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Yang-Yang Dispatch

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Grand Dreams of the Mighty Yangzi River
July 19, 2000

Click image for larger view
Okay, so the Yangzi River isn't quite as clear as I imagined it to be and there are actually large cruise ships sailing along rather than little wooden boats, but I can still dream, can't I?
Caption

When I think of the Yangzi River, I have dreams of sailing peacefully along on a long, narrow, wooden boat. I imagine the sun's warm rays shining down on my face as I look out at the tall, majestic cliffs hanging over both sides of the river. In my dreams, I hear birds chirping in the distance and the water rushing gently by my boat. Well, the Chinese government likewise has its own dreams about the Yangzi River. They dream of taming this mighty river and using it to generate more electrical power. They dream of improving the living conditions in some very backward areas of China and, in the process, of creating a structure that will wow the entire world. To realize this dream, they have started to build a 600-foot tall, 1.2-mile wide dam across the mighty Yangzi River near the town of Yichang in Hubei province. Its name is the Three Gorges Dam, named after a 120-mile long region containing some of the most beautiful scenery along the Yangzi. When it is completed, it will be the largest water storage reservoir in the world. Just to give you an idea of its enormous size, the Three Gorges Dam, along with the Great Wall of China, will be the only two man-made structures on Earth visible from space.

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Huge piles of rocks and dirt line the main road leading to the Three Gorges Dam construction site in Sandouping
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This is obviously an enormous project. When the team visited the construction site in Sandouping, located about 25 miles west of Yichang, it was amazing to see the amount of construction activity going on in the area. Along long stretches of the main road, we saw huge piles of rocks, lines of bulldozers, and thousands of workers. All the attention in the surrounding area was focused on this dam, with large propaganda billboards all over promoting the region and its great dam. We arrived at the construction site at about 6 o'clock in the evening, close to sunset, and the area was still full of activity. Truck after truck drove by, raising clouds of dust into the air and bringing more and more supplies to feed the hungry and growing dam To get to Sandouping, we took a new freeway that's been constructed just to accommodate traffic to the dam. From our minibus window, we could see workers by the side of the road still completing the last segments of the highway. It is amazing to think that practically an entire city has been created near the dam to promote the dam's visibility and to prepare for tourism in the area. Ten years ago, most Chinese people had never heard of the small town of Yichang. Today, its name can be found on major world maps and is seen repeatedly in newspapers, guidebooks, and propaganda material. When we visited Yichang last week, it looked just like any other modern Chinese city, with brand-new shopping centers, tall buildings, and wide, busy boulevards. After seeing the site, the highway, and the city, there's no question in my mind that something very big is happening here.

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Here it is!  The enormous Three Gorges Dam construction site in Sandouping.  The picture is a little fuzzy because of all the dust floating around in the air from the busy construction work.
Caption
Although the dam's construction began recently in 1994, the idea goes all the way back to the days of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who first proposed building a dam at the Three Gorges to protect the area against periodic floods along the Yangzi River. The river's devastating floods have taken hundreds of thousands of lives over the past 70 years. It was thought that building a great dam wall at this decisive point along the river would control the water level downstream and prevent more tragic deaths. Chairman Mao Zedong, in the 1950s, also supported that same idea, but during Cultural Revolution the dam's construction was put off. The Three Gorges Dam, in its present form, was finally approved after much debate by the current Chinese government in 1992, when the powerful and influential then-Premier Li Ping pushed hard for its construction. In addition to flood protection, electricity generation, and improving the river's navigability The Chinese government hopes the Three Gorges Dam will stimulate the local economy by bringing investments into a previously neglected region of China.

