U.S. Water News Online
HUANGTUPO VILLAGE, China -- Wang Zhushu rarely sleeps at
night. Instead, the 61-year-old retiree paces, listening to the drone
of passing ships that shake the walls of her house on the banks of
the Yangtze River.
Wang's one-story, brick-and-concrete home rests, she says, on
increasingly unsteady earth, weakened and waterlogged as rising
waters turn the Yangtse into an ever-broadening reservoir behind
China's mammoth Three Gorges Dam.
"The house has become crooked. Water seeps through the floor and
there are cracks growing here, here and here," said Wang, pointing to
the ceiling, a storeroom and a rock wall with crevices three fingers
wide. At night, "I can feel the vibrations. I walk round and round
the room, and I worry."
For millions of Chinese living along the reservoir's shores, the
dam that the government said would give them a new life is stirring
Four years after the waters began rising in the 410-mile-long
reservoir, villagers tell of warped foundations and fissures snaking
along the earth. Pollution in the once fast-running river is building
in the turbid reservoir. Landslides, common in the rainy region, are
occurring more frequently. The ships are nothing new, but now they
are one more reason for Wang to worry.
She isn't alone. In Meiping, a hamlet with mountainsides of
fragrant orange groves, villagers are hurriedly building new homes
after the government declared their old ones unsafe this past summer
"We live in constant fear," said Mei Changxin, 45, an orange
grower who covers the cracked walls of his crumbling two-story home
with newspapers. "When I work in the fields sometimes fear grips me
just thinking that my house may suddenly collapse."
The $22 billion dam, the world's biggest hydroelectric project,
was supposed to end flooding along the Yangtze and provide a clean
energy alternative to coal. Approved in 1992 and due to be completed
in 2009, it will generate 84.7 billion kilowatts of electricity each
year -- the equivalent of what it takes to light the counties of Los
Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.
Yet along the way more than 1.4 million people had to be moved.
Though critics and experts warned the environment and people would
pay too high a price, their criticisms were ignored and suppressed by
a government in thrall to large engineering projects.
Even a few officials are breaking ranks to predict catastrophe.
Toxic algae is blooming, feeding off industrial waste and sewage and
tainting water supplies.
Experts have warned that the waters in the enormous reservoir are
undermining hillsides. Water seeps into loosely packed soil and
rocks, making them heavier and wetter, and can trigger landslides on
steep slopes like those rising from the Yangtze.
Additionally, the huge weight of the water on the rock bed exerts
a pressure that can lead to earthquakes.
Such tremors shook the area around the Hoover Dam after Lake Mead
was filled up the 1930s, according to the book "Earthquakes in Human
History." A magnitude-6.4 quake near India's Koyna Dam killed at
least 180 people in 1967 and is thought to have been induced by the
Chinese officials have denied it can happen here, but Dai Qing is
"Almost all my fears have come true," said the Chinese journalist,
a persistent opponent of the project whose writings are mostly banned
in China. "The landslides and cracks have made people migrants once
again. The water in the rivers and reservoirs is no longer drinkable.
No matter how much power the project generates, it cannot make up for
How the communist government deals with these problems has become
a test for the Communist Party leadership headed by President Hu
Jintao, who has promised to deliver more compassionate, responsive
and environmentally sensitive government.
Hu conspicuously stayed away from a ceremony last year to
celebrate completion of the dam, unlike previous leaders who often
associated themselves with the engineering marvel.
In September, state-controlled media ran rare admissions by
officials about the problems.
Wang Xiaofeng, deputy director of the Three Gorges Project
Construction Committee, was quoted as saying China risked disaster.
Vice Mayor Tan Qiwei of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis next to the
reservoir, told of 91 reported landslides along 22 miles of
"The ecological situation in Three Gorges areas is worse than I
expected," said Chen Guojie, a professor with the Institute of
Mountain Hazards and the Environment at the government-backed Chinese
Academy of Sciences. He ticked off a list of worries -- tremors,
erosion and pollution -- and said the social impact was equally
"Farmers lost their land and moved to new towns, but these towns
had no industry and there were not enough jobs," he said. "So many of
the young farmers were forced to leave their homes and work in other
As criticism has mounted in recent weeks along with the problems
-- a landslide in the region killed at least 34 people last month --
the government has launched a renewed public relations campaign
stressing the project's benefits.
"We have resolved all the problems in the past decade and
everything is under control," Sun Zhiyu, director of the Three Gorges
project's Environment Protection Bureau, told foreign reporters last
month on a government-organized tour of the area.
Beijing also says it will shore up the area's environment with new
measures to control pollution, close industrial and mining
enterprises and monitor geological hazards. Meanwhile, local
governments are relocating the tens of thousands of people living in
In the heart of Badong county, where Wang Zhushu lives, the county
resettlement office says some 25,000 people will soon be moved again
-- the third time for some of them. Wang and her 67-year-old husband
haven't had to move yet, but that may come if the waters rise high
enough to engulf their home.
The first human displacement was for a smaller dam project in the
1980s. Then, a decade later, the threat of landslides forced
residents to move about three miles.
"We are now planning to move most of the government departments
and population to nearby areas because they are situated where
geological disasters are likely to occur," said an official with the
resettlement office who would only give his surname, Lu.
Badong has long been a thriving commercial center, producing goods
such as lacquer and oils and shipping them on the Yangtze.
Effects of the rising waters have become apparent in recent years,
residents say. Roads are split and buckled and need regular repair.
Dilapidated buildings sit abandoned, while red-and-white signs
warning of landslides are everywhere.
Along Wang Zhushu's street, her neighbors share the same
Wang Zhonghe, whose garden is less than 10 feet from the river,
said she had been jolted awake twice by small earthquakes this year.
Her husband had to shave two inches off the bottom of their front
door so that it would close.
Xiang Zhen, who lives on the second floor of an eight-story
riverside complex, said one landslide damaged her building and cracks
have been developing since 2003.
"We're afraid of heavy rains because that will affect the land,"
said Xiang, 38, a laid-off worker who now lives off the vegetables
Further downstream, residents of Yemaomian are building spacious,
multistory houses less than a mile from the terraced slopes where
they lived for a decade after being moved to make way for the dam.
But they don't feel much safer. In recent months, tremors have
shaken the area and gaps have opened in the earth. The local
government deemed the area "landslide-prone," and in the summer, many
villagers slept in a road tunnel for fear that the rains would
unleash a landslide and bury them in their beds.
Most took the $930 per head in compensation the government offered
them to leave their homes and carve out a new life in an area
accessible only via one potholed road.
"It's hard to start over. Whenever I move, it affects my
livelihood," said Chen Zijiang, 26, an orange farmer who was helping
his younger sister and parents carry their belongings to their new
Each time the family has had to abandon its orange trees and
house, losing tens of thousands of dollars in crops and housing
costs, he said. He has had to become a part-time driver to boost his
monthly income from about $50 to $130. To add food to the table, he
plans to grow beans on ground that split open in April, leaving a
gash six feet long and two inches wide.
"Although moving makes us poor, we have to do it," Chen said. "Am
I happy? Do I have a choice?"
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