Zone of Peace
ANALYSIS: Sold down the river
By Jamil Anderlini Published: Nov 01, 2007
T aming China's longest river has been the dream of emperors and dictators for centuries. The first water diversion works on the Yangtze werebuilt during the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago and the ThreeGorges dam was first proposed by Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary father ofmodern China, nearly 100 years ago as a way to mitigate the river'sfrequent and devastating floods. The project was championed by Mao Zedongin the 1950s but decades of disastrous political blunders and fiercedomestic opposition meant it would take another 50 years and the crushingof a nascent democracy movement before Mao's dream of building the world'slargest hydropower station could be realised. When the river's flow was cut and the Three Gorges reservoir filled in2003, the Chinese government hailed the project as an engineering marvelthat would boost the region's economy, improve the environment and raiseliving standards for the 1.3m forced from their homes to make way for therising water. But in recent months, senior officials have publicly admitted for thefirst time the Three Gorges region faces an environmental catastrophe ifurgent action is not taken. In interviews they have also acknowledged thatrising discontent among the dam's refugees will be resolved only with hugenew investment. In mid-October the Financial Times travelled the length ofthe reservoir and spoke to numerous officials and residents to check onreports of an environmental and humanitarian disaster in the making. >From the beginning, the project faced intense criticism from internationaland domestic activists and even from many within the Communist party. Aclassified feasibility study conducted in the early 1980s for China'scabinet found that the project was uneconomical, would produce moreelectricity than the country could use at that time and, when it came todisturbing the natural environment, there were "positives and negativesbut the negatives outweighed the positives". At the end of the 1980sBeijing announced it was putting the project on hold. But after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown everything changed. Opposition tothe dam had been adopted as a cause célèbre by the pro-democracy movementand with many of its members shot or imprisoned, the back of resistancewas broken. One of these activists was Dai Qing, a former guided missileengineer and daughter of a revolutionary Communist martyr who wasimprisoned in Qincheng, the country's most infamous political prison. MsDai had been counted as a member of the party elite until she began hervocal campaign against the Three Gorges project, which continues despiteconstant harassment from the government since her release from prison inlate 1990. "The party refers to me as a 'daodan zhuangjia' which can meanboth 'guided missile expert' and 'professional troublemaker'," says MsDai. In the wake of the crackdown, officials commissioned a new feasibilitystudy with the backing of then-premier Li Peng (widely regarded as the manwho ordered the tanks in to Tiananmen Square), which reversed the previousverdict. To this day, the party's line on the Three Gorges dam is: "Thereare positives and negatives but the positives outweigh the negatives." Tan Qiwei, vice-mayor of Chongqing municipality, lists a series ofenvironmental "challenges" ranging from dangerous erosion along the lengthof the reservoir to a profusion of toxic algal blooms caused by a mixtureof chronic industrial, agricultural and municipal pollution and theslowing of the river's flow. "In some places the blooms are so bad drinking water for humans andlivestock has been contaminated," Mr Tan says. He adds that the localgovernment has already spent more than Rmb10bn ($1.3bn, £650m, ?930m) ofits migrant relocation budget on environmental clean-up efforts andshoring up saturated hillsides that began collapsing soon after thereservoir was raised from 66 metres to 139 metres above sea level in 2003. The dam destroyed the ecosystem of China's largest river, cutting theYangtze's flow to a fraction of its former speed and causing sediment inthe famously muddy water to settle on the riverbed. Travelling downrivertowards the dam, the water perceptibly changes from its usual muddy brownto a clear green, revealing the huge amounts of debris and waste dumpedinto the reservoir or submerged when the area was flooded. Sedimentation causes huge problems for the operation of the dam and couldeventually make parts of the reservoir impassable to large ships, negatingone of the key reasons for building it in the first place. The decreasedflow has also damaged the river thousands of kilometres downstream fromthe dam. In the estuaries around Shanghai, where the Yangtze meets theEast China Sea, seawater is rapidly encroaching upriver, threatening watersupplies and destroying large areas of arable land. In the newly-built towns along the banks of the Three Gorges reservoir,political slogans have been pasted on the sides of buildings that alreadylook run-down, just four years after they were built. "Construct a powerstation, boost the economy, improve the environment and bring happiness tothe lives of the relocated people," the billboards proclaim. The sloganprovokes a bitter laugh from Mrs Zhou, 69, a resident of Fengjie town,about 300km upstream from the dam. She and her 81-year-old husband, aretired minor official and life-long Communist party member who refused togive his name for fear of reprisals, were moved to a new town on higherground to make way for the flood. Instead of being compensated, they hadto pay the government because their new house was slightly larger thantheir old one. The couple's daughter cannot find a job because much of the agriculturaland mining industry the region relied on has been submerged. Since thewater level rose they can no longer drink the water from their localreservoir because it is too dirty. "Our lives have been ruined by the dam while the big officials got theirfruit and filled their wallets," says Mrs Zhou's husband. The unusuallystrong words from a former official indicate just how disgruntled manyresettled citizens are. But the couple say the situation is much worse fordisplaced peasant farmers, many of whom received just a fraction of thecompensation they were promised. One such farmer is Fu Xiancai. Mr Fu grew up in the rural county aroundMaoping village, just 2km upstream from the site