China diverts Yangtze's course World's third longest river blocked prior to building of huge dam

November 09, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SANDOUPING, China -- In a ceremony filled with balloons, fireworks and nationalism, the Chinese government yesterday blocked the main channel of the Yangtze River, a milestone in its enduring quest to build the world's largest and most controversial dam.

After trucks spent more than six hours dumping granite boulders and dirt into the waters of Asia's longest river, Chinese Premier Li Peng announced that a temporary dam had been completed and hundreds of workers in hard hats applauded while millions watched on national television.

In blocking the channel yesterday, the government diverted the course of the river in order to build the main span of the Three Gorges Dam, which will stretch more than a mile across the Yangtze. Set for completion in 2009, it will create a reservoir longer than Lake Superior and require the resettlement of more than 1 million people.

The state-run China Central Television covered yesterday's event for 14 hours. Xinhua, China's state news agency, proclaimed the dam the greatest engineering feat in the 2000 years since the Great Wall was built. Yet for all the hype surrounding the achievement, it seemed more about national pride and domestic politics than history and engineering.

The Yangtze -- the world's third-longest river after the Nile and the Amazon -- has been dammed before, but the government seized on yesterday's closure to rally support for the often-criticized Three Gorges project and show the world that China can do great things.

"This proves vividly once again that socialism is superior in being capable of concentrating resources to do big jobs," said Chinese President Jiang Zemin. "It also embodies the great industriousness and dauntless spirit of the Chinese nation and displays the daring vision of the Chinese people for new horizons and a better future in the course of their reform and opening-up."

Decades in the making, the Three Gorges Dam is one of the most controversial construction projects in modern Chinese history. Government supporters claim it will save tens of thousands of lives by preventing perennial floods. They say it could produce 18,200 megawatts of electricity a year -- the equivalent of burning as much as 50 million tons of coal and more electricity than any other dam on earth. And they say it will help revitalize the economy of central China at a cost of $25 billion.

Some opponents see it as an ill-conceived, Communist Party ego trip, so big that it could induce an earthquake. Critics say it will force the unnecessary relocation of hundreds of thousands of people while inundating one of China's most scenic areas, further threatening endangered species and perhaps creating more flooding problems when the reservoir becomes filled with silt.

With about 1 billion tons of waste dumped into the Upper Yangtze each year, some predict the more than 375-mile-long reservoir will become a giant sewage pond.

However, on the riverbanks yesterday, those issues seemed far from the minds of the thousands of local Chinese who gathered to watch the damming. Some sat on jackets and pieces of newspaper along the sandy shoreline while eating oranges and staring through binoculars across a section of the Yangtze which will eventually be filled with concrete and turbines.

In the distant haze, a line of hulking Caterpillar trucks spit out clouds of black exhaust as they crept toward the edge of the earthen dam to dump their loads into the deep, muddy waters. Most of the onlookers seemed in awe.

Anyone who watched the glowing television coverage or read the patriotic banners that hung from balloons floating above the reviewing stand -- "Congratulations on the successful river closure," one read -- would have had no idea that the Three Gorges was anything but a wildly popular project.

And that, critics say, is one of the biggest problems. When the National People's Congress, China's usually rubber-stamp legislature, approved the dam in 1992, almost a third of the delegates either abstained or voted against it. The government has responded by silencing most dissent and orchestrating a national campaign to promote the dam, a pet project of Premier Li, who is a hydrologist.

"The most important thing, I think, may be the decision-making process," says Sun Changjin, a member of the Chinese conservation community. If there had been a more open debate and the public had been included, "I think people would feel more comfortable and more supportive."

The people most immediately affected by the dam are the hundreds of thousands whose homes will be consumed by the reservoir, which will raise the water level by more than 500 feet.

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