Dam Leaves Some Residents High, Dry


Qin Feiyun dices greens with a cleaver in her restaurant, puts an oiled wok on the gas stove and waits for customers who never come.

Qin’s family recently joined thousands of people forced to evacuate homes in central China that will be flooded by the reservoir of the giant Three Gorges Dam.

Dozens of high-rise housing projects were built to receive them. But attempts to restart normal life are failing on their broad, empty boulevards.

“Nobody here has any money to buy things. The only thing that sells is burglar bars” for apartment windows, Qin said.

Demolition has begun of centuries-old cities and villages along the Yangtze River that will be flooded by the world’s largest hydroelectric project. They are being replaced by rose of white or yellow apartment complexes springing up on hilltops that will soon form the shore of a vast new reservoir.


More than 395,000 people have been moved, and China plans to relocate another 130,000 before closing off the Yangtze in June 2003.

All told, 1.13 million people must be resettled before the reservoir reaches its full length of 411 miles in 2009.

Most people will be moved to new cities and villages above the reservoir’s crest. But 125,000 are to be transplanted to areas as distant as Shanghai and the far western region of Xinjiang.

The scale of the $5-billion relocation is vast even for a country that has long shifted large populations to build water projects.

Emperors carved canals across China’s richest farmland. Since the communists took over in 1949, more than 10 million people have been moved to make way for 80,000 reservoirs.

“Moving millions of people is all in a day’s work if it’s in the name of advancing China’s position in the world,” said Vaclav Smil, an expert on China’s water projects at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

But never has a Chinese water project generated as much public controversy as the $25-billion Three Gorges Dam. Critics complain of widespread human rights abuses, such as villagers moved out by force and with inadequate compensation.

Resettled people have complained in petitions to Beijing. Violence erupted last August, when as many as 1,000 villagers displaced to the central province of Hunan scuffled with police while protesting the size of compensation payments.

Dam officials admit there have been problems. But they say the payments, which are administered by local governments and vary widely, are enough to buy a new home as big as the one lost.

And they say relocation has an additional benefit: the chance to raise living standards in a region where average incomes per person are about $250 a year. In one fell swoop, they can move people now living in primitive conditions into modern apartments with hot showers and indoor toilets.

“The dam has brought inconveniences, but it has also brought money to a poor region that would never have been able to attract it otherwise,” said Wang Jiazhu, deputy general manager of the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corp., the state-owned company building the dam.

Ask those who have already been moved into the new housing projects, and they agree their new apartments are more comfortable. But they also tell of dysfunctional communities that threaten to become slums under the weight of widespread unemployment and a painful sense of loss.

Qin, the 30-year-old restaurant owner, and her husband, Qin Wanyun, have a 5-year-old son and received $1,375 in resettlement compensation.

They spent that--plus their entire $750 savings--to buy a modern two-bedroom apartment in Longbao, a housing project 40 minutes outside their former home of Wanzhou, a city in the central region of Chongqing.

Qin, who had been forced to abandon a thriving restaurant, opened a new one. She named it Wanyun after her husband. But she doesn’t earn enough even to pay its monthly rent of $18.

Her family has run out of money, and her husband hasn’t found work since getting laid off last year from a state-run plastics factory.

“There’s no way to make a living here,” her husband said.

The hardships of relocation fall even harder on older people, especially in rural areas where family histories stretch back generations.

“I don’t want to leave these streets,” said 48-year-old shopkeeper Qin Quehua of Shibao. “This is my world.”