Setbacks Stall Finish Of China's Massive Dam Project The massive reservoir behind China's Three Gorges Dam was supposed to be filled to capacity this month. But landslides on the reservoir and water shortages downstream have delayed the process. Questions have been raised about the dam, which is the world's largest hydropower project, and what it might mean for the Yangtze River.
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Setbacks Stall Finish Of China's Massive Dam Project

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Setbacks Stall Finish Of China's Massive Dam Project

Setbacks Stall Finish Of China's Massive Dam Project

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The massive reservoir behind China's Three Gorges Dam was supposed to be filled to capacity this month. But landslides on the reservoir and water shortages have delayed the process. This week, state media reported that the project will take $25 billion to fix unforeseen problems that have surfaced. The world's largest hydropower project is supposed to improve flood control and navigation on the Yangtze River.

And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Chongqing, now there are questions about the river's fate.

(Soundbite of construction)

ANTHONY KUHN: A rusty gangplank heaves up and down on the pier in Wushan county.

(Soundbite of horn)

KUHN: Barges laden with coal and cruise ships with tourists glide through the placid, jade-green waters. The dam has tamed the river's rushing currents here, turning them into a 360-mile-long lake.

It's been 15 years since China began building the dam. The rising waters of the reservoir have submerged the old Wushan county town, just one of many along the river. A new Wushan has been built further up the hill. Tan Songxiang is a local official in charge of relocating residents. He says that the new Wushan is a big improvement over the old one.

Mr. TAN SONGXIANG: (Through Translator) Ordinary citizens have reaped real benefits from relocation, and standards of living have improved in all respects. I've experienced it myself. When I was a student, my family lived five or six people to a room, with only curtains separating us. In the new town, I have my own home.

KUHN: Tan denies widespread allegations that officials have embezzled relocation funds. And he adds that government audits prove his point. Local governments have already relocated 1.3 million residents to make room for the reservoir. Some residents have had to move several times.

(Soundbite of pots)

KUHN: Speaking in a friend's shack near the river, farmer Wang Chuanju says the Wushan county government relocated her and her husband to a piece of land that was later taken by the municipal government to build a road. Wang says that inadequate compensation has left them so poor they're forced to pick food from the garbage.

Ms. WANG CHUANJU: (Through Translator) I signed a contract with the government to be permanently relocated there. If they don't like me complaining about it, then why did they relocate me there in the first place?

KUHN: Wang says that when she protested inadequate government compensation, police detained and beat her. Her husband, Zou Xinrui, says they're desperate.

Mr. ZOU XINRUI: (Through Translator) If I weren't so old, I might be out robbing, stealing and killing. Why? Because when people are driven past a certain point, there's nothing else they can do. I might even join some counterrevolutionary group just to fill my belly.

KUHN: Many of the problems on the Yangtze's middle reaches come down to this: Too many people are living on the land and overwhelming its fragile ecosystems. The reservoir means there is now even less land.

(Soundbite of pickax)

KUHN: An hour upstream in Fengjie county, a farmer named Fan Zhuxian tends to his fields. Before the building of the reservoir, his fields were mostly level. Now, 70 percent of them are on steep hillsides.

(Soundbite of pickax)

KUHN: Fan squats down to plant seedlings. Every blow of his small pickax seems to hit a rock.

I'm picking up a piece of beige-colored earth. And this earth is a layer covering the mountains and it's a very thin layer and it's very easily washed away.

Mr. FAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: I try to hold the soil in place with stone barriers, Fan explains, but when it rains, they just collapse.

Mr. FAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: So he's saying that the sweet potatoes only grow to the size of somewhere between a golf ball and a baseball.

An increase in landslides in recent years, caused by fluctuating water levels, has forced the government to go slow in filling the reservoir.

China now says it wants to double hydropower generation by the year 2020 to reduce its reliance on coal. But experts fear more dams on the Yangtze could lead to conflicts over dwindling water resources.

Pu Yongjian is a professor at the Sustainable Development Research Institute at Chongqing University. He says local governments are keen on damming their sections of the river to make energy and jobs.

Professor PU YONGJIAN (Sustainable Development Research Institute, Chongqing University): (Through translator) There's no solution to this problem. Local governments have to set goals to raise their economic output, and they have to reach those goals. This is a conflict between economic development and environmental protection.

KUHN: What's needed, Pu says, is a holistic management of the entire river. Otherwise, the mighty Yangtze � which China has tried for millennia to tame � could one day run dry before it reaches the sea.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Chongqing, China.

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