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Setbacks Stall Finish Of China's Massive Dam Project

Looking upstream on the Three Gorges Reservoir in China.
Anthony Kuhn
Looking upstream on the Three Gorges Reservoir in China.

The massive reservoir behind China's Three Gorges Dam was supposed to be filled to capacity this month. But landslides on the reservoir and water shortages downstream have delayed the process.

The dam is the world's largest hydropower project, and the government says it allows the country to burn 30 million fewer tons of coal a year. The dam is also supposed to improve flood control and navigation on the Yangtze, the world's third-largest river.

But unforeseen problems have surfaced, raising questions about the river's fate.

In Wushan county in China's Chongqing municipality, the dam has tamed the river's rushing currents, turning them into a 360-mile-long lake. Barges laden with coal and cruise ships with tourists glide through the placid, jade-green waters.

It's been 15 years since China began building the dam. The rising waters of the reservoir have submerged the old Wushan county town, just one of many along the river. A new Wushan has been built farther up the hill.

Tan Songxiang, a local official in charge of relocating residents, says the new Wushan is a big improvement over the old one.

"Ordinary citizens have reaped real benefits from relocation, and standards of living have improved in all respects," Tan says. "I've experienced it myself. When I was a student, my family lived five or six people to a room, with only curtains separating us. In the new town, I have my own home."

Tan denies widespread allegations that officials have embezzled relocation funds, and he says government audits prove his point.

Repeated Relocation

Local governments have already relocated 1.3 million residents to make room for the reservoir. Some residents have had to move several times.

Speaking in a friend's shack near the river, farmer Wang Chuanju says the Wushan county government relocated her and her husband to a piece of land that was later taken by the municipal government to build a road.

Mountain villages in Fengjie county, China, near the Three Gorges Reservoir.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Mountain villages in Fengjie county, China, near the Three Gorges Reservoir.

Wang says that inadequate compensation has left them so poor they are forced to pick food from the garbage.

"I signed a contract with the government to be permanently relocated there," Wang says. "If they don't like me complaining about it, then why did they relocate me there in the first place?"

Wang says that when she protested inadequate government compensation, police detained and beat her. Her husband, Zou Xinrui, says they are desperate.

"If I weren't so old, I might be out robbing, stealing and killing. Why? Because when people are driven past a certain point, there's nothing else they can do," he says. "I might even join some counterrevolutionary group just to fill my belly."

A Thin Layer Of Land

Many of the problems on the Yangtze's middle reaches come down to this: Too many people are living on the land and overwhelming its fragile ecosystems. The reservoir means there is now even less land.

An hour upstream in Fengjie county, farmer Fan Zhuxian tends to his fields. Before the reservoir was constructed, his fields were mostly level. Now, 70 percent of them are on steep hillsides.

Farmer Fan Zhuxian plants seedlings on a hillside in Fengjie county, China.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Farmer Fan Zhuxian plants seedlings on a hillside in Fengjie county, China.

Fan squats down to plant seedlings. Every blow of his small pickax seems to hit a rock. The earth here is a thin layer covering the mountains, and it is easily washed away.

"I try to hold the soil in place with stone barriers," Fan explains, "but when it rains, they just collapse."

Fan says his sweet potatoes only grow to a size somewhere between that of a golf ball and a baseball.

Dwindling Water Resources

An increase in landslides in recent years, caused by fluctuating water levels, has forced the government to go slow in filling the reservoir.

China now says it wants to double hydropower generation by the year 2020 to reduce its reliance on coal. But experts fear more dams on the Yangtze could lead to conflicts over dwindling water resources.

Pu Yongjian, a professor at the Sustainable Development Research Institute at Chongqing University, says local governments are keen on damming their sections of the river to generate energy and jobs.

"There's no solution to this problem. Local governments have to set goals to raise their economic output, and they have to reach those goals," Pu says. "This is a conflict between economic development and environmental protection."

What's needed is a holistic management of the entire river, Pu says. Otherwise, the mighty Yangtze — which China has tried for millennia to tame — could one day run dry before it reaches the sea.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Weekend Edition Sunday
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.