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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The hydropower dam – here, fading into the mist – took 17 years to build and cost the equivalent of $23 billion. it forced the relocation of 1.3 million people.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Xiang Yue, now in Xiangjiadian,China, lost her land and house to the three Gorges Dam reservoir.

At first sight, the view from Xiang Yue's house is idyllic: Her windows look out across the blue-green waters of the Yangtze River to mountainsides clad in groves of orange trees.

To Mrs. Xiang's eyes, though, the landscape is full of hidden dangers, and the landslides that scar the hillsides are constant reminders of the threat to her home, 40 miles upstream from the Three Gorges Dam. "The house is solid, but we can't control the soil underneath," she says.

Xiang is one of 1.3 million people who were forced to move when the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam, a showpiece of Chinese engineering, flooded their old homes and land.

Now, like hundreds of thousands of other farmers who were relocated to higher ground, she will have to move again, a victim of potentially disastrous environmental problems that the dam has caused.

For years the Chinese government refused to acknowledge any dark side to its proudest engineering feat, the largest hydropower project in the world that is also designed to prevent the sort of catastrophic floods that have stricken millions of farmers in the Yangtze Basin for millenniums. Begun in 1994, it opened in 2008.

Two months ago, however, the State Council, China's cabinet, recognized that the dam had caused "urgent problems … regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and geological disaster prevention."

That admission marked "a very significant change in attitude in China toward more openness," says Lars Skov Andersen, a hydrologist working on a European Union-funded project to rehabilitate the Yangtze River watershed. "The Three Gorges project was not adequately prepared, so now it has to be repaired," he says.

That repair work, including a second round of resettlement, will likely cost $15 billion, half as much as the dam itself cost to build, Mr. Andersen estimates.

But there is little sign yet here of any government action to help the hundreds of thousands of forcibly relocated farmers struggling to make a living on the small plots of poor, mountainous land they were assigned above the 400-mile-long reservoir.

Lack of good land

Wang Xiangui, the Communist Party secretary and mayor of this village, whose 1,500 inhabitants live along the riverbank, says he heard about the State Council statement in May on TV, but that "specific practical policies have not been communicated yet. Solutions still need to be discussed."

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.

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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