Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Three Gorges

One of the most popular tourist destinations in China is the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. Since this adventure is practically in our back yard, we decided we had better do it before we left China. The usual tour is a three night voyage down the Yangtze on a river boat that passes through some spectacular scenery including three narrow gorges where the river passes through majestic canyons. While this is a leisurely trip thousands of tourists have taken for the sheer beauty of the journey, today it is an excursion that has an additional dimension—the Three Gorges Project.
In the 1920’s one of the poorest regions of the U.S. was the Southeast. Most of the population there were isolated, poor farmers who lived in conditions that we associate with the third world today. Most had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no access to markets, schools, or jobs. In the center of the region is the Tennessee River basin. The Tennessee River begins in northwestern Tennessee and flows south, parallel to the Appalachians, to Chattanooga in southeast Tennessee. From there the river turns west through northern Alabama to the Mississippi border where it turns north for a final run through western Tennessee and Kentucky, reaching the Ohio River just before it spills into the Mississippi River. On a map, the Tennessee River looks like a U with a larger, longer left side.
In addition to the poverty of the region, the Tennessee River was known for its floods. Seasonal rains brought devastating floods to the region killing thousands and stripping what little topsoil there was off the precarious fields and denuded forests of the hilly landscape. This was the home of the Tennessee hillbilly—poor, isolated, and uneducated. Beyond subsistence farming, the main industries in the region were revivals and moonshine—often serving the same clientele.
In 1933 President Roosevelt proposed creating a federal agency to develop the impoverished Tennessee River valley. The congressional champion of the project was, of all people, Senator George Norris of Nebraska. The result was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This regional development project featured the construction of a series of dams on the river to provide flood control, power generation, and navigation. Programs of erosion control and reforestation were mixed in with the massive building programs. In time, the region became a source of plentiful, cheap electricity that attracted industry and provided jobs.
Today the Tennessee River valley is a prosperous industrial region with beautiful lakes providing recreation including some of the best bass fishing in the world. In the academic field of regional development, the TVA is a textbook example of a successful, large scale, integrated project.
Several years ago, following a flood that killed thousands, China announced the initiation of the Three Gorges Project (TGP) to place a flood control hydroelectric dam across the Yangtze river—the third longest river in the world. The size and scope of the TGP is of record setting proportions; and, the controversies associated with the project are many. It is by all accounts the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken. Upon completion in 2009, the dam will provide about one-ninth of China’s electric power, most of which is currently produced by burning coal--a major factor in the horrible air pollution problem that much of China faces.
The dam will also provide flood control and navigation from Shanghai to Chongqing. Ocean freighters will steam through the world’s largest locks on the way to the industrial markets of Chongqing—1,500 miles from the sea. Two aspects of the TGP are of particular interest.
First, there is the environmental issue. Will a project of this magnitude change the environment? Will species that have lived in the river survive in a lake? Will silting at the dam site soon fill the reservoir behind the dam reducing the effectiveness of flood control? Will the industrial and municipal waste that is currently dumped into the river to be flushed out to the sea now begin to accumulate in the lake creating a mammoth cesspool?
Second, there is the relocation issue. As we motored down the 400 miles of river from Chongqing to the dam we passed numerous signs that marked the eventual high water level of the dam at 176 meters above sea level. Much of the construction of the dam has already been completed (locks and hydroelectric generators are still under construction) and the lake has been filled up to 159 meters. In 2009 the lake level will rise to the final level of 176 meters. Anything that was previously on the river is now underwater or will soon be so. The government estimates that 1.5 million people will have to be relocated. Homes that have been occupied and fields that have been harvested for five centuries are being lost to the waters of the TGP. Burial sites and religious shrines will be lost.
The government provides those who have lost their houses with new apartments that are certainly more modern that what is being lost, but who wants to give up the family farm for a new city apartment? Many of the displaced are leaving the land permanently and moving to large industrial centers like Chongqing. The fact that all land is owned by the state makes the relocation process a little easier than it would be in the U.S., but it is still a human challenge of monumental proportions. It was my unscientific observation that a lot of the housing that has been built to relocate the affected families remains unoccupied. Some towns are currently a curious mixture of old dwellings near the shore and new buildings higher up. Land that will soon be inundated is currently being farmed as it has been for centuries.
Life for the residents of the Yangtze valley will certainly change as a result of the TGP, just as life changed in the Tennessee valley as a result of the TVA. Let’s hope the change is for the better.
As for the scenery, it is as beautiful and spectacular as ever. The TGP can’t change that. However, the partial filling of the lake has made travel up some the tributaries of the Yangtze possible. The gorges on the one tributary we went up were even more beautiful than the famous three gorges of the Yangtze. Sometimes change is beneficial.


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