updated 10/13/2007 3:54:01 AM ET 2007-10-13T07:54:01

China plans to relocate up to 4 million people from areas surrounding the Three Gorges Dam _ the world's biggest hydropower project — because of rising concerns over the environment and landslides, state media reported Friday.

For years, China steamed ahead with construction of the project, dismissing most warnings of environmental peril. In the last month, however, officials have made unusually candid statements that the country could face a catastrophe if it fails to act quickly to stop riverbank erosion and other problems caused by the dam.

The reservoir already has forced 1.4 million people out of their homes amid criticism the project has wreaked ecological havoc and forced people to move to places where they cannot make a living.

On Friday, state media and the region's local government signaled rising concern over the dam's impact, saying as many as several million more people would have to be moved from areas adjacent to the reservoir in a form of "environmental migration."

Citing other media reports, the official Xinhua News Agency put the number of people to be moved as high as 4 million in the next 10 to 15 years. Other reports gave a lower estimate. The 21st Century Business Herald newspaper said 2.3 million people would be moved to urban areas by 2020.

The true numbers to be affected are not clear.

The reservoir area "has a vulnerable ecological environment, and the natural conditions make large scale urbanization or serious overpopulation impossible here," Chongqing Vice Mayor Yu Yuanmu was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Costs not limited to construction
Promoted as a cure-all for Yangtze River flooding and an alternative to coal-fired power generation, the dam is already starting to exact a price beyond its $23.6 billion construction cost.

Environmentalists have repeatedly pointed to problems including serious pollution from the submerging of hundreds of factories, mines and waste dumps, and runoff from heavy industry upstream. Seasonal variations in the reservoir's water level will create filthy swamp conditions, while the dam's very presence blocks migration routes, leading to a crash in fish stocks, they warn.

Taking their cue from a greater emphasis on the environment under current Chinese leader Hu Jintao, Chinese officials appear less willing to defend the dam, said Peter Brosshard, policy director with the Berkeley, Calif.-based International Rivers Network that has long warned of problems ahead for the dam.

"Officials definitely seem to have become more outspoken about the problems," Brosshard said.

Seeking to stem further degradation, Chongqing's plan calls for the establishment of a green belt surrounding the reservoir to curb pollution and prevent further erosion of the Yangtze's banks.

"We will actively carry out an environmental protections based on protecting forests and preventing landslides and a policy of environmental migration for environmentally fragile and sensitive areas," said an outline of the report, posted on the Chongqing regional government's Web site.

The outline said the region's urban population was expected to grow by about 4 million between 2010 and 2020, largely through rural migration and expansion of the city, but also through relocating residents from areas surrounding the reservoir where the environment was "especially delicate and particularly sensitive."

‘Encouraged and guided to move’
Asked for details, Wang Qing, an official with the Chongqing Development and Reform Commission, said people would be "encouraged and guided to move," but didn't say how many.

Hu Jihong, the commission's office director, said there had been incorrect media reports on the relocations, but added: "We think it's not worth commenting."

The unwillingness to talk appeared to reflect sensitivities over the previous round of relocations that were plagued by reports of corruption and complaints of poor conditions for migrants in their new homes.

Charles Freeman, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that because of the ambitions of the dam project, many of the environmental and social problems may have been foreseen, but were not well-addressed.

"The problem when you have a project as massive as this, which is inherently tied to grand national ambition, is that some of the details and the very human aspects associated with it tend to get swept under the rug," he said.

Begun in 1993, the left bank of the dam began generating power in 2005, and turbines on the right side of the dam started sending their first trickle of electricity to the power grid this summer. The project is scheduled to be fully running by 2009.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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