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Questioning Three Gorges Dam



In China, where even a slight relaxation in suppression of debate can indicate a softening of official policy, it is encouraging that some publications have cast an increasingly critical eye on the Three Gorges Dam being built on the Yangtze River. The official line is that there is no turning back on a project that will destroy one of the world's great scenic areas, inundate hundred of archeological sites and force 1.3 million people to resettle elsewhere when the dam's 4oo-mile reservoir floods towns and farm lands. But the insoluble social, environmental and technical problems that have plague the project cannot be wished away, and they may now be getting some consideration.

The dam has been a matter of internal disagreement within the Communist Part of some time. As far back as 1956, a vice minister of electric power, Li Ru produced a report arguing for smaller dams on tributary of the Yangtze rather than a 600 foot behemoth at the Three Gorges. In 1992 when the final vote to approve the Three Gorges project was taken in the National People's Congress, a third of the delegates abstained or voted against it, even though the dam was championed by Li Peng. who was then Prime Minister. But all public debate on the project has been banned since the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989.

So it is noteworthy that the Chinese journal Strategy and Management, a publication with some links to the Government, printed an article by a scholar under a pseudonym detailing the failure of resettlement efforts so far, and the extreme problems of relocating hundreds of thousands of people into steep hillsides that are barely habitable. In February, People's Daily, the party-controlled paper, ran articles on engineering issues and problems with excavating cultural relics that would be destroyed in the flood zone. Other papers have reported on official corruption connected to the project. Chinese media reports have also noted that existing flood-control systems and older dams are neglected and in danger of collapse as attention is diverted to new projects like the Three Gorges.

Last December Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, who is considered neutral on the project, raised concerns about the projects safety and suggested it may be necessary to bringing international experts to  to monitor the engineering. Li Peng, who now heads the National People's Congress, is expected to fight any retreat on the project. But the thaw in repression of criticisms suggest that altering even  halting the project may yet be possible.

That is why it is crucial for American financial institutions to refrain from underwriting bonds for Chinese entities. Like the State Development Bank, that finance construction of the dam. China cannot finance the dam, which is expected to cost well over $25 billion, without foreign capital. The U.S. Export-Import Bank and the World Bank have refused to support the project because of its disastrous environmental and social consequences.

The world is beginning to change its view's on large dams. The World Bank has sponsored creation of the independent World Commission on Dams to assess the effectiveness of such projects and alternatives, with a report due next year. Major dams have been stopped in mid-construction in Malaysia, India and Eastern Europe when the governments found that the benefits were uncertain and the cost enormous.

The Three Gorges Dam is a throwback to foiled development strategies of decades past. This is an important moment to show China's leaders that the international community wants no part of this destructive, gargantuan project.

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