The stone-broke Harare government wants Chinese contractors to build a Three-Gorges type hydroelectric dam close to the ecologically sensitive Victoria Falls, one of the world's most spectacular scenic attractions. The proposed Batoka project is expected to cost US$3 billion. Zimbabwe lacks the money, but hopes to convince 'potential foreign partners' to pay for the dam scheme. Plans for the controversial dam date back to the early 1990s, but never came to fruition because of environmental and economic concerns. The dam also would need neighbouring Zambia's support, as the countries share the course of the upper reaches of the Zambezi River. Now Zimbabwe plans to revive the project, this time with Chinese help. Zimbabwe is desperately short of electricity-generation capacity. Power blackouts are routine in the capital, Harare, as the country lacks money to maintain its ageing equipment, let alone build new plants. The country generates two-thirds of its power from coal-fired stations, and imports the rest from neighbouring countries. But the country's debt to these suppliers, chiefly South Africa, now stands at US$300 million, said Zimbabwean officials. As a result, its power shortage threatens to become permanent and is choking the life out of an economy already on its deathbed. Six weeks ago, President Robert Mugabe's government said only 10 per cent of the country's annual wheat crop had been planted, citing the lack of energy as one of the main causes. Strict power rationing was introduced so electricity could be diverted to farms and grain millers in the hope of boosting the food crop. Businesses in Harare now routinely keep diesel generators as backup, but the shortage of fuel makes this an unreliable source of power. Power outages can last up to 12 hours a day and frequent cuts have also affected services. This week Harare residents were told electricity tariffs would be raised 50 per cent as officials struggle to meet costs with national inflation at 3,700 per cent. But the power cuts are likely to continue unless alternative generation capacity is found. Zimbabwe has previously tried to woo Chinese contractors into power production. A few years ago its Electricity Supply Authority came close to signing an agreement with China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corp (Catic) to build a coal-fired station. The deal fell apart because Catic wanted to mine its own coal, fearing supply disruptions could threaten the plant's viability. Catic also wanted to be able to sell excess coal outside of Zimbabwe to raise foreign capital to help fund the project. Zimbabwe insisted the deal exclude mining rights, wanting to channel these to a local company. In the end, Catic walked away. The site of the proposed dam is 50km below the famed Victoria Falls, which British explorer David Livingston stumbled on in 1855. The 'smoke that thunders', as it is called in the local language, is one of the country's biggest tourist attractions.