In Chinese Dam's Wake, Ecological Woes

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 15, 2007

MIAOHE, China -- It was in this little village clinging to cliff sides over the Yangtze River that the environmental costs of China's Three Gorges Dam began to add up, a down payment on what experts predict will be billions of dollars and years of struggle to contain the damage.

The first sign was just a crack in the terraced earth, about four inches wide and 35 feet long, villagers said. But engineers found that the crevasse betrayed the danger of a massive landslide. They judged the risk so great that most of Miaohe's 250 farmers were temporarily evacuated. Fearing the hillside would never be safe again, the government started constructing a replacement village on a nearby plateau, blasted out of rock for increased stability.

"This is going to be good," said Han Qinbi, 60, a grizzled peasant who pointed at the spacious new house he and his family will be moving into next summer.

But what Han saw as good fortune was a bad omen for the Chinese government. In the 18 months since the Three Gorges Dam was completed, increasingly clear signs of environmental degradation have started to accumulate along the Yangtze, just as activists had warned. Among the most troubling have been incidents of geological instability in the soaring gorges that now embrace a reservoir stretching behind the dam across a good portion of Hubei province 600 miles southwest of Beijing.

Local officials acknowledge that dozens of major landslides have been recorded, affecting more than 20 miles of riverbank.

The Chinese, who had been talking about taming the Yangtze for a century, finally realized their dream of the Three Gorges in May 2006, when the dam was declared finished in a burst of national chest-thumping. From the beginning, Communist Party officials had acknowledged that the massive engineering project would entail environmental risks and upset the lives of riverside peasants. An estimated 1.2 million were forced to move to make way for backed-up water. But the damage could be controlled, the party and government insisted, and overall, the benefits still would outweigh the dangers.

The $24 billion dam played its assigned role in controlling the river during the annual flood season this summer. Moreover, the 7,575-foot-wide (almost 1.5-mile) structure has dramatically increased China's supply of clean electricity, producing 23.7 billion kilowatt hours in the first half of this year. The reservoir and swollen upstream river waters, reaching about 250 miles to Chongqing, have given the center of the country a trouble-free transportation lane.

But the breaking-in period has also shown how vast the environmental damage is likely to be -- and how expensive to handle. Lei Hengshun, an engineering professor at Chongqing University who has followed the Three Gorges project since its inception, said it has opened a "bottomless pit" of government expenditures that will have to go on for decades.

A group of hydraulic engineers and environmentalists reported in March that the overall number of landslides in the area, including small ones, surpassed 4,700, requiring reinforcement or evacuation of 1,000 localities.

Higher and less stable water levels behind the dam, now at almost 500 feet above sea level and scheduled to rise to 575 feet, already have altered pressure bearing on the base of majestic cliff sides, they explained, causing the perennially unstable ground to give way more often up and down the reservoir.

Along the cliff-side road to Miaohe, on the south bank about 20 miles upstream from the dam, a man with a shovel patiently repaired one such slide on a recent afternoon. Just across the river, on the north bank, a small ferry landing had been buried under another slide, forcing travelers to climb over a mound of earth to board. Concrete reinforcements have been erected nearby to keep both lanes clear on the main east-west road along the north bank.

"The negative effects of the dam are starting to appear, one by one," said Wu Dengming, who runs the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing and has long warned about what the dam would do to the river's fragile ecology.


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