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Valley of the dammed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2012, 12:00am

Yunnan villager Li Dongmin knew that trouble could lie ahead for people evicted for a dam as the deadline for relocation approached. Even so, he was shocked and angry when more than two dozen local government officials descended on his home on May 16 with orders to demolish it immediately.

Scores of neighbours in the mountainside village of Yuansheng, population 420, in Huixi town, Yongshan county, quickly converged on the scene to show their support. But they were kept at bay by a dozen armed paramilitary police as well as a bulldozer, an excavator and dump trucks.

'I have never felt so terrible and helpless in my life,' Li said. 'My wife and granddaughter were crying in fear and my heart sank in disbelief and despair at such intimidation.'

Li, 44, whose sparsely furnished, two-storey brick house sat atop a ridge overlooking a deep valley of the roaring Jinsha River (as a section of the upper Yangtze River is called), was among the first in his village to be moved to make way for the Xiangjiaba dam, being built on the mountainous border between Sichuan and Yunnan in southwestern China.

Like his fellow villagers, Li was reluctant to move, citing a lack of compensation, unhelpful local cadres and fears of a grim future after losing his home and once fertile farmland to the waters impounded by a 162-metre-high concrete dam.

'But what else could we do apart from follow their orders and vacate my home after they threatened to pull it down?' Li asked. 'The authorities are too powerful for us ordinary folks to fight, and I don't have the nerve to stand up to them.'

Li has yet to get any of the compensation promised by local officials, and he, his wife and their 14-month-old granddaughter have had to move into a makeshift tent of plastic sheeting along a main road in the village.

'We know it is not safe to dwell in the tent as the rainy season approaches,' he said. 'But we have been made homeless and destitute. Where else can we go?'

Even though today is supposed to be the deadline for resettlement, the local government appears to have been too busy to ensure that those displaced have been relocated.

Propaganda officials in Yongshan county, where nearly 40,000 people are being relocated to make way for the Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu dams, admit they have been overwhelmed by the almost impossible task of evicting thousands of families in time.

The Xiangjiaba dam, about 100 kilometres downstream from Huixi and 33 kilometres upstream from the city of Yibin in Sichuan, is due to begin filling with water next month and to start generating power in October, Xinhua reports.

With a capacity of six gigawatts, the dam is the country's third-largest, after the Three Gorges dam and the Xiluodu dam which is being built about 160 kilometres upstream on the Jinsha.

Like the Three Gorges dam, the Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu projects have met with strong opposition from local residents and been mired in controversy over their daunting ecological and geological challenges - despite having been touted for years as shortcuts to eradicating the widespread poverty that grips one of the country's most remote and least developed areas.

The building of the two dams, with a combined capacity of 19.86GW - more than the 18.2GW capacity of the Three Gorges dam - underlines Beijing's renewed determination to accelerate dam construction across the country despite intense public scrutiny.

Another 23 mega-dams are being built or are planned further upstream along the spectacular 2,300-kilometre Jinsha - the name means golden sands - that rises on the Tibetan Plateau and tumbles through high mountains in Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan.

The homes of at least 125,000 people in six Yunnan and Sichuan counties will soon be inundated by the rising waters of the Xiangjiaba dam, and thousands more are expected to lose their farms, famed for producing profitable, mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper (huajiao), according to a rough estimate by Xinhua early this year.

Chen Fei, general manager of the China Three Gorges Corporation, the dam's builder and owner, told Xinhua in February that there were as many as 82,000 people who had yet to be evicted.

Despite long-simmering discontent, local authorities and the company, which also operates the Three Gorges dam, vowed to complete resettlement by the end of this month.

But local officials and the company's top executives have since admitted that that goal looks increasingly elusive amid widespread grievances and complaints about unfair compensation and alleged official corruption, and mounting distrust of the government.

Local residents and even county government officials have complained about confusing resettlement compensation policies, which they say are deliberately vague, often contradictory and vary markedly from one dam project to another as well as from one county to another.

To make matters worse, those compensation policies, including the compensation standards proposed by China Three Gorges, have yet to be finalised and approved by central government, according to local officials in both provinces.

Liu Shiwei, deputy director of Yongshan county's relocation bureau, is bitter that its efforts to meet the eviction deadline and avoid stoking further resentment among disgruntled locals have been hampered by repeated delays in the approval of compensation policies by top government agencies, including the National Development and Reform Commission.

