Sunday, December 9, 2007

China's giant dam unleashes landslides - 31 killed in latest report

LAST year, Chinese officials celebrated the completion of the Three Gorges Dam by releasing a list of world records. As in: The Three Gorges is the world's biggest dam, biggest power plant and biggest consumer of dirt, stone, concrete and steel. Ever. Even the project's official tally of 1.13 million displaced people made the list as record No10.

Today, the Communist Party is hoping the dam does not become China's biggest folly. Chinese officials have admitted that the dam was spawning environmental problems like water pollution and landslides that could become severe. Equally startling, officials want to begin a new relocation programme for four million people - a new record they don't really want.

In the latest incident, the death toll from a landslide near the dam earlier this week soared yesterday when state media revealed the collapse had crushed a bus, killing 31 people.

The bus was found three days after Tuesday's landslide. Early reports from the Xinhua news agency had put casualties at the railway tunnel construction site at one worker killed, one injured and two missing.

Officials are now sending mixed messages about the project's environmental impact.

A report in the official China Daily newspaper earlier this week quoted the project's director saying that problems along the dam's 410-mile-long reservoir were no worse than expected and that no major geological problems had been recorded in the area since water levels rose to 512ft last year.

"The impact has not gone beyond the scope predicted in a 1991 feasibility report. In some aspects, it is not as severe as predicted," Wang Xiaofeng, the director of the central government's Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, said in the state-run newspaper.

The comments marked a stark reversal from recent warnings by Mr Wang and other officials who said China faced a catastrophe if it failed to stop riverbank erosion and other environmental problems caused by the dam, the world's largest hydropower project.

Mr Wang was earlier quoted in state media telling a seminar in September that China could not afford to "lower our guard against ecological and environmental problems caused by the Three Gorges project."

Begun in 1993, the dam was seen as the fruition of a century-old dream to harness the Yangtze, the world's third largest river, for electric power and to control flooding.

Construction has gone ahead despite complaints about its $22 billion cost and massive environmental impact. The government has forced 1.3 million people to move out of areas to be flooded by the reservoir.

But Beijing has been doing damage control since accounts emerged of the September meeting of officials and experts that raised surprisingly critical questions about the dam.

Participants warned of increasing landslides and pollution, possibly requiring the relocations of millions of more people in the reservoir area - issues critics also raised during the dam's planning and construction when they were quashed by Beijing.

Seismic activity has increased as water pours into formerly dry slopes composed of rock, soil and sediment, some of it highly porous. That is causing fissures, often deep below the surface, weakening hillsides and causing soil and shale to come loose.

The warnings about a higher environmental and human toll have raised concerns that the dam, promoted as a cure-all for Yangtze flooding and an alternative to coal-fired power generation, was exacting a price beyond its $23.6 billion construction cost.

Mr Wang's office announced this week that it was taking new remedial measures to protect the environment around the dam to prevent pollution discharge and ensure drinking water quality.

"We want to build not only a first-class hydropower project, but also a good environment," he said in China Daily.

State media and local government have also sketched out new relocation schemes, saying as many as four million people may have to be moved from areas adjacent to the dam's reservoir. Among those migrants were many from the 1.3 million who previously had to move, often to remote areas where the farmland was of poor quality.

The impact of the Three Gorges Dam is obvious in many communities along the river. Residents are worried about the cracks in house walls and some have felt the ground shift.

In the mountain villages above the reservoir, farmers have heard nothing about resettlement. For many, the immediate concern is the land beneath their feet. Landslides are striking hillsides as the rising water places more pressure on the shoreline, local officials say. In Fengjie county, officials have designated more than 800 disaster-prone areas. Since 2004, landslides have forced the relocation of more than 13,000 people in the county.

Not far from the dam itself, residents in the tiny village of Miaohe felt a major tremor in April beneath their farmhouses. Officials ordered them to relocate for three months into a mountain tunnel for lack of any other night time shelter.

Here is the full article.