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.
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.
Most of the threatened fish are prized sources of protein for people in the Yangtze River Basin, according to Chen.
The dam will be particularly harmful to the subsistence fishermen on more than 10,000 boats on Poyang Lake, China's largest body of freshwater, says Wei Liju, director of the aquatic products bureau of Jiangxi Province.
The dam will block spring floods that inundate lakeside weeds crucial for spawning carp, crucian carp, snakeheads, and catfish. Without the floods, the annual 66,000-ton catch from Poyang Lake will fall by 65 percent, Mr. Wei says.
Moreover, the dam will affect thousands of villagers on the lake who live on plants that rely on the seasonal surge and ebb of the river.
The subsistence farmers cultivate reeds for papermaking, cut grass for fertilizer, and gather medicinal herbs for sale, says Dr. Larson, who is the director of the environment institute at UMass.
The dam will also disrupt the Yangtze's estuary by reducing the water flow during the dry season and causing sea water to move upriver.
Already, factories, farms, and residents around Shanghai, one of the world's most populous areas, occasionally lose a critical source of fresh water during the dry season, ecologists in Shanghai say.
For example, salt water intruded into the estuary from October 1978 until May 1979. During this period, chloride concentrations were found to be more than 39 times the acceptable level, says Zhu Huifang at the Estuary Institute in Shanghai.
The salt water forced numerous factories to shut down and thousands of farmers to forgo planting rice. Losses in manufacturing totaled $12 million, according to Dr. Zhu.
From the dam to the estuary, river life will probably suffer the loss of silt and nutrients as these back up in the dam's reservoir.
The comparatively clear water released by the dam will erode dikes, riverbanks, and irrigation works. The river could change its course as a result, ecologists say.
THE relatively corrosive water will scour away shoals that make up the habitat of the Yangtze River dolphin, pushing the threatened species closer to extinction. Less than 200 of the silver cetaceans are alive today, says Chen.
Other wildlife in danger include the Yangtze River sturgeon, Siberian crane, and Yangtze River alligator, Chen says.
Beijing spokesmen say the benefits from the dam far outweigh the costs. But the government has made only a perfunctory effort to gauge the potential downstream damage, say some parliamentarians, and Chinese and foreign ecologists.
Beijing based a 1985 ecological study on the assumption that the dam would benefit the environment downstream, they say.
"I am not satisfied with previous research on the ecological impact of the dam," Chen says. "Several questions remain unanswered and much more must be done."
Yangtze fishermen can find comfort in the fact that it will take the government at least 18 years to complete the dam after construction begins.
Also, if the past is a guide, Beijing might suspend construction. The government has warmed to the cause of building the behemoth six times since 1958 but each time has shelved the project for political or economic reasons.
Still, the Ministry of Water Resources next year will begin spending $769 million for preparatory work. The heavy sum paid up front could guarantee completion, says Lu Qinkan, a government hydropower expert.
Below the dam site, fishermen see an end to their way of life.
Putting his arm around his son, Wang says, "My ancestors' way of life will pass away with me."