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Dam, the consequences

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am

Time has a way of leaving grand dreams in its wake. Mao Zedong envisioned a 'great plan' in poetry after swimming across the Yangtze River, at Wuhan, and that project would come to be known as the Three Gorges Dam. Fifty-three years after the chairman predicted it would, the walls of stone have indeed changed the world, at least along the river's banks. But they have done so in unanticipated ways, with losses and gains experienced up and down stream.

Many argue the Three Gorges Dam has delivered, albeit controversially, on two of its promises - flood control and electricity generation. But the third goal - to establish a water highway, a transportation artery to help develop the nation's poor interior provinces - seems largely unrealised and irrelevant to the economy growing along the Yangtze.

IT'S MID-MORNING ON a Monday and three small ships have entered the first of five locks that will lift them more than 60 metres, to the upriver reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam. It takes 31/2 hours for each vessel to pass through the lock system. They are the only ships in the upriver locks and there are none at all in the downriver ones. And none are waiting to enter the locks on either side.

An official for China Yangtze Power, which runs the dam, says he doesn't know how many ships use the locks each day. But figures for last year show that 60.89 million dead-weight tonnes (dwt) of shipping passed through them, in both directions. This is about 166,822 dwt a day, which equates to 17 small ships or one large container vessel, which the locks couldn't handle, anyway (the upper size limit for ships using the locks is 6,000 dwt, which is relatively small).

Traffic is sparse along the 650-kilometre stretch of the Yangtze between Yichang, in Hubei province, close to the dam, and Chongqing. The odd small coal, oil or sulphur barge chugs past while others carry iron piping or lumber. There is the occasional small container ship and one carrying trucks.

Just upstream from the dam, commercial vessels are outnumbered by ageing Russian hydrofoil ferries and the numerous triple- or quadruple-deck cruise ships that take tourists through the Three Gorges. The gorges are not as spectacular as they were before the dam turned the Yangtze into a placid waterway, but tourists still marvel at the soaring cliffs of Qutang Gorge, the way clouds envelop the peaks, the waterfalls that tumble hundreds of metres down the mountainsides and the terraced farms that cling to the edges.

The Yangtze corridor above the dam is growing rapidly - but that's largely owing to development policies - and the impact of the dam is felt not so much by its capabilities as a waterway as by the changes caused by its construction. The displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the building of towns, roads and railways along the river have been a huge economic engine.

Fengjie is about 150 kilometres upriver from the dam and sits just above Qutang, the most westerly of the three gorges. In the new city's dusty museum - a memoriam to the town swallowed up by the dammed waters - is a small display: four clocks and three watches, all stopped at precisely 10.53am on November 4, 2002. That is the moment a dynamite charge blew up the last building in the old city. Around the display are hundreds of relics and mementoes - a photograph of 'trackers', harnessed and naked, pulling a boat up the gorge, straining so hard they are almost horizontal to the ground; Qing dynasty furniture, including marriage beds; Han dynasty pottery; paintings by local residents of scenes now under water. And a model of the old city.

'This is the city gate, right on the river,' says a resident, pointing to the model. 'My friends and I would walk through the gate to the strand and look at the river and think about the future. And when I came back from university, I would stand on the deck of the ferry and look for the gate, watching it grow bigger. When I stepped through it, I knew I was home.'

A recreation of the eastern city gate stands on high ground, opposite the museum. But gone are many of the hieroglyphics of the ancient Ba people. And Poet City, where Du Fu lived and that Li Bai wrote about, is mostly under water, although Baidi Temple survives, located on an island in the river.

New Fengjie is not a particularly nostalgic place. Zhao Guilin, the museum's curator and formerly the city's deputy chief of propaganda, says he can't get tour operators to bring visitors to the museum, even if he pays them 20 yuan of the 30 yuan entrance fee. Old Fengjie is little more than a memory.

Moving the town about 10 kilometres upriver and up a mountain took almost 20 years. Building roads, apartment blocks, schools, government buildings, hotels, shopping centres, water plants, 10 bridges and, now, a major highway to link the city with Chongqing provided a lot of jobs.

Another who benefited indirectly from the construction of the dam is Liu Guojun, a 12th-generation wood carver in Fengjie. For centuries his family has carved beds, desks, chairs, Buddha statues, chopsticks and decorative panels from local wood. Until a few years ago, it also made cheap coffins from the heavy dark driftwood that washed up onto the river's sandy beaches after the flood season. The supply was plentiful.

Most people knew yin chen mu - long-buried wood, also called gloomy wood - was old, but few knew how old. At least not until a few years ago, when Liu's son took a sample to Nanjing Forestry University, where he was studying. Carbon dating established the wood dated back more than 6,500 years. Ancient trees in the Yangtze River Gorge had been buried under metres of silt and, over time, carbonised to form the dense black wood.

