A BARRAGE OF DOUBTS
Yunnan villager Ling Min had no idea how the damming of the Jinsha (Yangtze) River a few kilometres downstream from her hillside home would change her life forever.
That was until a landslide swept away her brick house.
She shudders as she recalls how she and her three children escaped, unhurt, from the disaster that struck before dawn nearly two years ago.
They watched their house fall down the slope, reduced to a pile of rubble within minutes.
'It's worse than a scary nightmare and it felt just like an earthquake,' said Ling, a 41-year-old widow in Heping village, Suijiang county.
The house was creaking and shaking as she woke her two daughters and her son. She got them out of the house and it fell apart.
They were too shocked to cry at first. But when they saw the destruction wrought by the avalanche of rocks and mud and heard the screams of their neighbours, they realised they had just lost everything and began to weep out loud.
Luckily, no one from Ling's village, one of the closest to the Xiangjiaba dam, was killed or injured. But the homes of nearly 60 families were flattened and their once fertile farmland was left barren.
Ling and 250 other villagers had to move into ramshackle shelters made from plastic sheeting and bamboo poles further down the slope, where they live on monthly government subsidies of 350 yuan (HK$428) a head.
Although local authorities said the landslide in June 2010 was triggered by the construction of a road higher up the slope, villagers are sceptical.
They had complained about the increased risk of geological disaster ever since construction of the Xiangjiaba dam began 20 kilometres downstream of their village in 2004.
'We have yet to see any large part of the benefits local authorities promised, but we've already suffered and have been living in fear for years,' said 55-year-old villager Huang Zhengcai.
'We have never seen so many serious landslides in and around our village before.'
Villagers also said they feared the situation would deteriorate after the country's third-largest dam begins filling with water this month. 'We're among the first to feel the impact of the dam construction and it has brought our lives to a halt,' said Ling, who raised her children alone after her husband was killed in a car accident in 2005, shortly before the birth of their son.
'Our utmost concern is about our livelihood and safety. Will it still be safe to live here?'
Local cadres have repeatedly assured villagers that their new homes, still being built, are safe. But fear of dam-induced landslides and other geological risks is widespread among tens of thousands of people in Suijiang and five other counties in Yunnan and Sichuan affected by the dam. And the Xiangjiaba dam is only one of 15 being built upstream of the massive Three Gorges Dam, with another 21 planned, according to a study by independent geologist Yang Yong.
Four dams on the lower reaches of the Jinsha - the Xiangjiaba, Xiluodu, Baihetan and Wudongde, all being developed by China Three Gorges Corporation - are the biggest and most controversial hydropower projects on the mainland after the Three Gorges Dam.
Dam advocates, including top energy officials, like to brag about the fact that the four mega-dams will be capable of producing twice as much power as the Three Gorges. The Xiangjiaba dam is scheduled to start generating power this year, with the Xiluodu dam, China's second-biggest, following next year.
The Baihetan and Wudongde projects have yet to receive final approval from Beijing, but China Three Gorges, the operator of the Three Gorges Dam, says they will both be approved next year, with power generation scheduled to start in 2018.
While the dams are touted as win-win solutions to widespread poverty in mountainous regions and the country's acute shortage of electrical power, critics say that wishful thinking has glossed over worrying aspects of the dam-building frenzy.
Citing widespread resettlement disputes, pollution and daunting geological challenges, they warn of calamitous consequences that could dwarf the problems already seen at the Three Gorges.
Fan Xiao, a Sichuan-based geologist, says disasters are already in the making, given the scale and intensity of dam construction on the Jinsha.
'Geological hazards on the upper Yangtze are far more grave and dangerous than those of the Three Gorges,' he said. 'It will just be a matter of time before a disaster hits.'
Geological challenges aside, there are also the grievances among at least 340,000 people in 25 counties in Sichuan and Yunnan who are being forced from their homes to make way for the mega-dams on the Jinsha.
Then there are the daunting environmental consequences, with the impact of existing pollution problems in the dam zone, especially along several main tributaries of the Jinsha, likely to be magnified many times over after the area is flooded.
Yang said rampant illegal mining had turned the area along the Xiao River, a main tributary, into a dumping ground of toxic metal waste and a 'museum of landslides'.
'It would be disastrous if the pollution spills over to affect the entire lower reaches of the Jinsha, which is the water source for millions of people,' he said.
Environmentalists have questioned the rush to build dozens more dams in the name of clean energy, and the rationale behind Beijing's backing for a 50 per cent expansion of the nation's hydropower capacity, to 300,000MW, by 2015.
They warn that mega-dams in many parts of Sichuan and Yunnan will further destabilise hillsides and increase the risk of earthquakes and landslides. An official document issued in May last year by land and resources authorities in the city of Zhaotong, which administers Suijiang and is home to the Xiangjiaba, Xiluodu and Baihetan dams - repeated such concerns.
But city mayor Wang Min played down the impact of dam building and attributed worsening geological risks to poverty in one of the country's least developed regions.
He said the problem could be solved only through rapid economic development, such as building mega-dams to tap into the Jinsha's rich hydropower potential. But environmentalists, including writer Dai Qing, have warned that the mega-dams on the Jinsha are likely to become a bottomless pit for public funding, just like the Three Gorges.
Beijing plans to spend nearly 180 billion yuan in the next decade to repair landslides, clean up pollution and boost the stagnant local economy that still blights millions of people affected by the Three Gorges.
Fan, Yang and other experts also say that one of the much-touted effects of dams upstream of the Three Gorges, sediment control, is obviously not working.
Siltation build-up at the Three Gorges dam reservoir, a major concern for critics of the controversial project, has been cited by government-backed hydropower experts and Xinhua as a main reason for building a succession of big dams on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and tributaries such as the Dadu River.
Two years ago, a report by China Business News quoted Wen Guanghua, a Chongqing port authority official, as saying that silt had built up to a depth of 50 metres in the river section right behind the 185-metre-tall Three Gorges since its reservoir began to fill in 2003.
Despite the damming of the Jinsha by the Xiluodu dam in 2007 and Xiangjiaba dam in 2008, Wen warned that severe sediment build-up at the Three Gorges was worse than expected and posed a grave threat to Chongqing's port within 20 years.
The Jinsha, and especially its middle and lower reaches, contributes more than 60 per cent of the 530 million tonnes of silt that the Yangtze River carries to the Three Gorges reservoir every year.
Weng Lida, former head of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Commission, said that helping to tackle the environmental damage cause by the Three Gorges and other dams had become a 'beautiful excuse' for profit-driven dam developers to build more dams.
He warned that such excuses may eventually lead to the damming of Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Jinsha and of the Nu (Salween) River.
'It is ridiculous and irrational to justify such fevered dam construction with the building of the Three Gorges project,' he said.