ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in Chengdu, China. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Long before the earthquake hit here in China, we had been planning a week's worth of broadcasts from Chengdu - stories about the rapid change in southwestern China, new attitudes, new expectations. Well, obviously we've had to rethink those stories; some will save and run later when more time is passed. But we think that other stories, like this next one, have become even more timely given what happened here last week.
When I was in China reporting a month ago, I came here to the city of Dujiangyan. I wanted to do a story about rivers and who controls them. And now of course that story has completely changed. Dujiangyan is famous for its ancient irrigation system. It was build about 2300 years ago. And now, of course, it's known as a city badly destroyed by the earthquake. Many, many people killed here.
I'm standing at the entrance to the irrigation system. You hear the Min River off to my right, the water rushing quickly by a much quicker than it was a month ago. Part of that is due to the fact that upstream from here, there's a huge hydropower dam. And there is concern since the earthquake about the structural integrity of that dam, so they've been releasing water to decrease pressure on that dam.
The Zipingpu dam, more than 500 feet high, is close to the earthquake's epicenter and officials say the dam sustained a range of damage. One of its abutments sank 10 centimeters. The force of the earthquake opened cracks in the dam wall. But they say, Zipingpu remains structurally stable and safe. Still, here's an ominous thought: The reservoir at Zipingpu can hold up to 1.1 billion cubic meters of water. The Water Resources Ministry says the city of Dujiangyan, with a population over 600,000, would be swamped if the dam failed.
I ask environmental sciences Professor Ai Nanshan about that scenario, catastrophic failure of the Zipingpu dam.
Professor AI NANSHAN (Environmental Sciences, Sichuan University): (Speaking foreign language)
BLOCK: If the dam failed, the destruction would be evenly greater than that cause by the earthquake, he says. Dujiangyan would be hit first. You can imagine water levels as high as two-story buildings within 10 minutes. Everything would be gone. There would be no time to rescue anyone. And a couple of hours later, those waters could reach the provincial capital, Chengdu. That explains the urgency of opening the flood gates to release water from the dam's reservoir.
So, now, looking back, it seems a bizarre coincidence that when I first visited Dujiangyan in April, it was in fact, for a water-releasing ceremony - then it was a happy occasion, an over-the-top spectacle with thousands of actors and dancers dressed as ancient warriors and princesses.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: It's an annual ceremony to honor a visionary engineer named Li Bing. In the third century B.C., Li Bing designed Dujiangyan's legendary irrigation system, which is now a major tourist attraction. The earthquake caused damage here, too, but the Dujiangyan system is reported to be safe.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
BLOCK: All credit goes to Li Bing.
(Soundbite of drumbeat)
BLOCK: Twenty-tree hundred years ago, Li Bing figured out a brilliant way to control the unpredictable destructive Min River. He built a massive dike and irrigation system, channeling through a mountain and splitting the river in two. Li Bing's engineering masterpiece put an end to constant flooding, drought and famine in Sichuan.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)
BLOCK: Here's why Li Bing is still celebrated in such grand style, after more than two millennia: People here will tell you that the Dujiangyan irrigation system transformed Sichuan into a powerhouse. Without it, people say, Sichuan would never have flourished into the breadbasket that it is now - it's known as the land of plenty.
The Taoist religion sprang into being on a mountain overlooking the Min. Great poets and writers arose from Sichuan. But if Li Bing is glorified for transforming a river, these days massive water-control projects has a bad name. And last week's earthquake highlights that concern. There are 30 dams all along the Min River and its tributaries upstream from Dujiangyan. Sixteen of them sustained significant damage.
Yesterday, government officials said these dams have to be dealt with carefully and quickly or there could be more risk. They say they're monitoring the dams 24 hours a day. I asked Professor Ai Nanshan if he worried about the dam right after the earthquake hit.
Prof. NANSHAN: (Through translator) To be honest, I did worry, he said, but I didn't speak out. I didn't want to cause a panic. Now, he says he feels reassured that the government is at least monitoring the dams' safety. Professor Ai is chairman of an environmental activist group called CURA the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. His group has been active in opposing the huge hydropower project to be built all over southwestern China, to feed the country's ever rising demand for energy. More and more he says, even before the earthquake, the Chinese people have been saying no to these dams with vocal public protests.
Prof. NANSHAN: (Through translator) Here's the contradiction, the country needs power for development. You open a map of China and you see that almost all of its rivers have been dammed. There are almost no rivers that flow naturally. Of course, a certain number of dams makes sense. But all in all, too many dams have been built. So these days, the voice of opposition to dams is strong.
BLOCK: Ai Nanshan says that Chinese people don't benefit from building dams, they're the ones uprooted from their homes by the millions. It's the developers who profit, he says, including a company run by the son of the former Premier Li Peng.
Prof. NANSHAN: (Through translator) They're behind most of the hydro-power projects in southwestern China. They are the ones who benefit the most.
BLOCK: And whose pockets are being lined?
Prof. NANSHAN: (Through translator) Most of the money is going to the developers and to local governments. Officials at all levels, starting with the village, are making money off this. Some of it is mismanagement, and some of it is just corruption.
BLOCK: Professor Ai says the earthquake makes it even more urgent to reassess the wisdom of building so many dams. And he adds one final thought to the mix, in this new appraisal of dams, and rivers, and who controls them.
He says, right after the earthquake, the army was trying to reach people to rescue them, but the roads were blocked. If there weren't so many dams, more soldiers could have gone by boat but the dams were in the way.
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