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Jan knippers Black
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Three Gorges Gates Close on Chinese History
T he scene at the construction site of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River had an eerie sort of timelessness. Mountains of concrete and other-worldly cranes towered over workers carrying water in cans hanging from poles balanced across their shoulders. On June 1, 2003, this phase of construction was completed; the click of a computer mouse closed the gates on 4,000 years of Chinese history and 2 million of pre-historical settlement. The official celebration was covered on live television, as raging white water lost its battle with closing sluice gates. The water level in what is to be a 365-mile reservoir was expected to rise to 135 meters within 2 weeks and to 175 meters by the time the entire project is completed in 2009.
Under construction since 1994, the Three Gorges project is to be the world’s largest dam and perhaps its most audacious public works project since the Great Wall. But not all Chinese are celebrating.
The Dam and the Damned
A mong the gains the government promises in return for its $50 billion investment in the great dam are: hydroelectric power, enough to satisfy 10 percent of domestic demand; flood control; enhanced irrigation and navigation; and promotion of tourism. For tourists who had packed Yangtze riverboats since 2000, the attraction was not what was to be gained with the dam, but what was so soon to be lost—soaring peaks shrouded in mist, interspersed with cascading terraces of rice paddies; hovering cliffs, crowned with pagodas, linked by gracefully arching bridges; and far below the placid precipices, a thoroughfare of rushing waters urgently going about the business of delivering boats to the settlements they service on the shoreline.
Upstream at Chongqing, already one of China’s largest cities and expected to absorb several hundred thousand of the soon-to-be-displaced, one finds a panorama of the damned gracing the walls of the Three Gorges Museum. The mural, by local artist Liu Zuo-zong, navigates in 100 meters the 600-kilometer stretch of the Yangtze over which water will be backed up by the dam, mapping peaks and valleys, islands and tributaries, cities and towns, bridges and temples, imperial halls and pavilions, and archeological sites. A dotted line running through the mural corresponds to actual markers along the shoreline, showing how much of this deeply rooted thicket of civilization is to be submerged.
Atlantis of the Yangtze
T here were plans to relocate a few of the historically most significant temples and pagodas; the 2nd -century Zhang Fei temple of Yunyang, for example, was to be rebuilt on higher ground when the densely populated center-city of Yunyang, a municipality of more than a million people, is submerged. But prehistory is another matter; archeologists have been working feverishly to document what they could from some 1,300 known sites before they are washed away. Some traces of the ancient Ba people will remain, as their “hanging coffins” were situated high on the cliffs, but the society represented by the two-million-year-old jawbone recently discovered at Dragon Bone Cave will be forever lost. For threatened plant and animal life, there is to be no Noah’s Ark. The dam project will wreak havoc on fish populations; it will destroy much of the habitat of the giant panda and the Siberian white crane, both of which are endangered species; and it is expected to cause the extinction of the Chinese alligator and the baiji, the white dolphin found only in the Yangtze. There are fewer than 100 baiji remaining and efforts to promote reproduction outside their river habitat have thus far failed.
Then there are the people. More than 700,000 have already been uprooted, most of them within the past year. Estimates of the total number to be displaced range from 1.1 to 1.9 million, with most falling into the middle range of 1.4 to 1.6. At any rate, it will amount to the largest peacetime evacuation in history. The reservoir will cover more than 630 square kilometers, flooding 13 major cities, 140 towns, and over 1,300 villages, along with 1,600 factories and mines and an unknown number of farms and plantations.
Among the first cities to go under will be Zigui and Badong. Just upstream of the dam, in the Xiling Gorge, Zigui hosts the temple of Qu Yuan, great poet of the Warring State Period (475-221 BC). Badong, with half a million people in the city and outlying settlements that comprise the municipality, is the gateway to the popular Shennongxi Canyon and Gezihe Stone Forest. Further upstream, Wushan city, hub of another municipality of a half million, is also to be totally inundated. Its Damiao Longgu Ruins are the locale of one of the earliest humanoid fossils ever found. Fengjie, just above the spectacular Qutang Gorge, a municipality of almost a million, dates to the New Stone Age and has a 4,000-year history of continuous settlement. Its city-center is to be totally submerged, along with the centers of two municipalities of more than a million just upstream: Yunyang, home of the famous Zhang Fei temple, and Wanxian, known as the Emperor City since it hosted troops of the Emperor Hanzhao.
Moving upstream toward Chongqing, two more municipalities of about a million, Zhongxian and Fuling, will lose only half to two-thirds of their densely populated centers; but Zhongxian municipality will lose a portion of ShibaoZhai, the 13-story, 56- meter Ming dynasty pavilion and the town that accommodates and thrives from its visitors. Situated between those two cities, but on lower ground, Fengdu, with a population of 740,000, is to be mostly submerged. Some of its 70 temples, the oldest dating to the Tang dynasty, will survive, however, as they climb the Mingshan Hill above the city.
