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Yangtze tamed amid pride and panic

Beijing, June 1 (Reuters): China blocked the massive Yangtze river today, starting to fill a reservoir for the world’s biggest hydroelectric project that is a point of national pride but which critics fear will become an environmental nightmare.

Live television footage showed cascades of white water roaring as sluice gates drew slowly shut on the Three Gorges dam, China’s biggest engineering project since the Great Wall was built more than 2,000 years ago.

The Xinhua news agency said 19 of the 22 gates at the dam in Yichang, in the central province of Hubei, closed by 0120 GMT, blocking the flood-prone Yangtze to form what will become a 600-km reservoir.

“The project to close the gates to fill the Three Gorges reservoir is successful,” it said. China says the world’s largest hydroelectric project is critical for national power needs and will help tame the 6,300 km Yangtze, whose annual floods killed 300,000 people in the last century alone.

“When the entire project is completed in 2009, it will be highly effective for flood control, power generation, navigation, ecological protection and water diversion,” Xinhua said.

But critics at home and abroad say the $25-billion project, begun in 1993, will bring ecological disaster as pollution seeps from the remnants of deserted towns, villages, factories and hospitals on the reservoir bed. More than 720,000 people — from fishermen to farmers — along the Yangtze were uprooted, and more than a million will move before the reservoir swallows lands — and some archaeological treasures — across about a dozen counties.

The main players on television were not Chinese leaders but engineers and project heads — who closed the gates with clicks of a computer mouse. Some gates shut days ago, and water levels had already climbed to 106 metres by today morning. Three of the 22 gates will remain open to guarantee water flow on the Yangtze during the two weeks it takes to fill the reservoir to a level of 135 metres. Navigation resumes on June 16 on the Yangtze after a break of more than 60 days.

The water is to rise further next year, eventually creeping past a sign on the green hills above the dam — “150” — on its way to 175 metres by 2009.

The project also has been plagued over the past decade by corruption and discovery of hundreds of cracks in the dam, though the Guangzhou Daily today quoted officials as saying the cracks, some tens of metres long, were not a danger.

Despite the live coverage, word of the event failed to reach the ears of many relocated to Chongming island at the mouth of the Yangtze far to the east near Shanghai. Farmer Ke Chungui, 49, heard of it first from a foreign reporter and then caught the broadcasts on a radio.

Ke, his feet clad in straw shoes, said he had been unable to find work since being moved from Yunyang county in Chongqing municipality three years ago. “They lied to us again. They promised us a better life here. We’re much worse off,” he said.

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