soil destabilizes the land, making it prone to landslides. Fluctuations in the reservoir's water level (as dam operators release or store water) mean massive changes in the weight and pressure of the water, which further disturbs the surrounding land's structure, say experts.

The authorities have begun to plant grass along the reservoir's banks to try to reduce water seepage and soil erosion, and they have plastered vulnerable mountainsides with steel-mesh-reinforced concrete. They have posted landslide warning signs in especially dangerous spots.

'We are willing to go, but...'

But none of this makes much difference to Xiang and her neighbors, who want nothing more than to move again, though the experience of their first resettlement makes them wary.

"We are willing to go, but we are waiting to hear what the resettlement policy will be," says Mr. Qiao. "I first heard about resettlement in 2008 but nothing has happened since then by way of implementation."

Mayor Wang acknowledges that "the first resettlement could have been done better," but predicts the second wave of family moves will be less difficult. "The new policies will benefit farmers more," he promises, though details are still sketchy. "They have already moved once, and if we want them to move again we have to give them more benefits or they will be reluctant."

Qiao says he certainly agrees. "I'd definitely go if the compensation was good enough," he says. "There is no future for us here."

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