Around the time Liu was discovering the origins of the ancient wood, the dam was completed and the water level at Fengjie rose at least 60 metres. Seasonal flooding no longer pulled up the ancient trees.

'Now it's a luxury wood because of the Three Gorges Dam,' Liu says. 'There's no more supply.'

Fortunately, Liu had the foresight to stock up while he could and has, he says, enough wood to last him 40 years. His shop makes about eight million yuan (HK$9.32 million) to 10 million yuan a year, much of it from yin chen mu furniture and carvings.

More than 1.4 million people were relocated to make way for the 660 kilometre-long reservoir created by the dam. Some were forcibly removed from homes or farms they and their ancestors had occupied for generations. Others were cheated out of the compensation they were promised.

Three old friends meeting in a teahouse in Fengjie's new four-star hotel do not want to talk about the dam. Something bigger overshadows their lives and influences their attitudes.

The fisherman, the businessman and the retiree have been friends since they were about 16, when they were taken from a classroom in old Fengjie and sent to a farming village during the Cultural Revolution.

'The villagers were good to us but there was never enough to eat,' says the retiree. 'We weren't farmers, so we knew nothing and the work was very hard.'

Once a month, the three meet, usually on the fisherman's small boat, to fish, eat and reminisce.

'It may be hard to understand but we miss the pureness of that time,' says the retiree. 'We were young and the work was very hard but there was an innocence, too.'

'Every day, you had to report to Chairman Mao,' says the businessman. 'You had to go into a room, where you stood in front of a table and on the table was a picture of Chairman Mao. It was just a picture on a piece of paper but you had to stand there and say what you were going to do for the country and the chairman that day.

'One day my friend went up to the desk and he saw that the picture was very dusty. We were living on a farm, of course. He tried to wipe the dust off but he tore the picture. Then, to make light of it, he said, 'Well, maybe it's the chairman's fate.' And for that joke he was sent to prison for 15 years.'

'That was hell; this is heaven,' says the fisherman.

New Fengjie is not bad either for the bang-bang jun, labourers who carry heavy loads on traditional shoulder poles. They used to make their living carrying goods up the steep riverbank into town. For about six yuan to nine yuan, they still carry luggage to and from the water's edge, up and down 250 steps from the ferry to the street above. At a new, multilevel open-air plaza, overlooking the river, a bang-bang jun leans against the stainless-steel railing, watching the shoppers. Asked whether life has changed for him, he shrugs.

'It's OK,' he says, pointing to the nearby appliance store. 'People still need their goods carried.'

THE SLEEPY RIVER TRAFFIC on the Yangtze west of the dam is no preparation for booming Chongqing. At the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers, the city was the capital of the Kuomintang government during the Pacific war, when it developed as a base for heavy industry. Today, it is an industrial centre for vehicles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and electronics. Multinationals such as Nokia, Carrefour, Wal-Mart, Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard, Ford, Honda and Samsung have operations in the city, as do major domestic companies, such as ChangAn, Haier and Midea.

The role of the Yangtze in Chongqing is relatively minor, says Zhao Daibo, editor of Business, a national monthly magazine based in the city. Zhao and others note much of Chongqing's industry is for domestic consumption, its products leaving the city on improved highways or by rail.

Not everything, though. Duan Yong, administrative director for carmaker Lifan Group's factories in Chongqing, insists on a distinction between the importance of the river and the usefulness of the dam.

'We buy our steel from Shanghai and ship it up, and we ship our cars down,' says Duan, standing on a factory floor belonging to Chongqing's largest exporter. 'The cost by ship is 300 to 400 yuan a car. That's one-tenth the cost by road.

'The dam hasn't had any effect at all,' he says. Lifan still ships cars downriver in the same 6,000 dwt vessels it has always used.

The Yangtze is a major shipping artery but about 80 per cent of the traffic occurs far downriver, between Shanghai and Nanjing, according to Zhang Tingting, managing director of publisher and consultancy Yangtze Business Services. 'There is a new momentum' to make better use of the river, she says. 'The government realises it takes only one-tenth of the investment to modernise the Yangtze than it does [to achieve the same with] road and rail projects.'

Provincial and local governments and companies are pouring in money to build and upgrade ports on the Yangtze and its tributaries, to more effectively link land-locked regions to the coast. Five bulk and container terminals have been built in Chongqing alone.

'Chongqing is growing, and rapidly,' agrees Simon Zhao, director of the University of Hong Kong's International Centre for China Development Studies, 'But it isn't benefiting from the dam at all. The city is growing because of the 'go west' campaign and its special status as a direct-controlled municipality.'

