Chinese dam carries symbolic weight A test of power

August 17, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

YICHANG, China -- Thousands of construction workers are moving mountains near here in a race to block the Yangtze River for the world's most powerful, costly and controversial hydroelectric project.

For the Chinese government, this grandiose venture -- the Three Gorges Dam -- is a high-stakes show of centralized power at a time when Beijing is losing a firm grip on much of the country.

But the dam's many Chinese and foreign critics, who still hope to stop its construction, predict that the project will result in a human, environmental and financial debacle.

"It's going to be the world's biggest man-made disaster," warns Dai Qing, a Beijing journalist who was jailed for 10 months for leading China's first environmental protest movement against the dam.

The first glimpses of that disaster are just now appearing along the world's third-longest river, where the dam will create a 375-mile-long lake flooding whole cities, hundreds of factories and the homes of at least 1.13 million Chinese.

Authorities will ultimately have to resettle about one of every 1,000 Chinese, the largest dam-induced migration in history and a seemingly impossible task in a densely populated nation short of arable land. They've adopted the hopeful notion of "development through resettlement," meaning that relocated families, farmers and firms are to end up better off.

But just among the first several thousand peasants to lose their ancestral homes to the coming deluge, many are worse off. They've already been stuck for almost a year in supposedly temporary hovels with no jobs, no way to grow food and not enough money or land to build permanent homes.

"There's not enough land here, and all we're getting from officials is empty talk," complains Liu Xingjia, 37, one of about 800 former farmers abruptly moved last fall from Qingjiatou village along the dam site to crude brick huts with leaking roofs about 25 miles downstream.

About half of Qingjiatou's villagers, those with savings, have built new houses. But many got less than $2,300 for their homes from the state; new homes start at $3,500.

As building costs soar, their nest eggs are going toward buying food they once grew. "Back home we didn't have to worry about food, but here we now even have to buy rice. We're eating our house money," Mr. Liu says.

"We were rushed here, and now they're busy building the dam and no one has time for us," he says. "Whether we support the dam or not is irrelevant. We have no choice. There's nothing for us to go back to. Our village is gone."

On that note, several village women standing nearby on the muddy hillside that's their new home break into tears. "We have so little money," one cries out angrily. "No one is taking care of us"

'Mandate of heaven'

But the impetus for building the Three Gorges Dam goes far beyond the Yangtze Valley -- far beyond even the project's big promises of clean power, flood control and better navigation.

More than anything else, the dam represents a modern-day quest by the Chinese Communist Party to display the imperial "mandate of heaven," tangible evidence of the right to rule.

"This is a script that's been written and rehearsed for decades, and the government is determined to perform it, no matter how bad the outcome," says Li Rui, a former secretary to Mao Tse-tung and vice minister of power, who has fought the project since the 1950s.

As China leaps to a primitive form of state capitalism, the dam also may be the last major gasp of Soviet-style central planning here. So everything about it is gargantuan.

A mile across and 600 feet high, the dam won't be finished until at least 2010. Its locks will be the world's largest. Its generators will produce 18,000 megawatts of electricity -- another record, equal to the output of ten nuclear plants and power badly needed by booming coastal China.

The dam also is intended to control an age-old pattern of lethal floods along the middle section of the Yangtze. And it's to open the treacherous upper river to bigger barges, aiding development of China's impoverished interior.

But even if the Three Gorges Dam defies its critics by fully realizing these promises, its high costs seem likely to outstrip its benefits.

That, essentially, led the U.S. Reclamation Bureau to withdraw all aid for the dam last year, after offering 10 years ago to help build it.

Says Dan Beard, bureau commissioner: "It is a highly visible example of an approach to solving water problems that we no longer believe in. Large dams like this cost a lot and don't deliver their promises."

Long-term costs

Independent estimates of the project's total bill run as high as $75 billion over two decades, about seven times its official price tag in 1993 and more than China's current annual national budget.

With little foreign aid -- the World Bank is very wary, and attracting private capital may prove difficult -- the dam will be built with deficit spending that could drive up inflation here for years.

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