As the waters rise behind China's massive Three Gorges Dam, the controversial project continues to stir fears and protests.
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."
Officials at the Three Gorges Construction Commission deny that anything is wrong. "There have been no delays," insists a spokesman, who gave his name as Mr. Tong. "Everything in the project is going ahead as planned."
Critics say China is still struggling to finance the project and find buyers for its power. Only half the $24.5 billion investment has been raised, mostly through special taxes and government bonds.
The dam needs 26 turbines capable of generating 18,200 megawatts of electricity. Two 700-megawatt generators should begin operating in August and two others in October.
Many assumptions about the jobs the project would create in urban areas, the funding, the number of people to be resettled, and the availability of land for displaced peasants have proved too optimistic.
So far, about 120,000 peasants have been relocated to 11 different provinces in coastal China. But many have returned claiming they were cheated: They struggled to match their former incomes, despite being promised new jobs and a higher living standard.
"Instead of fields, we were offered wasteland to farm," says one peasant, who was relocated to Hubei province.
Together with more than 100 others who decided to return home, he joined a protest in February outside the county's Communist Party headquarters. When squads of heavily armed riot police arrived, the protesters smashed the offices of the emigration department and dozens were arrested.
Many who took part in protests or signed petitions have been imprisoned for disturbing social order, including those who gave their names to foreign media.
"Corruption is everywhere in Chongqing. Most of the Party secretaries and heads of the villages in Chongqing have been falsely reporting on the numbers of migrants and pocketed the extra money themselves. They are living well but we are suffering," says another peasant, who declined to give his name.
"The government is paying greater attention to the resettlement than to the project itself because people are more important," says Gan Yuping, deputy director of the project's construction committee. He said the government is investing $12 billion for relocation of inhabitants and is making sure their rights are respected.
Yet many people, like environmentalist Dai Qing, continue to express fears that the dam will be an environmental catastrophe, creating a giant cesspit and rapidly filling up with sediment from the deforested slopes of Tibet's great mountains.
The government says it has cleared up 4 million tons of garbage and industrial wastes.
"Decades of accumulated trash from the villages, hospitals, and cemeteries, including highly toxic waste material from the factories and the corpses of millions of poisoned rats, are all still there," says Ms. Dai.
All the pollution from Chongqing and other industrial cities still goes straight into the Yangtze. Its waters are so poisonous that no one living near it dares drink it or use it for agriculture.
China plans to invest $5 billion over the next decade to build hundreds of sewage and waste disposal plants.