Amid much fanfare and expressions of national pride, the Yangtze River was blocked Saturday in preparation to build the world’s biggest and most controversial dam, just below the Three Gorges scenic landmark.
State television broadcast the damming live, showing pictures throughout the day of trucks and bulldozers tipping rocks and earth into the world’s third largest river, in what China says is the nation’s mightiest engineering feat since the building of the Great Wall.
President Jiang Zemin, fresh from his red carpet reception in the United States, watched through binoculars from a nearby stadium, beneath a football-field sized Red Flag emblazoned on the hillside. Giant balloons flew high above the surrounding cliffs.
When the last stones halted the river’s flow, and the two fingers of the dam met, a military band struck up “Ode to the Motherland” and Jiang rose to hail “this remarkable feat of China’s modernization.”
“The age-old dream of the Chinese people to develop the resources of the Three Gorges is closer to coming true,” he said. “This proves once again that socialism is superior in … concentrating resources to do big jobs.”
Work will now begin on building the dam and its 26 generators. When complete, in 2009, the dam will be the world’s largest, capable of generating the equivalent of 18 medium-sized nuclear power stations’ worth of electricity.
It will also put a vast area of scenic beauty and archaeological interest under a 400-mile reservoir, with potentially disastrous results for the region’s ecosystem, critics say. At least 1.2 million people will be forced to leave their ancestral homes in hundreds of cities, towns and villages, putting additional strain on an already impoverished region.
With the price tag already put at $29 billion and likely to rise higher, critics say the costs are too high. Dai Qing, one of the most outspoken Chinese critics of the dam, called it “the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world.”
There are fears the dam will clog with silt, dry up lower reaches of the river, destroy fisheries or even increase the risk of earthquakes in an area already categorized as having a “slight” seismic risk. With 400 million people living in the valley below, a breach could be cataclysmic.
The U.S. Export-Import Bank has refused to fund the project because it does not meet its environmental guidelines, effectively excluding U.S. companies from winning lucrative dam contracts. A consortium of European companies was recently awarded a $740 million contract to help build the dam’s generators.
China dismisses the criticisms, saying it needs the dam to fuel its modernization and economic growth and to protect those living below the dam from floods, which have killed 300,000 this century.
In a year of triumphs for the Chinese leadership, the damming is being trumpeted as an event of national pride, on a par with the return of Hong Kong.
China is hailing its engineers’ achievement in conquering the Yangtze at a point where the river flows at a rate of 24,800 cubic yards per second, surpassing the previous record of 10,600 set by Brazil’s Itaipu dam, as evidence of the nation’s growing economic and technological might.
“It embodies the great industrious and dauntless spirit of China and displays the daring vision of the Chinese people for new horizons,” Jiang declared.
Recent weeks have seen an on-slaught of dam-related propaganda glorifying the achievement, including a TV serialized drama about the lives of people involved in building the dam and an opera, “The Goddess of the Three Gorges,” staged near the dam and shown on television.
The media have moved to counter some of the critics’ concerns. Even a nuclear attack would not pose a significant risk of flooding, the official China News newspaper said.
“Simulated tests show that if there was a nuclear attack, and the dam was completely destroyed, flooding could be controlled to a certain degree by adjusting water levels in the reservoir,” it said. “Disaster caused by the destruction of the dam would not be as serious as people imagine.”