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China reaches milestone with completion of Three Gorges dam

The Three Gorges Dam in China
by Peter Harmsen
Beijing (AFP) May 20, 2006
After 13 years of immense physical effort and technical ingenuity, China Saturday put the finishing touches to its controversial Three Gorges dam, the world's largest hydropower project.

The official completion of the dam was marked by a short ceremony at the site broadcast live on state television, which touted it as an "important historic moment".

"I can announce to the Chinese people ... that the Three Gorges dam is completed," Li Yong'an, manager of the Three Gorges Construction Company, said shortly after the last load of cement was poured onto the top of the dam.

The 2,309-meter-long (7620-feet), 185-meter-high block of concrete across the Yangtze river is meant to control floods and generate electricity for a power-hungry nation, but for many Chinese it is about much more than that.

"The Three Gorges dam is excellent proof of what Chinese can accomplish," said Cao Guangjing, vice president of the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Co. "This project will serve to inspire the Chinese people."

Although the final tonne of concrete has been poured, the immense structure will still not be fully operational for another two years.

The last generators need to be installed, and work still needs to be done on the ship lift that, together with a ship lock, will allow ocean-going vessels to navigate the vast reservoir that is filling up behind the dam.

Although it is not all over yet, many of the engineers felt it as if a page had been turned and a chapter in their personal lives was nearing conclusion.

"I started in 1993, fresh from university, and I have been here ever since," said engineer Wang Zilin, 43, from eastern Zhejiang province. "It's been my whole life. I even found my wife here."

Even while work was being carried out on the dam, engineers and laborers were reminded that flood control was one of the main reasons behind the giant project.

In 1998, a devastating flood on the Yangtze uprooted millions of families and killed more than 1,500 people. Two much larger disasters in the 1930s each claimed more than 140,000 lives.

Nevertheless, critics continue to argue that silt build-up and other problems mean the dam will fail to provide the hoped-for flood relief.

Opponents also see damage to the environment, ruin to China's heritage and misery to local residents forced from their homes for the project.

However, harnessing the power of China's mightiest rivers is a dream harbored by generations of Chinese.

In the early 20th century, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, waxed lyrical about creating electricity that would be the equivalent of the strength of hundreds of millions of men.

Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China, wrote a poem hailing a dam that would some time in the future "strike the goddess of the Three Gorges with the miracles of the modern world".

It is no longer just the stuff of poetry. On the left bank, 14 sets of 700-megawatt turbine and generator units are already in operation.

On the right bank, another 12 700-megawatt units are under construction.

With a capacity already equivalent to Itaipu on the border of Brazil and Paraguay, currently the world's largest operating hydro-electric dam, the Three Gorges will eventually overshadow all others.

A new tender process is due to be held by the end of the year for adding a new power station with another six 700-megawatt generators, underground on the right bank.

The dam will then become "the biggest in the world," according to the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Corporation.

One final benefit touted for the project is that it will elevate the Yangtze for hundreds of kilometers (miles) inland, allowing ocean-going vessels to travel as far as the enormous but little known metropolis of Chongqing.

This will, planners hope, help open up China's underdeveloped west, which has in many ways missed out on economic reforms largely because of its isolation from overseas markets.

To ease upstream navigation, a ship lift will enable vessels of up to 3,000 tonnes to pass the dam in 45 minutes, while a ship lock will do the same to 10,000-tonne vessels in two hours and 45 minutes.

With work on the dam complete, thousands of migrant workers will go home, many of them to Yunnan province near the border with Vietnam, and to Qinghai province near the Tibetan plateau.

But Wang the engineer was confident the dam's completion would not leave him unemployed.

"Every project takes at least 10 years, so I'll have more than enough work until I retire," he said. "I've been lucky to work with something that I really love."

Related Links

Critics say price of China's Three Gorges dam too high
Beijing (AFP) May 20, 2006
China hails the Three Gorges dam, which it completed Saturday, as the solution to a series of national problems, but critics say the price is too high.

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