Moving 4m Three Gorges residents 'vital for ecology'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am

Chongqing municipal authorities have said a second massive relocation in the Three Gorges' reservoir area involving four million people was being implemented to save the area's deteriorating ecology.

The residents will move from the 'wings' - two areas in the northeast and southeast of Chongqing along the Yangtze - into the municipality's central 'circle', an area within an hour of the city centre, according to a Chongqing urban-rural development plan approved by the State Council.

The whole relocation - involving four times more than the last move - will take place over the next 10 to 15 years, with two million residents being moved in the next five years.

Chongqing deputy mayor Yu Yuanmu was quoted yesterday by local media as saying the natural balance in the Three Gorges Dam area was critical to the ecological safety and sustainable development of the whole country.

'On one hand, the Three Gorges Reservoir area's ecological environment is very fragile; its natural conditions are unsuitable for massive urbanisation and dense inhabitation,' Mr Yu said. 'On the other hand, the area is already overpopulated, with a poor foundation for industrial development and serious social problems.'

The announcement came less than two weeks after Wang Xiaofeng , a State Council official overlooking the Three Gorges Project, expressed the government's first admission of the ecological risks involved in the dam. It was widely seen as a government retraction from the positions of former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Li Peng , who pushed the project through in the early 1990s despite widespread controversy.

Although the dam will tame seasonal floods along the Yangtze River and help resolve a national energy shortage, it has been criticised for its US$22.5 billion price tag, displacement of 1.2 million residents, flooding numerous cultural relics and causing damage to an already weak environment along the river.

Signs of environmental degradation included soil erosion, more frequent landslides, pollution and a shortage of arable land since test operations began last year, Mr Wang said.

Experts said most of the problems resulted from slower water flow caused by the dam, but more people living on less land after being displaced had aggravated pressures on the environment.

No further details have been provided but Chongqing authorities had been reported as saying the relocation would be optional, relying on incentives such as tax breaks for employers within the 'circle' who hire new residents. The last forced relocation cost the government a lot of money and many relocated residents found it difficult to settle in.

Chongqing National People Congress deputy Lei Hengshun , who has been advising the municipality on its relocation policies, is confident that the relocation will be successful.

'People all want to live a better life,' Professor Lei said. 'The relocation is not only carried out for ecological preservation but also for balanced development as the two 'wings' are economically weak.'

But he also called for government input to make sure the economy in the wings would also be developed into a technology-based economy by attracting investors and talent.

The government would also need to provide employment incentives, housing and social benefits to help the massive influx of rural residents settle in the 'circle'.

Environmentalist Wu Dengming , president of the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, is less optimistic and called the relocation 'unrealistic' and 'an image-boosting tactic' used by the government.

'Problems caused by the first batch of a million immigrants still have not been resolved. You think four million is a small matter?' he said.