In 1997, the city of Chongqing, with a surrounding area of about 82,300 square kilometres - more than twice the size of Taiwan and with a population of about 32.8 million - was classified as a direct-controlled municipality, one of only four (the others being Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). It made Chongqing, with a population of about 10 million, the de facto capital of western China.

In 2000, Beijing launched its go west campaign to accelerate development in poorer regions, reduce poverty and help close the huge income gap between the coast and the 11 interior provinces. Chongqing, whose hills and wide, sloped riverbanks are now studded with new office towers and high-rise apartments, was a key beneficiary.

The billions of yuan invested funded more than just development - it also fuelled the underworld of a city long known for official corruption and triad gangs. Last June, the central government launched a crackdown in an attempt to clean up the municipality's gangland, which was frequented not only by crime bosses but also businessmen and Communist Party officials. So far, more than 3,600 people have been arrested, 1,000 put on trial and 67 either sentenced to death or given suspended death penalties.

Rao Jiao doesn't miss those raucous triad days but he does miss the income.

'It was scary sometimes, picking up those people,' says the taxi driver, who worked the night shift. 'Normal people don't have scars and tattoos. They looked fierce. Seriously drunk people give good tips, though.'

Rao also made 200 yuan from hotels every time he delivered a customer to one of their brothels. Now he's lucky to make 170 yuan from a full day's shift, especially since he spends much of his time sitting in Chongqing's choking traffic.

'Business is bad,' he says. 'They closed down a lot of the hotels, the discos and the karaoke bars. Now, the street boys, the triads, the businessmen looking for prostitutes, they're all afraid to go out at night because the police are out 24 hours a day. But, on the other hand, it's a lot safer.'

Rao's clientele may have ducked into the shadows but that doesn't seem to have hurt Chongqing's party lifestyle. It's a hot Wednesday night and the once infamous Soho bar is packed with fashionable youngsters and turning people away. Across the square, the Baby Face Club is having a 'foam party', its guests immersed in a group bubble bath.

Not far away, at the Times Club, the featured singer, whose white outfit is embellished by a large stuffed-toy white fox slung over his shoulder, belts out raucous songs, pausing only to chug down a beer.

Almost the only trace of tranquillity or antiquity left in Chongqing is found in the neighbourhood of Ciqi Kou, established 1,700 years ago on the banks of the Jialing River. Famous for manufacturing porcelain during the Ming dynasty, it is now a tourist attraction. In the one- and two-storey traditional tile-roofed homes that sit in the shade of old trees along the narrow stone-stepped alleys are restaurants, tea houses and shops selling fans, silk, pottery and figurines that squirt water.

On the edge of the neighbourhood, three retired factory workers sit shirtless, fanning themselves in the shade. The nearby developments fill the men, also friends from childhood, with foreboding. Most of their neighbours have been moved out of their traditional homes to make way for the tourist shops and they say developers have their eye on the remaining few houses.

'Yes, we would get nice apartments, maybe with a view,' says one. 'But they would split us up to different places and we would never see each other.'

Chongqing is the centre of its own world and while the Yangtze flows majestically through it, the river is not the lifeline it was before the city was given better roads and rail connections. Far from being a boon, the Three Gorges Dam, whose prime objective is flood control, may have exacerbated the July flooding in Chongqing, well upriver of the area the dam was designed to protect.

Some scientists believe the relative gradient, or slope of the river, changes when the reservoir is full, slowing the flow of water into the gorges and causing a back-up that could swamp Chongqing.

Determining the proper water level of the reservoir is a process that often occupies Wang Hai, division chief and senior engineer for flood control at the Three Gorges Dam.

'There are strict procedures to control the water level up- and downriver,' Wang says.

During the rainy season the idea is to keep the water level about 145 metres above sea level. That's to make sure there is enough capacity to store water behind the dam to prevent severe flooding downstream. Then, in September or October, the water level is supposed to be allowed to rise to 175 metres. That's partly to store enough water to keep the Yangtze full downriver but it's also to feed the dam's electricity generators.

On October 26, the reservoir was allowed to reach 175 metres for the first time, but only for about an hour, not the five months originally envisioned. That level is proving problematic because, as the reservoir rises, landslides increase and upriver cities become susceptible to flooding. Ship operators complain about reduced bridge clearances.

'During a flood, the decisions are made by the Yangtze River Flood Control Administration in Beijing,' Wang says. But at other times, the water levels and the amounts to be released are decided by balancing the interests of the department of transport, local governments, the electricity power network, the environmental bureau and the Three Gorges scientific development department.

The twin goals of flood control and power generation can often be in conflict, as they were in October last year, during the dry season. While the Three Gorges company was trying to fill the reservoir to generate maximum power - as other, upriver reservoirs were - the entire lower reaches of the Yangtze were suffering the worst drought in 60 years. Millions of people suffered severe water shortages, lower water levels impeded navigation and salt-water intrusion became a severe problem near Shanghai.