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Tiny Yang-Yang (I'm wearing the white t-shirt) looking out from a gate on Gezhou Dam in Yichang, about 25 miles
 downstream from where the Three Gorges Dam will be. Can you see how the dam gate is holding the river behind it, keeping the water level so high?
Caption
But dreams have their price and what's the price tag on this one? The official budget has been set at a whopping 11.5 billion US dollars, making this the most expensive dam ever. But even this large figure has now been determined to be a serious underestimate, setting the dam's true cost at somewhere between 24.5 and 70 billion US dollars. Where is all of this money going to come from? Half of it is supposed to be taken from the Chinese government's revenues, and the rest from taxes, profits generated by the nearby Gezhou Dam, loans from Chinese banks, and foreign investments. But the dam has failed to attract the amount of foreign investments it was expected to (after much controversy, the World Bank ultimately decided not to provide funding for the project) and now it's not sure that there will be enough money to finish the project.

Map
The much larger costs at hand, though, are not financial. The Three Gorges Dam will create a 360-mile long reservoir behind it upstream that will completely submerge the towns, the fertile land, and the cultural sites now lining the river's shores. Somewhere around 2 million people who now live in the area will be uprooted from their ancestral homes, forced to abandon their farmlands, and relocated to new regions. This means literally over a hundred cities and towns and over a thousand villages will be wiped out to make room for the dam's reservoir. Many priceless and irreplaceable cultural artifacts and historical sites, including temples and archeological sites, will be lost forever if they are not properly preserved or relocated. Not everything can be moved, though, and the dam is bound to affect the natural beauty of the Three Gorges. The look and feel of the entire region from Sichuan province's largest city, Chongqing, to Yichang in Hubei province will be changed forever. What is there now no longer will be, and some of the Yangzi River's most treasured natural areas will never be seen again.

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Here is the view downstream from the construction site that shows the natural scenery of the Yangzi River in this region.  A new suspension bridge has been built near the site to accommodate increased traffic.
Caption
Clearly, the people living in the area are not at all happy about the construction of this dam. Families whose histories extend back many generations will be forced to abandon their homes - some still unsure of exactly where they will move. Protesters, led by the Three Gorges Dam Campaign, have organized themselves, and a controversial book entitled The River Dragon Has Come!: the Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China's Yangtze River and its People (written by female journalist and dissident Dai Qing) has been published, all in an effort to stop the dam's construction. What is more surprising, though, is that even within the Chinese government, there has been an enormous amount of division and controversy over the construction and the specifications of the Three Gorges Dam. When the National People's Congress was supposed to simply rubber stamp the dam project's approval in 1992, a third of its members actually abstained or voted against the project. And when construction did finally begin in 1994, President Jiang Zemin did not even attend the dam's inauguration.

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for larger view
My dream come true
Caption
Because a dam of this size has never been attempted before, there remains a lot of uncertainty about if and how exactly it will work, about what would happen in the case of a serious accident (earthquake, landslides, breakage in the dam wall), and about how it will affect the animals living in the area. Despite all the protest and uncertainty surrounding this dam's construction, the project is pushing full steam ahead. Phase one, diverting the river's course at Sandouping to make room for the construction site, has already been completed. The dam's foundation is now in place, and the first power-generating turbine is expected to be functioning by 2003. From our first day in Yichang, it was clear to me that this project is in full progress and is not about to be stopped. As long as they can get the money and push through the political madness, the Chinese leadership is committed to realizing their ambitious dream. To Li Ping and other top leaders, financial hardship, social upheaval, environmental devastation, and international criticism are secondary to their vision of building a great China.

Links
Discovery Online article "The Valley of the Dammed"
Case Study on the Environmental Impact of the Dam from the University of Iowa

Will the Three Gorges Dam make their dream of a greater, safer, and more modern China come true? And at what cost to the Chinese people will the dam's ultimate benefits come? For now, no one can know for sure. We will all have to wait until the project's expected completion in 2009 to see what happens. What is certain, though, is that the beautiful region of the Three Gorges as we now know it will not be there forever, or even ten years from now. So that doesn't leave me with much time to fulfill my dream of sailing peacefully down the Yangzi in my little wooden boat.

Vocabulary

abstain - to deliberately refrain from
inauguration - the formal observation of the beginning of something

My dream come true! Just me and my wooden boat sailing peacefully by some majestic gorges on the Yangzi River. Isn't it beautiful!

Yang-Yang

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...yang-yangchen@bigfoot.com
 

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