Going It Alone Downstream to China's Three Gorges

Series Overview

As a massive Chinese reservoir is filled to capacity, concerns resurface about the project's impact on the environment, resettled residents and the region's cultural heritage. Read a series overview.

Map of Three Gorges i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Three Gorges
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Just as I was about to set off on my voyage down the Three Gorges Reservoir, I got a call from the government.

They offered me a place in a small group of foreign journalists that was being taken to meet senior officials and experts — and to see the dam, government-funded job training programs and sewage treatment plants along the reservoir.

This appeared to be an effort to control the damage from a September meeting at which officials in charge of the dam had warned that, without preventive measures, the dam could cause ecological catastrophes. As much as I would have liked the access, I decided to decline the offer and headed off downstream on my own as they traveled in the opposite direction.

It quickly became clear to me that the question of the dam's environmental impact was a highly technical one, the answer to which might not be known for years — perhaps not until it is too late.

Debate continues to simmer about the precise cause of various phenomena around the reservoir, such as recent heat waves, droughts, earthquakes and landslides. There is also intense disagreement about basic facts and statistics, such as to what height the reservoir can be filled, how many people are being displaced and what the whole project will finally cost.

Like so many news stories in China, the Three Gorges Dam is an immensely complex issue that has caused a range of different outcomes for different people and different places. Take, for example, the issue of water pollution. The government acknowledges that it is serious, particularly on the Yangtze's tributaries. Yet most places I went, the water was an appealing emerald hue.

As for residents displaced by the reservoir, some I spoke with had prospered economically from the move, while others were left broken and destitute. Many residents who had suffered in the relocation process insisted that the Three Gorges Project was necessary and beneficial. These people generally felt that the central government's policies were good, but that corrupt local officials had botched their implementation.

Others were bitter, like Fu Xiancai, whom I interviewed at his home in Hubei province. Fu blew the whistle on his local county party secretary, whom he claimed had embezzled resettlement money. After German reporters interviewed him in May of 2006, he claims, he was attacked by hired thugs and struck in the neck with a blunt instrument, crippling him for life. The police's verdict was that Fu fell down and injured himself.

Just as unsettling as the dam is the enforced absence of a public debate on it within China. While I was on the road, the government held a press conference with Wang Xiaofeng, the top Three Gorges official who had earlier warned of catastrophe. He declined to say why he had completely reversed his position since September. Another expert took umbrage at foreign media reports that the reservoir's water was in some places the color of soy sauce, and he warned foreign reporters not to demonize China.

My last expedition on this trip was to see the dam itself. Having declined to join the government tour, I felt disappointed that I would have to view it from afar, unable to hear the hum of its turbines. But thanks to a knowledgeable local driver and a convenient hole in the perimeter fence — inexplicably unguarded by the numerous paramilitary police patrolling the dam — I got a much closer look at the massive structure than I was supposed to.

That's just how it is in China: Anything is possible; nothing is easy.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's China correspondent.

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