Benefits of dam not felt by all

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2003, 12:00am

The gateway to the gorges is booming, but upstream residents are not happy

In the city of Yichang, a large sign proudly declares: 'Yichang rises out of the Three Gorges.'

Yichang is a company town and the firm in question - the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation - is building the world's largest dam nearby. As the gateway to the project, Yichang has reaped the benefits by hosting tens of thousands of workers as well as tourists travelling along the Yangtze river.

As one taxi driver said: 'Yichang wouldn't exist without the dam.'

Helped by geography and the government's decision to pour funds into the massive state project, Yichang has become a boom town.

Some residents complain that they have been left behind in the economic bonanza that has benefited the local government. However, signs of prosperity are evident: crowded restaurants, new department stores and neon-lit coffee shops.

The Three Gorges supplied the name of Yichang's main university, while the Yangtze river provides a local delicacy - a type of catfish called 'fat fish' by residents.

Upstream in Fengjie and Wushan, both part of the Chongqing municipality, the situation is different. Chongqing's rural areas will suffer from pollution as the water flow in the river slows down. The municipality must also move most of the one million people who need to be resettled to make way for the project.

'No one wants to move. The new city is not ideal,' said a resident of Wanzhou, where thousands have protested against being relocated to places like Yichang.

Flood control, one of the main functions of the project, will be more beneficial to settlements below the dam, experts say. A portion of the first electric power produced by the project this year will help to fuel Shanghai on the east coast.

In return, areas upstream from the dam will receive huge state investment and the promise of economic development, as larger ships will be able to reach their cities.

In Fengjie, residents want change. They complain their city is too chaotic, and government officials acknowledge there are problems with public order.

Critics of the Three Gorges Dam say social dislocation caused by the project is a factor. Police along the river have stepped up security over the past two months to quell protests and crack down on petty crime.

Wushan, which lies between the gorges, is trying to attract more tourists. But infrastructure is poor - workers are still building the new wharf and transport companies refuse to sell tickets in advance. Passengers arriving in Wushan must climb a hill with crumbling steps carved into the earth.

For Yichang, being downstream from the dam perhaps has only one drawback. If the dam should break, the city is directly in the path of the water.

One resident was unworried. 'If the dam breaks, then the river has lots of turns which will slow the water,' he said.

But a tour guide at the dam site seemed less optimistic. When asked if the dam could collapse, she said: 'Anything is possible.'