Despite Controversy, China Pushes Ahead on Colossal Dam

The Three Gorges dam, hailed by officials as a monument to Chinese Communism, will force one of the world's largest and most controversial transmigrations

AS Zhang Jianhua figures it, there is no way he will recoup his $1,000 investment when waters from the Three Gorges Dam wash over his house and shop.

Within a year, he will be resettled - where he does not know - one of more than 1 million Chinese forced out by the giant dam under construction on the Yangtze River nearby.

He plans to salvage the logs and bricks from the shop where he lives upstairs because the still unspecified compensation ``won't reflect the value of the house due to inflation,'' he says, fingering an abacus on the counter.

``From the bottom of my heart, I don't want to move, but I have no way to stay,'' he shrugs.

Overriding simmering local discontent and warnings of an environmental, financial, and structural disaster in the making, the dam project widely known as the Three Gorges is rising helter-skelter in a political race against time. Fearing that tight finances could scuttle the more than $30 billion project, the Chinese government is struggling to finish the often-delayed structure as a monument to Communist rule, central planning, and a strong China.

Planned to span the Yangtze where the mighty river twists through some of China's most celebrated scenery, the Three Gorges project is considered by the government to be the key to transforming the Yangtze River valley into a lifeline for economically backward central China and the desperately water-short north.

Spearheaded by Premier Li Peng, a Soviet-trained hydrological engineer and the dam's chief proponent, Chinese leaders claim the dam will save millions of people living along the middle and lower Yangtze from frequent floods, generate up to 20,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity for energy-starved industrial centers in central and eastern China, and transform a 370-mile stretch of the fast-flowing river into a smooth, navigable waterway for ocean-going vessels.

Damming the river, which flows through seven provinces and whose valley is home to more than one-third of China's 1.2 billion people, will also enable its waters to be channeled via a network of four pipelines to drought-ridden areas farther north, government officials say.

``No water resource project will ever surpass the scale of this one,'' says Cheng Daan, a construction official, standing on Zhongbai Island and sweeping his hand across what will be the giant spillway of the 1 1/4-mile-wide wall of concrete and steel. ``The building of Three Gorges will reinvigorate the whole of China. After completion of Three Gorges, the Yangtze will become the golden waterway.''

Chinese officials insist they can handle - and pay for - the huge human cost. Government officials say the 175-meter-high dam will create a 370-mile-long lake, flood 100,000 hectares of prime farmland, and force one of the world's largest and most controversial transmigrations ever.

Resettlement compensation, accounting for more than one-third of the dam's cost, will be a funding bonanza for many local governments. Only a part of it will go for direct compensation to the people. The remainder will be used for infrastructure and new factories for new communities of the resettled, thus raising fears of corruption.

``The success or failure of the Three Gorges project depends on resettling the people,'' Mr. Li was quoted as saying by the official New China News Agency recently.

The critics aren't convinced

Opponents of the dam both in China and abroad say it is an environmental and human atrocity. The project threatens to destroy commercial fish stocks and the livelihoods of fishermen along its banks, deprive the flood plain of necessary silt and water, and submerge some of the most fertile land in China. There are an estimated 75 million farmers and fishermen living along the Yangtze.

The dam also threatens to destroy key archaeological sites dating back thousands of years, and endangers already threatened animal and fish species, opponents say. The dam waters will also inundate the legendary narrow limestone canyons known as the Three Gorges, a lucrative tourist attraction in China.

Critics, including Chinese and international scientists, environmentalists, political activists, and even some government officials, charge that Beijing exaggerates power-generation capabilities and improvements to navigation and flood control, and glosses over the upstream threat from the 4,000-mile-long Yangtze's huge silt load and the potential for earthquakes and landslides in the highly seismic area. And the government has launched the difficult and massive resettlement at a time of growing rural economic discontent and the widening gap between rich and poor.

``The Great Leap Forward [economic campaigns of the late 1950s] is a typical example of attempting to achieve something grandiose,'' Li Rui, a former aide to Mao Zedong and longtime critic of the dam project. ``The Cultural Revolution was another example of this mentality politically. So now the Three Gorges is aiming for something grandiose economically.'' (Battling the dam and bureaucracy, right.)

Still, in China where water-conservancy projects have long been politically motivated, central government officials are determined to push ahead and finish before the project's 18-year time schedule even though plans for the dam design, its total cost and financing, and the resettlement of residents have yet to be finalized, local officials say.

In the last four years, the cost of the dam, first envisioned in 1919 by modern China's founding father Sun Yat-sen, has spiraled from $12 billion to $30 billion and could be more than double that amount as construction, financing, and resettlement costs climb, Western and Chinese observers say.

As large dams have been discredited in much of the world, the United States and Canada, which once provided key support for the project, withdrew feasability studies in recent years under pressure from both foreign and Chinese environmentalists. The World Bank is also being urged to stay out.

But Daniel Beard, Commissioner of the US Bureau of Land Reclamation, was scheduled to arrive May 11 for a fact-finding mission, and to discuss cooperation on water projects other than the Three Gorges.

With bravado, Chinese officials say they can go it alone, raising the funds through electricity sales from the nearby Gezhouba dam also on the Yangtze, a forerunner of the Three Gorges project, national assessments on electricity fees and coal sales, government funds, bonds and bank loans, issues on Chinese and foreign stock exchanges, and luring foreign investors.

As work intensifies on the dam site, the China Three Gorges Project Development Corp., which oversees the project, entertains foreign contractors anxious to cash in on the dam bonanza. Although the government has cut planned equipment imports to reduce reliance on foreign suppliers, officials say they still hope foreign companies can pressure their governments to help finance sales with concessionary loans.

The challenges of resettlement

The haphazard character of the project is most evident concerning the hundreds of thousands of Yangtze valley residents that must be moved. Officials have yet to pin down the final number of migrants, the compensation to be paid, and where all the people will go, although they have denied rumors that migrants will be shuffled to sparsely settled areas such as Tibet.

Currently, government planners say they expect to have to move 1.13 million people by the time the dam is finished, but ``maybe the numbers will continue to change because of population growth,'' says Cui Zhihao, an administrator with the Yangtze Valley Planning Office in Wuhan.

In Yichang, just over 20 miles below the dam site, the resettlement of people is most intense and is already stirring controversy. Caught by surprise by Beijing's rush to get construction underway, local officials have moved less than one-tenth of the 150,000 area residents who will have to be relocated by the time the dam structure is completed in three years. The local government expects to obtain more than $600 million in resettlement compensation alone.

Discontent stirs, although local officials are anxious to mask it. During a recent visit to communities near the dam site, journalists only were allowed to interview residents in closely monitored interviews and prevented by local party and police officials when dissenters tried to voice their protests.

``I have to move although I'm not willing,'' said a resident. ``The government told us to build brick houses in order not to disgrace the country. I could have built a mud house much cheaper.''

Local residents say resistance is high among farmers in Hubei Province who say their new lands will not be as fertile as the rich tangerine orchards climbing the steep hills along the river. But in neighboring Sichuan Province, which will also be flooded, convincing peasants is easier.

``Sichuan is poorer, so if you offer farmers a place which is slightly better, they would agree. Hubei is more prosperous so it is harder to do the propaganda work,'' says Hu Qiulin, a Yichang hydrological worker.

Officials admit they are encountering resistance. Some people ``don't understand the significance of the project,'' says Liu Zhengchao, who heads the Hubei resettlement effort. ``Usually farmers refuse to move to remote areas. They just want to move to an area close by.''

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