STANDING ON THE Three Gorges Dam, 185 metres high and 2,335 metres wide, built with 200,000 cubic metres of concrete and 463,000 tonnes of steel, you can look for many kilometres upriver and down. And, in doing so, a reality about dams - as dividing lines - becomes clear.

Most of the problems the Three Gorges Dam creates are upriver - the increased pollution, landslides, flooding, silting, the loss archaeological sites, the harm to fisheries (the dam has no fish ladder), the 1.4 million displaced people, the 13 cities, 140 towns and countless villages that have been submerged along with more than 1,000 poisonous factories and mines. Meanwhile, the benefits of electrical power, transportation, flood control and economic growth are largely, though not entirely, felt downriver.

Take Yichang, a city of 1.6 million people just 40 kilometres downriver from the dam. Its economy began to boom with the construction of the Gezhouba dam, a pilot project for the Three Gorges, in the 1970s. Thousands more workers were hired in 1994, when construction of the Three Gorges began.

Yichang's major industry is power. And not just that generated by Gezhouba and the Three Gorges but also from more than 450 small and medium-sized dams in the area. All that investment and electrical power in turn attracted major international companies such as InBev of Belgium, L'Oreal of France, National Power of Britain, Shun Tak of Hong Kong and Mitsui of Japan, all of which have established factories here.

The biggest treasure the Three Gorges Dam was designed to protect, however, isn't a city. It's the Jianghan Plain, the vast, flat, rice-growing region in Hubei.

Below the dam, the Yangtze is only about 40 metres above sea level but still has 2,000 kilometres to go before reaching the sea at Shanghai. Across the Jianghan Plain, the river snakes through lush countryside, the water level at the top of the riverbanks. The Yangtze flows through about 1.5 million hectares of rich farmland, criss-crossed with wide irrigation channels.

In contrast to the dusty towns, the farms form a manicured green with an almost formal symmetry. Typically, each has a fishpond of several mu, with a blue aerator in the middle and a small fishing hut at one corner. Beyond are hectares of rice fields, often interspersed with narrow fields of corn or tea plants bordered by a line of shade or fruit trees.

The vast rice land covers much of Hubei and runs down into Hunan province. Along this stretch of the Yangtze, much of the land is lower than the river and is protected by an extensive system of levees. When the Yangtze floods, as it has done hundreds of times over the centuries, it can kill thousands of people and devastate the rice crop.

'When the Yangtze floods, China starves; when it doesn't flood, we eat,' says Li Qingxin, general manager of Wuhan Zhong Ren Rui-Zhong, an vehicle-component maker.

Li is a true believer in the Three Gorges Dam. The flood control is essential, he believes. And he notes its power output - 87.4 billion kilowatt hours a year at its peak. Although only about 3 per cent of the country's electricity generation, it is powering major cities in all directions. He notes, as officials from China Yangtze Power do, that the dam's generation is the equivalent of burning more than 50 million tonnes of coal each year.

The parts maker, which manufactures components for Volkswagen, Nissan and Peugeot, uses the river to transport raw materials to its factories and send finished products to its customers. Most of its traffic is downriver, to Nanjing and Shanghai. Although he rarely sends parts upstream, past the dam, Li expects that time will come.

'The tide of history is going to the interior,' he says confidently, ticking off the various tax policies, land incentives and wage increases that he says should spur growth there.

Li is sitting in an expensive Wuhan restaurant, where for dinner he's ordered an array of local dishes - smoked duck, chong you bing made from rice flour instead of wheat, fish stew and pickled vegetables - and the local beer. Asked about the criticism of the Three Gorges dam, the displaced people, the conflicting claims about flood control, the silting, the pollution, the cost, he nods his head in acknowledgement of each point and pauses.

'People focus on the present,' he says, finally. 'They don't have a comparison. They don't know what it was like in the past. When I was young in Yichang and even here in Wuhan, most of the homes were adobe. It was a harsh time, especially during the Cultural Revolution.'

Li was sent to a village to be a farmer.

'We got nine yuan a month,' he says. 'You would buy a little cloth for the clothes you sewed yourself. You could buy some vegetable oil, a little salt, maybe some vinegar. And it was five jiao for soap but it was half that for the harsh kind. We were always hungry.'

Li sees the dam as proof of China's development, the benefits of 'openness and reform' and the growth of the mainland's industry and cities.

'You ask about the benefits of the dam,' he says. Then he spread his arms to indicate the table laden with fine food, and then wider to the room and then to the window, framing Wuhan's lit-up buildings.

'This,' he says.

Additional reporting by Daniel Ren

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