The government has far-reaching resettlement plans, of course. Along the Yangtze from Chongqing to Yichang, where cities are to be submerged, new construction can be seen in progress on mountainsides above the anticipated waterline. The people to be displaced have been promised new accommodations—though often in distant and ethnically-distinct locales—or compensation for their homes and lands; but, in too many cases, new jobs were not available, new houses were not affordable, and new farmland was not arable. Some officials involved in relocation management had already been convicted of embezzling funds.
The World Commission on Dams, an international panel of experts, estimates that up to 80 million people around the world have been displaced or directly disadvantaged by dams. By these calculations, dam refugees outnumber war refugees four to one. In China as elsewhere, refugees of relocation schemes less ambitious than the Three Gorges project have often found that promised funds and facilities were not forthcoming or that the money soon ran out, leaving them at the mercy of insecure job markets in unwelcoming cities. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, at least 46 percent of the 10 million Chinese previously displaced by dams and resettled now live in conditions of extreme poverty. The curator at the Three Gorges Museum laid out the pros and cons of the project with carefully crafted dispassion. Even in private, he declined to give an opinion of his own. Asked how the local people feel about it, he responded, “I don’t know for sure; but what I know for sure is that how they feel doesn’t matter.”
Hundreds of opponents of the construction of the dam have been arrested or “disappeared,” putting a damper on open criticism. But passive resistance is said to be the Chinese way and some are simply refusing to leave their villages. Greater resistance is expected from the rural population, who understand the irreplaceable value of land and from the elderly, both rural and urban. Apart from those most immediately affected, the one-to-two million who can expect to be uprooted—to lose homes, communities, livelihoods, and social, historical, ecological, and aesthetic grounding—and a few million more on the perimeter who will feel the pressure of a massive new influx of population on water and other resources, on land and housing and on demand for jobs and services, the concern most readily expressed is that of security.
To some, security concerns center on the viability of the dam, given the possibilities of incompetence, malfeasance, or just plain errors on the part of bureaucrats, engineers, or contractors. One of the country’s supposedly unbreakable dams collapsed in 1975, leaving 200,000 dead. Before the last sluice gate closed, the Three Gorges Dam had already developed hundreds of cracks, some tens of meters long. Moreover, the Three Gorges Dam site is in an earthquake-prone region. Project engineers claim the dam could withstand quakes up to a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale and that no stronger quake had struck the region in more than a century. Yet, in the history of the Yangtze, a century is not a very long time; and a miscalculation puts at risk a floodplain population of some 300 to 400 million.
To most who expressed concern, however, even before the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Pentagon and World Trade Towers, security has had military connotations. A multi-billion-ton wall of water a mile long and hovering 40 stories high over several hundred million people on China’s richest farmland might pose an attractive target to terrorists or would-be enemy nations. What no one seems to mention is that such a potential security threat becomes an actual threat to civil liberties and human rights, as any criticism of the dam project or highlighting of its vulnerabilities can subject one to charges of treason.
Purchasing Power and Immortality
T here is no denying that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (more accurately, capitalism with statist characteristics) has produced a robust economy demanding ever more energy and from sources less pollution-prone than the currently pervasive coal. It also needs effective means of flood control. In the last century alone, floodwaters have claimed 300,000 lives. But the high-reservoir-level needs of electricity generation and the low-reservoir-level needs of flood control cancel each other out. Experience suggests that where goals are in conflict, the goal that generates money wins out. Ultimately, accumulating silt will interfere with both objectives. With respect to agriculture, it is hard to imagine that anticipated improvements in irrigation will compensate for the many acres of already productive farmland to be submerged.
As to improving conditions for navigation, flooding the gorges should certainly do that in general, but submerging factories and whole cities is bound to create new hazards for shipping even if, as planned, the cities are first demolished. Along with the garbage and sewage trapped in the reservoir rather than flowing downstream, the debris of submerged cities may introduce pollution hazards heretofore unimagined.
Are there alternative means of generating energy and promoting flood control? With drawbacks no doubt, but a quicker and cheaper means that would avoid the most dramatic threats and sacrifices and have the additional benefit of decentralizing control would be the erection of a number of smaller dams on tributaries feeding into the mighty Yangtze. Scattered smaller dams would not serve so effectively, however, as a symbol of technological superstardom, a monument to the current leadership—the mausoleum or chariot to ensure passage to immortality.
Jan Knippers Black is a professor at the Graduate School of International Policy Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She has published 11 books on international politics and development, the most recent being Inequity in the Global Village and Development in Theory and Practice , 2nd ed., both 1999.
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