About 40 workers were buried in a mudslide early yesterday morning near the construction site of what is to be one of the world's largest hydroelectric power plants.
As of last night, none of the workers had been rescued.
The incident occurred near the site of the Baihetan Dam, which is being built in the ecologically vulnerable Jinsha River area of Sichuan province.
An official with the administrative office of Ningnan county, under Liangshan , said by phone yesterday that the accident occurred before dawn.
'Hundreds of tonnes of mud and rock came down from a steep hill and swept over the living quarters. Our latest report [of the disaster] said that about 40 workers were there, but none of them have been found so far,' she said at around 4pm yesterday, while declining to give her name.
News of the mudslide reached the county government headquarters at around 6am, and every senior county official was notified, jolting them from bed, she said.
The 57 billion yuan (HK$70 billion) hydropower station on the Jinsha is expected to generate more than 50 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, or nearly two-thirds that of the Three Gorges Dam, according to local government figures.
No completion date had been publicly given. Construction began in 2008.
There was no word of survivors as the day wore on, despite thousands of paramilitary troops being mobilised and dozens of heavy excavation machines being rolled in, the county official said.
The manager of the Xingxing Hotel in the county said mudslides were common in the region, but she suspected that this one was the result of substantial engineering work at the construction site.
'It has been raining heavily for days, and there had been some warnings about mudslides. But mudslides occur in the mountains every year, and I rarely hear about them killing anyone,' she said, declining to be named because of the political sensitivity of the issue.
'The dam construction company has been too busy relocating residents and blowing up mountains. If they had kept a better eye on their surroundings, they wouldn't have been hit [by this mudslide].'
Ma Jun , director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, said the Jinsha River region had unstable geophysical properties and was prone to natural disasters such as landslides. He added that the continued construction of massive power stations, including the blockage of large volumes of water and the building of roads, would only intensify risks.
'We believe that China is building too many dams on Jinsha River. Such disturbances of nature can lead to more fatal accidents,' Ma said. 'We urge the government to seriously reconsider and review its development strategy in this region.'
But one hydropower expert said that dams were, in fact, the best way to stop mudslides. Zhang Boting , deputy secretary general of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, said yesterday that when the dam was completed, it would convert energy from the Jinsha into electricity, thereby reducing water pressure that causes erosion along the river banks and results in natural disasters, such as the mudslides.
'Construction teams are working in dangerous zones to build dams to deliver a safer future,' he said. 'They are heroes.'
The amount of kilowatt hours of electricity the hydropower station on the Jinsha is expected to generate per year