of the Three Gorges damand in 1992 his family was one of the first to be moved to make way forconstruction. Like many of those displaced, Mr Fu's family did not want toleave their ancestral home but grudgingly agreed because the governmentpromised around Rmb30,000 in compensation. In the end they received justRmb5,000. Mr Fu began travelling to Beijing in the late 1990s to petition thecentral government to investigate where his money had gone. He wasconvinced the funds provided by Beijing to compensate him and his fellowvillagers had been stolen by local officials. "The provincial government stole some and the city government took somebut the majority went to the county and town officials," Mr Fu says. Heand his neighbours describe how factories built to provide urban jobs forfarmers moved off their land were managed by local officials' relativesand most were declared bankrupt before they even started operating. "The money went straight into their wallets," Mr Fu says. With just three years of primary education himself, Mr Fu sent his son tostudy law in Beijing in the hope that the family could fight its case inthe courts. But after years of frustration, he has decided that law isuseless. "The legal system is just meant to trick the people and put on ashow for foreigners," he says. "Might is right in China and even thecountry's constitution can be overruled by one word from the county partysecretary." After nearly a decade of campaigning, Mr Fu finally found hard proof toback up his accusations. A sympathetic lawyer passed on a classifiedgovernment document clearly stating the exact amounts provided to localofficials for the Three Gorges project in his region, including details ofrelocation compensation. Armed with this evidence he continued to petitionofficials in Beijing and eventually took his case to foreign journalists.Branded a "troublemaker" by the government, he was increasingly harassed,threatened and detained by local officials and police. Then, on June 8 2006, as he was walking home from reporting to localsecurity officials, he says he was hit in the leg by someone wielding alarge stick. He turned to face his attacker but before he could react hewas hit in the back of the neck and knocked unconscious. When he awoke he was paralysed from the neck down. He is convinced hisattacker or attackers (he only saw one person) were hired thugs acting onthe orders of local officials and police who wanted to silence him -forever, or at least teach him a -lesson. The official verdict, reached bythe same police and officials he accuses of arranging the attack, is thatthe injuries were self-inflicted, the result of carelessness that causedhim to slip and break his neck. The attack provoked an international outcry, particularly in Germany,where his case had been widely reported. The German government registereda formal protest, paid for him to be moved to Beijing from his localhospital (where he says officials had ordered medical staff not to treathim) and now provides him with Rmb5,000 a month for medical and livingexpenses. Mr Fu's case is an extreme one but across the Three Gorges reservoirregion dissatisfaction is growing among the dam's refugees. Even those whodid receive the promised compensation feel their lives have not improved. The situation has forced Beijing vastly to increase the dam's resettlementbudget because of the threat to "social stability" if discontent amongmigrants should boil over. Fixing or even just mitigating the dam'smounting environmental problems will also cost enormous sums. In interviews with the press, the Communist party officials in charge ofthe dam's construction must stick carefully to the official line that theentire Three Gorges project is expected to cost Rmb180bn, Rmb20bn lessthan the original budget. But when they discuss the areas under theirdirect control, the common theme is of costs spiralling. Wang Chuanping,the man in charge of preserving and relocating cultural relics in theThree Gorges area, says his budget has increased five-fold. Chongqingofficials in charge of relocation say they will need huge additional fundsto pay for the social welfare benefits that have been promised tomigrants. "Public records show the real cost of the dam will be at least three timesthe official budget and we think the eventual bill could exceedRmb1,000bn," Ms Dai says. With the budget ballooning out of control, local officials have begunlobbying for their share of the clean-up funds. Mr Tan, the Chongqingvice-mayor, rattles off a list of projects intended to address theenvironmental problems, each of them more expensive than the last, whichthe central government will be expected to pay for. Opponents of the damsay the newfound concern for its environmental consequences is a cynicalploy to attract new funds that will be siphoned off by corrupt officials.They point to a Rmb40bn grant Beijing gave to Chongqing to clean up thereservoir area prior to its flooding in 2003, which was spent on sewagetreatment plants that now stand idle much of the time because thegovernment says they are too expensive to run. In the early 1990s Beijing hoped to convince organisations such the WorldBank to foot at least part of the bill but was rebuffed because of theunrealistic budget and the controversy that surrounded the human andenvironmental consequences of the dam. In 1995 the Clinton administrationweighed in, advising America's main export credit agency not to lend tothe project because of concerns over its financial viability and because"it would be unwise for the US government to align itself with a projectthat raises environmental and human rights concerns on the scale of theThree Gorges". In the end, the project was funded almost entirely bydirect investment from Beijing (ie by the Chinese taxpayer) and by cheaploans from state-owned banks. The international organisations that refused to be associated with the damhave been vindicated now as the budget spirals out of control andofficials at every level acknowledge the many problems associated withuprooting more than a million people and destroying the Yangtze's delicateecology. But for long-time opponents of the dam, the government's belatedadmissions of failure are a Pyrrhic victory at best. "All the problems opponents like me warned about are now coming true," MsDai says. "And the officials responsible for building the dam who nowadmit its problems are just like thieves yelling 'stop thief'."
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