China forced to move 4m to safety

Mary-Anne Toy Herald Correspondent in Beijing
October 13, 2007

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CHINA is planning to move another 4 million people away from the controversial Three Gorges dam reservoir to prevent an environmental disaster as the magnitude of problems with the world's biggest hydroelectric project is revealed.

The unprecedented relocation was approved last month by Beijing but made public only yesterday, as part of the planning strategy for Chongqing, one of China's biggest and fastest growing cities.

The vice-mayor of Chongqing, Yu Yuanmu, said more than 4 million people living on hillsides along the dam's 600 kilometre-long reservoir needed to be moved for the "ecological safety" of the area. At least 2 million people will be resettled to new towns on the outskirts of Chongqing, a city of 31 million about 500 kilometres west of the dam, within the next five years. But the total move could take up to 15 years to complete, Mr Yu said.

The reservoir area's "vulnerable ecological environment" was already suffering from overpopulation and poor industrial development, he said.

The 4 million to be moved are in addition to 1.4 million people already displaced for the $US27 billion ($30 billion) project to tame the Yangtze, China's biggest river.

Last month, senior officials who have previously defended the dam as an engineering and economic achievement, admitted the project had "many ecological and environmental problems" that, if not dealt with promptly, could cause a catastrophe. Critics have long warned about erosion, pollution and silt build-up behind the dam.

Chongqing's vice-mayor, Tan Qiwei, told a government forum last month that the reservoir's shoreline has collapsed in more than 90 places and a total of 36 kilometres had caved in.

Three Gorges activist Fu Xiancai, who has been helping other displaced villagers fight for full compensation after their homes were flooded for the dam, said the new plan was unrealistic, as the authorities were still struggling to cope with the earlier displacement of 1.4 million people which had left many people jobless and landless.

The dam's construction represents the revival of an old dream by Chinese rulers to tame the Yangtze to improve agriculture and control flooding. The Three Gorges project comprises the 185-metre-high dam, which was completed last year, a five-tier ship lock that enables container ships to travel from Shanghai to Chongqing, and the reservoir.

When all of the dam's 26 generators are running, expected to be at the end of 2008, it will provide power equivalent to burning 50 million tonnes of coal a year, or 18 nuclear power stations, and save 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. Throughout much of the project's duration, the Chinese Government has tried to suppress the concerns of scientists and environmentalists about the dam's impact.

But from the start the project has been subject to strong skepticism, including a rare vote of dissent in 1993 by about one-third of the members of the legislature, the People's Assembly, which is usually nearly unanimous in its decisions.

Chongqing, the biggest city in south-west China, is undergoing colossal growth and is the focus of the central government's efforts to boost the underdeveloped central and western regions. The city was made into a self-governing municipality in 1997, joining Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.