After 74 years of debate, mighty Yangtze gets dam A million Chinese will be uprooted

June 25, 1993|By New York Times News Service

YICHANG, China -- The bulldozers are scooping out the yellow earth along the Yangtze River in preparation for the world's largest hydroelectric project, a dam that will create a lake 350 miles long, fuel China's industrial revolution and save millions of people from the constant threat of flooding.

Or perhaps the project will simply create the world's most colossal mud pie.

Critics say that silting behind the dam may result in a $30 billion bog that would inundate China's finest natural scenery and stand as one of the most monumental and vexing legacies of Chinese Communism.

The disagreement is no surprise, for people have been debating the merits of the Three Gorges Dam since the idea was proposed in 1919. But while the debate seems endless, one thing has changed: Work on the dam is finally beginning.

"The way things look right now, I don't think it can be delayed any more," said Jiang Xueyuan, the white-haired spokesman for the Three Gorges Project office here in Yichang, the nearest city to the dam site in central China. Mr. Jiang, like many other engineers who have spent their careers designing the dam, is delighted that the supporters finally seem to have won the battle.

Those whose homes, farmland and heritage would be flooded are naturally less enthusiastic. Among the 1.2 million people being forced to move to make way for the project is a furniture vendor in Wanxian, a grimy Yangtze River port.

"None of us want to leave, because our lives depend on this port," said the man, who identified himself only as Gao, between efforts to interest a foreigner in a $4 wicker chair. "Officially, everyone has to support it, but no one wants to go. What'll happen to us?"

A five-day journey down the Yangtze, through the area that will be flooded, found not everyone so opposed to the project, with some peasants so poor that they seem happy to move. The more optimistic -- or perhaps credulous -- believe the government's promises of fertile new farmland, prosperous new factories, fancy new homes and lucrative new jobs.

The Three Gorges Dam, sometimes described as the most important construction project in China since the Great Wall, was formally approved last year. It involves a 607-foot-high dam stretching 1.2 miles along the third of the Yangtze River's three famous gorges.

The gorges, which are as famous in China as the Grand Canyon is in the United States, would be partly submerged. The Yangtze in its middle reaches would look more like a lake than a river.

The Three Gorges Dam would not be the highest in the world, nor would its reservoir be the biggest. But its hydroelectric output would be 17,680 megawatts, by far the biggest in the world and nearly three times as much as the output of the Grand Coulee Dam, the biggest in the United States.

The project has a special resonance in part because it would transform the Yangtze, the mightiest river in the nation, known in Chinese simply as the Chang Jiang, "the long river." The Yangtze River basin is home to 35 percent of all Chinese, accounting for nearly 8 percent of all humanity.

Among them is a hefty 60-year-old man with a crew cut who sells dogeared magazines -- mostly with covers of big-breasted women looking either sultry or anguished on a patch of ground along the main street in the town of Wanxian.

"We don't want to move," the man said slowly, speaking #F Mandarin with a thick local peasant accent. "But what can you do? The water's going to come, and then you've got to go."

Still, he accepted the government's logic that the project was fundamentally good for China. While official propaganda is often regarded with skepticism in the cities, the peasants and workers who will have to make way for the dam seem to accept the official line that it is necessary to control flooding and generate electricity.

"People can't help but feel a bit unsettled in their hearts," said Guo Qinglu, a 60-year-old retiree in Wanxian. "Generations have lived here. Their ancestors are buried here.

"But the dam is a good thing," Guo added, nodding his head slowly as he stood in a small restaurant. "It'll produce lots of electricity. So while some people here support it and some are against it, most are in favor of the dam."

Apparently only a few hundred people have been evicted so far, although every official seems to have a different estimate. In any case, the bulk of the work in relocating 1.2 million people will not take place until late in this decade.

Housing for the workers and engineers is already in place, and work will begin later this year on a cofferdam, to divert the Yangtze slightly so that work can begin on the main dam.

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