Friday, October 03, 2003
By GEOFFREY YORK
Wednesday, October 1, 2003 - Page A18
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BEIJING -- In a sign of unexpected problems at the massive Three Gorges Dam, the Chinese government has announced a sudden rise in the level of the stagnant reservoir above the dam, causing more environmental damage and forcing more people to abandon their homes.
The reservoir had reached a height of 135 metres after the controversial dam went into operation in June. It was scheduled to remain at that level until 2006, when it would rise a further 21 metres. Instead, the Chinese authorities have announced that the reservoir will rise a further four metres by the end of October, almost three years ahead of schedule.
The terse announcement gave no detailed explanation for the sudden change of plan. "It's very strange; nobody knows why," said Dai Qing, a prominent Chinese environmentalist who has opposed the Three Gorges project for years.
She predicted that the higher reservoir level will cause a worrisome increase in pollution along the Yangtze River, where the $25-billion (U.S.) project has become the world's biggest dam and biggest construction project.
Many polluted sites on the riverbank have not yet been cleaned up because the reservoir was supposed to remain at 135 metres for the next three years, but now those will be flooded. Environmentalists have said that the dam is creating the world's largest cesspool.
According to Chinese media reports, the higher reservoir level will also force the relocation of an additional 1,300 people who live along the Yangtze. More than 500,000 people have already been obliged to move to higher ground as the dam began operations.
"The news will come as a shock to people living in the new submersion zone along the banks of the reservoir," said a commentary in Three Gorges Probe, a Toronto-based environmental newsletter that monitors the dam project.
The residents "will be required to move at painfully short notice," the article added. "Many had assumed they still had two or three years to make the necessary practical and psychological preparations for their displacement."
Victor Shih, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Illinois who has studied the financing of the dam project, said the most likely explanation for the unexpected rise is the silting process, which he says is occurring much more rapidly than predicted.
He said the dam's estimated cost has more than doubled, while the silting is expected to reduce the amount of power it generates. The dam and reservoir are being raised to ensure that the project remains financially viable, he said, since Chinese lenders have invested so much money in it.