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Huge Dam to Flood Ancient Life Style : China: Three Gorges Project on Yangtze River will claim 900 farm communities and uproot at least a million people. It's expected to take 15 years to build.

October 30, 1994|DEIRDRE CHETHAM | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

SHIBAOZHAI, China — Grabbing homemade, rattan sedan chairs, several hundred townspeople rush to the dock from all directions in tiny Shibaozhai to wait for the latest Yangtze River tourist ships.

Within minutes, their entrepreneurial spirit hoists the visitors up a steep hill to the town's only landmark, a 12-story, 17th-Century red pagoda.

For such brief, makeshift labor, the people earn as much as they might otherwise make in half a day--less than $1.

The sedan chair, once considered a despicable form of exploitation and banned by the communists in the early 1950s, has made a comeback along the craggy banks of the upper Yangtze. There are few other ways of making money, and little else to do.

A day's boat ride from the southern Sichuan city of Chongqing, Shibaozhai and its 5,000 people typify the river's small communities. About 200,000 Chinese and foreign tourists visit the region's ancient pagodas, temples and natural beauty every year.

But no one stays in Shibaozhai for more than a few hours. And soon it will disappear under water--drowned along with more than 900 other towns and villages by a reservoir for the world's largest hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam.

In Shibaozhai, the water level will reach almost 576 feet, raising the river to the tower's front door.

Along the Yangtze, at least a million people will be uprooted, and about 620,000 acres of farmland will be flooded.

In most cases, town centers will be moved within a few miles of their present locations. Shibaozhai's new center is planned for higher ground about a mile away.

The imminent flooding and loss of land also mean that hundreds of thousands of people will have to find new skills and occupations. The Chinese government reportedly plans to open more technical schools in the region and to provide grants to develop sideline industries, such as machine repair or restaurants, as an alternative to farming.

But the peasants are skeptical about what will happen next. "The dam will create temporary construction jobs here, but they won't last," a prosperous, middle-aged farmer said. "We're too far away from the dam itself for anything permanent.

"The peasants may get new land on higher ground, but they won't be compensated for the work they put into their fields already. Unless there is development of real industry--factories, roads and transportation, not more small shops--this place has no hope, dam or no dam."

Already under construction, the controversial Three Gorges Dam is expected to take 15 years to build, cost at least $10 billion and provide 17 million kilowatts of electricity. When completed, it will produce as much hydroelectric power as the world's two largest dams combined.

The dam will create a 379-mile-long reservoir between western Hubei Province and Chongqing. Water levels will rise hundreds of feet throughout the narrow, mountainous stretch of the river, destroying the natural wonder known as Three Gorges.

For the time being, life goes on as usual in Shibaozhai. At the recreation center for old cadres, retirees play chess beneath portraits of Mao, Lenin and Stalin, and look back rather than forward.

Shibaozhai's three factories, which produce wine, salt and firecrackers, employ only several hundred people. It is the lack of work, not the impending relocation, that dominates almost all conversation with outsiders.

"Look at the streets," said one young medical student who has already made plans to move after graduation to Hainan, a southern Chinese island where the economy is flourishing. "There are no young people here. There's nothing for them here."

Hundreds of men from Shibaozhai's surrounding rural district of 25,000 people have spent recent winters on construction crews in Xinjiang Province in China's far northwest. Others end up as coolies in Chongqing, waiting with their shoulder poles, along with hundreds of other young men, for a few minutes of work carrying heavy loads.

Their parents are resigned to the exodus. "My only son is in Shenzhen. But what else can he do? We need the money," said a 73-year-old man, who had given up farming because he could not earn enough to pay the taxes.

Do young people ever return? "Of course they do. At New Year's all the young people come home," he said. "Then, they all go away again."

A young teacher, who has already spent half of his two years at the middle school on a leave of absence to work in a restaurant in Guangzhou, summed up his plans. "It may take me a long time to get permission to leave for good. But someday I will. And I won't come back."

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