China sought Thursday to head off rising concern about the environmental impact of the massive Three Gorges Dam, playing down a deadly landslide and saying that any damage had been foreseen by planners.
The comments in state-run media marked a stark reversal from recent warnings by officials who said China faced a catastrophe if it failed to stop riverbank erosion and other environmental problems caused by the dam, the world's largest hydropower project.
"The impact has not gone beyond the scope predicted in a 1991 feasibility report. In some aspects, it is not as severe as predicted," Wang Xiaofeng, director of the central government's Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, was quoted as saying in the state-run China Daily newspaper.
Meanwhile, the government's Xinhua News Agency said there was no evidence of a connection between the dam and a nearby landslide close to a railway tunnel Tuesday that buried a bus carrying 27 people, killed one worker, injured another and left two missing. Xinhua said that landslides are common in the area where the accident occurred "which is sited on brittle terrain along the Yangtze River."
The landslide left a 50-yard gash in the side of the mountain, with a tangle of metal at the bottom.
Begun in 1993, the dam was seen as the fruition of a century-old dream of leaders such as communist China's founder Mao Zedong to harness the Yangtze, the world's third largest river, for electric power.
But Beijing has been doing damage control since accounts emerged of a September meeting of officials and experts that raised surprisingly critical questions about the dam.
Participants warned of increasing landslides and pollution, possibly requiring the relocations of millions of more people in the reservoir area — issues critics also raised during the dam's planning and construction when they were quashed by Beijing.
Seismic activity has increased as water pours into formerly dry slopes composed of rock, soil and sediment, some of it highly porous. That is causing splits and fissures, often deep below the surface, weakening hillsides and causing soil and shale to come loose.
The warnings about a higher environmental and human toll have raised concerns that the dam, promoted as a cure-all for Yangtze flooding and an alternative to coal-fired power generation, was exacting a price beyond its $23.6 billion construction cost.
Wang's office announced earlier this week that it was taking new remedial measures to protect the environment around the dam to prevent pollution discharge, ensure drinking water quality and enhance plans for "sustainable use of the dam."
"We want to build not only a first-class hydropower project, but also a good environment," China Daily quoted Wang as saying.
4 million may be relocated
In recent weeks, state media and local governments have also sketched out new relocation schemes, saying as many as 4 million people may have to be moved from areas adjacent to the dam's reservoir. Among those migrants were many from among the roughly 1 million people who previously had to move for the dam, often to remote areas where the farmland was of poor quality.
The impact of the Three Gorges Dam is obvious in many communities along the river. Residents are worried and scared about the cracks in their walls and some have felt the ground shift, but say they feel they have no control over what's going to happen next.
"We are already so poor and our lives are so hard, so having to move is very difficult for us," said Chen Zijiang, a farmer in Miaohe village two hours upstream from the dam, who has already been relocated twice and was in the process of moving again.
The dam's left bank turbines began producing electricity in 2005, while the right side of the dam started sending the first trickle of electricity to the power grid this summer. The project is scheduled to be fully running by 2009.