'It's really hard to persuade our fellow countrymen, as we don't even know what the policies regarding compensation and long-term economic support will look like,' he said.

In Yongshan county, which sits near the tail of the Xiangjiaba dam reservoir and is also the site of the Xiluodu dam, many of Li Dongmin's neighbours have, like him, refused to back down.

Deng Shiqiang, 36, said at least seven people from Yuansheng were detained last year after residents tried to block main roads to protest against illegal land seizures in the name of resettlement.

Deng and his wife, Li Qimei, were taken away for 10 days. He said it was retribution for them exposing local cadres who sought personal gain in the resettlement scheme by gobbling up large chunks of farmland from other villagers.

'The authorities refused to look into our complaints or heed our concerns about the future,' Deng said. 'Instead, they resorted to intimidation and beat and arrested those of us who dared to speak out.'

Yang Mingjin, 57, and his wife were also arrested last year. He told of being beaten by local police, who accused him of being a troublemaker.

Another Yuansheng villager, Wang Tianlian, a 72-year-old blind widow, is 'desperately worried' about the future.

'I really don't know how I am going to survive if my farmland, my only source of income, is to be flooded,' she said. 'The current [compensation] standards are simply too low to make a living.'

In Leibo, an ethnic minority county in the Liangshan Yi prefecture in Sichuan, on the other side of the Jinsha River, people are also desperate.

Zhou Daixiu, 81, from Dukou village, lamented that local cadres had threatened to use bulldozers and armed troops to flush locals out of their homes if they refused to leave by the resettlement deadline.

'What they said is really scary,' she said. 'They also warned they could take us away and accuse those who refuse to go of blocking a national project.'

Zhou said she had no idea where she and her family would move to after leaving the riverside village that has been their home for decades.

'We are not opposed to the dam project itself, but how can they [local authorities] treat us like trash and force us to move?' she asked.

Villagers noted that compensation standards provided by two provinces were slightly different and complained that local authorities in Sichuan were not as generous as their counterparts in Yunnan.

Like many people, Li Dongmin's biggest concern at the moment is where to find shelter.

Li also blames local authorities for distorting Beijing's policies, which he believes are in the interests of ordinary people. But officials refuse to discuss possible compensation deals and Li is too afraid to raise his questions about resettlement and compensation in front of local cadres.

'Cadres are quite intimidating and I often worry about losing my compensation once and for all if I offend them, whether intentionally or not,' he said.

'Officials say I won't get the first 20 per cent of the compensation for my old house and cropland until I begin to build the new house,' he said. 'But how can I afford to build a new house without any compensation?'

Li does, however, consider himself lucky because he was able to salvage the bed, clothes and cooking utensils from his two-storey brick home before it was torn down.

He said at least three homes in the neighbouring community of Caojiaba had been demolished by a squad sent by the Huixi government after homeowners refused to leave.

Li has yet to find a place to rebuild his home, with local officials refusing to help and saying that it is something he will have to organise himself.

But when he approached officials with a list of relocation sites, they turned down his preferences on the grounds that they failed to conform with rules; these they refused to specify.

'I still don't know where I can build a new house or how long I need to live in the tent,' he said.

Li said his plight did not come as a total surprise. He has witnessed for himself how livelihoods were shattered by dam projects in Sichuan five years ago.

When this reporter visited the Jinping dam, the world's tallest concrete dam at the time, Li was a manual labourer doing a high-risk job reinforcing mountain rocks against landslides for about 2,000 yuan (HK$2,500) a month.

He said then that he was afraid that one day his family back in Yunnan would suffer the same plight as the 8,000 people forced from their homes to make way for the Jinping dam.

'No one wanted to be relocated, but the people have been left with no alternative because it is a national project,' he said in 2007.

Five years later, his worst fears have been realised.

He said his family's livelihood had deteriorated over that time because of the difficulty of finding work and the expense of raising his granddaughter. Dam projects do not usually hire local residents, to avoid further resettlement disputes, but that policy makes the lives of evictees even more miserable.

Li sent his two sons to coastal provinces shortly before his home was demolished.

'They were reluctant to leave because they're worried about us,' he said. 'But I convinced them it was a better option for them to make some money and help raise the family.'

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The total capacity, in gigawatts, of hydropower to be installed in China by 2015, about 70 per cent of the exploitable capacity

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