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DECEMBER 8 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

China's Folly
Timebomb at Three Gorges

ALSO:
Troubled Waters

As protests continue over dam-building, a landmark review calls for a reth ink on future projects.

It's China's most formidable engineering feat since the construction of the Great Wall — and the numbers show it. On the drawing board, state planners proudly say that by the time the Three Gorges Dam is fully operational in 2009, it will hold back an artificial lake up to 600 km long, a kilometer across and 175 meters deep. The 2,150-meter-wide barrier will stem the mighty Yangzi, generating badly needed electricity, making the world's third-longest river permanently accessible to large vessels and ending forever the flooding that has claimed tens of thousands of lives along its treacherous banks. That, at least, is the theory.

On the ground, the reality is different. Critics argue that the dam is a folly from an environmental, technical and social point of view. On top of that, it is breeding corruption on a scale breathtaking even by Chinese standards, with one manager said to have skimmed off nearly $120 million and sent it overseas. So, will the scheme be dropped or at least scaled back? Not a chance. For the Communist Party, the Three Gorges is a matter of political face, and nothing will be allowed to stand in its way.

The world's largest hydroelectric dam, at an estimated cost of $25 billion, has challenges to match its girth. It calls, for instance, for the resettlement of some 1.2 million people, divided almost equally between rural and urban residents. Officials insist the program is on schedule. Critics say that the project is marred by widespread mismanagement, graft, falsification of relocation figures, inadequate planning and insufficient compensation. China's normally conservative Strategy and Management journal sees a crisis in the making. "The dam site threatens to become a hotbed for chaos throughout the first half of the 21st century," it says. "If resettlement problems continue to accumulate and intensify, when the water begins to flow, those not peacefully settled could turn into an explosive social problem."

Then there is the issue of how well the water will flow. The Yangzi is considered among the world's most-silted rivers, and even government planners acknowledge that special measures will be needed to prevent excessive sedimentation building up at the dam base. These include running off large volumes of silt-laden water during the flood season, from May to September. The fear is that this will cause precisely the kind of surges the dam is designed to end. And will enough water be retained for use during the dry winter months? Yes, say the planners. Others don't agree.

Environmentalists warn that the accumulated silt will raise the reservoir's water level, overwhelming nearby Chongqing's municipal sewage and drainage systems. Slowed from a free-running river to a near-static lake, the Yangzi above the Three Gorges could also become the world's largest septic tank. Respected Chinese ecologist Liang Congjie says there is another, more fundamental problem: The dam is simply too far upstream to harness flood waters from the Yangzi's most troublesome tributaries. "We will be able to control only one third of the [flood] water," he says. It's not too late to reverse the decision on the dam.

With reports by Anne Meijdam

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