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China's admission spotlights Three Gorges woes
by Staff Writers
Badong, China (AFP) June 29, 2011

Last October, a huge chunk of hillside broke free in this city on the Yangtze River, and the deafening landslide nearly knocked Wang Songlian's home and a dozen others into a deep ravine.

But such incidents are hardly news in Badong, where the scars of frequent landslides are sprinkled throughout the city, and local residents blame seismic changes wrought by China's giant and controversial Three Gorges Dam project.

"It's due to the dam. There have been more landslides and tremors since 2003 (when the reservoir began to fill). It is definitely getting more dangerous," said Wang, 66.

Predicaments such as the one experienced by the people of Badong have become the subject of unprecedented debate since Beijing admitted in May that the dam had spawned a range of problems.

The government has long held up the world's largest hydroelectric project as a symbol of its engineering prowess, a solution to the frequent floods of China's longest river and a source of badly-needed electricity.

But a recent drought and the government's mea culpa have refocused attention on problems that dam critics say will have a far-reaching impact on China's water resources and on millions of people.

Dam construction began in 1994 despite warnings the enormous weight of the reservoir would dangerously alter central China's geology, uproot millions of people, poison water supplies by trapping pollution and disrupt the Yangtze watershed.

Criticisms were brushed aside and some critics jailed, but problems have reached a level the government can no longer ignore, said Patricia Adams, head of Toronto-based Probe International, which chronicles the dam's problems.

"Now that the dam is operating and its problems are plain for all to see, the current leaders have to distance themselves from it," Adams said.

"They are running for cover because the Three Gorges Dam is becoming a symbol of all that is wrong with political decision-making in China."

The most dramatic scenario cited by critics is the potential for seismic disturbances or even a catastrophic earthquake.

Located in Hubei province, the dam has created a reservoir stretching up to 600 kilometres (370 miles) through the scenic Three Gorges region, which is criss-crossed by geological faultlines.

Badong's steep terrain has always been prone to landslides but residents say the problem has clearly worsened. Several large landslides already have claimed a number of lives in the area, according to previous reports.

The main high school has large and widening cracks from the earthly turbulence and the city government has ordered tens of thousands of residents to be resettled from low-lying areas deemed landslide risks, say locals.

Yet promised funds are delayed or never materialise, they say, echoing well-documented complaints over a programme to resettle more than 1.4 million people for the reservoir which has been riddled with corruption.

"An earthquake is a concern of many people. You saw what happened at Wenchuan," said Zhao Liang, a Badong business owner, referring to a powerful 2008 earthquake that left 87,000 people dead or missing in nearby Sichuan province.

A report by Chinese government scientists last year, recently published by Probe International, said quakes in the region -- most under 3.0 magnitude -- had increased 30-fold since 2003 and slopes had been destabilised.

The dam's state-backed operator declined comment to AFP. But it defended the project this month in a report saying it had helped tame the flood-prone Yangtze and provided clean energy.

The dam did hold back huge amounts of water last summer during the river's worst flooding in a decade in what was hailed officially as proof of its value.

It also has steadily increased its electrical production, but that production is equal to only about two percent of total national output, according to official estimates and international energy agencies.

And it has come under mounting public criticism this year after central China's worst drought in decades turned some major lakes below the dam -- key water sources for the region -- into grasslands.

Critics say that would not have occurred if the Yangtze was allowed to flow naturally.

"The dam can cut the peak of the flooding but people now realise it means less water will get into those lakes. This significantly reduces water resources in the region," said Ma Jun, Beijing-based author of "China's Water Crisis."

Water quality is also worsening as the dam has impaired the river's natural self-flushing ability, he said.

Authorities in downstream areas are now drawing up plans for their own dams to retain water in direct response to the Three Gorges Dam's negative impact, state media reports said last week, prompting fears of an escalating crisis.

Despite the emerging lessons from the dam, authorities have built or are building dozens of other dams upstream on the Yangtze, imperilling the entire drainage system of one of the world's great rivers, Adams said.

"The disruption of the Yangtze's hydrological system spells doom for millions of people... who have made their livelihoods from the fish and agriculture and commerce of the Yangtze watershed," she said.

"The Three Gorges Dam will be crippled in its operations and a money pit, requiring never-ending expenditures to treat geological and hydrological problems caused by the dam."

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