Wang Zhushu rarely sleeps at night. Instead, the 61-year-old retiree paces, listening to the drone of passing ships that shake the walls of her house on the banks of the Yangtze River.
Wang’s one-story, brick-and-concrete home rests, she says, on increasingly unsteady earth, weakened and waterlogged as rising waters turn the Yangtze into an ever-broadening reservoir behind China’s mammoth Three Gorges Dam.
“The house has become crooked. Water seeps through the floor and there are cracks growing here, here and here,” said Wang, pointing to the ceiling, a storeroom and a rock wall with crevices three fingers wide. At night, “I can feel the vibrations. I walk round and round the room, and I worry.”
For millions of Chinese living along the reservoir’s shores, the dam that the government said would give them a new life is stirring fresh concern.
Four years after the waters began rising in the 410 mile-long reservoir, villagers tell of warped foundations and fissures snaking along the earth. Pollution in the once fast-running river is building in the turbid reservoir. Landslides, common in the rainy region, are occurring more frequently. The ships are nothing new, but now they are one more reason for Wang to worry.
She isn’t alone. In Meiping, a hamlet with mountainsides of fragrant orange groves, villagers are hurriedly building new homes after the government declared their old ones unsafe this past summer following landslides.
“We live in constant fear,” said Mei Changxin, 45, an orange grower who covers the cracked walls of his crumbling two-story home with newspapers. “When I work in the fields sometimes fear grips me just thinking that my house may suddenly collapse.”
The $22 billion dam, the world’s biggest hydroelectric project, was supposed to end flooding along the Yangtze and provide a clean energy alternative to coal. Approved in 1992 and due to be completed in 2009, it will generate 84.7 billion kilowatts of electricity each year — the equivalent of what it takes to light the counties of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, according to figures from 2005.
Yet along the way more than 1.4 million people had to be moved. Though critics and experts warned the environment and people would pay too high a price, their criticisms were ignored and suppressed by a government in thrall to large engineering projects.
Even a few officials are breaking ranks to predict catastrophe. Toxic algae is blooming, feeding off industrial waste and sewage and tainting water supplies.
Experts have warned that the waters in the enormous reservoir are undermining hillsides. Water seeps into loosely packed soil and rocks, making them heavier and wetter, and can trigger landslides on steep slopes like those rising from the Yangtze.
Additionally, the huge weight of the water on the rock bed exerts a pressure that can lead to earthquakes.
Such tremors shook the area around the Hoover Dam after Lake Mead was filled up the 1930s, according to the book “Earthquakes in Human History.” A magnitude-6.4 quake near India’s Koyna Dam killed at least 180 people in 1967 and is thought to have been induced by the reservoir.
Chinese officials have denied it can happen here, but Dai Qing is unconvinced.
“Almost all my fears have come true,” said the Chinese journalist, a persistent opponent of the project whose writings are mostly banned in China. “The landslides and cracks have made people migrants once again. The water in the rivers and reservoirs is no longer drinkable. No matter how much power the project generates, it cannot make up for the losses.”
How the communist government deals with these problems has become a test for the Communist Party leadership headed by President Hu Jintao, who has promised to deliver more compassionate, responsive and environmentally sensitive government.
Hu conspicuously stayed away from a ceremony last year to celebrate completion of the dam, unlike previous leaders who often associated themselves with the engineering marvel.
In September, state-controlled media ran rare admissions by officials about the problems.
Wang Xiaofeng, deputy director of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, was quoted as saying China risked disaster. Vice Mayor Tan Qiwei of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis next to the reservoir, told of 91 reported landslides along 22 miles of shoreline.
“The ecological situation in Three Gorges areas is worse than I expected,” said Chen Guojie, a professor with the Institute of Mountain Hazards and the Environment at the government-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences. He ticked off a list of worries — tremors, erosion and pollution — and said the social impact was equally grave.
“Farmers lost their land and moved to new towns, but these towns had no industry and there were not enough jobs,” he said. “So many of the young farmers were forced to leave their homes and work in other cities.”
As criticism has mounted in recent weeks along with the problems — a landslide in the region killed at least 34 people last month — the government has launched a renewed public relations campaign stressing the project’s benefits.
“We have resolved all the problems in the past decade and everything is under control,” Sun Zhiyu, director of the Three Gorges project’s Environment Protection Bureau, told foreign reporters last month on a government-organized tour of the area.
Beijing also says it will shore up the area’s environment with new measures to control pollution, close industrial and mining enterprises and monitor geological hazards. Meanwhile, local governments are relocating the tens of thousands of people living in dangerous areas.
Third move for some
In the heart of Badong county, where Wang Zhushu lives, the county resettlement office says some 25,000 people will soon be moved again — the third time for some of them. Wang and her 67-year-old husband haven’t had to move yet, but that may come if the waters rise high enough to engulf their home.
The first human displacement was for a smaller dam project in the 1980s. Then, a decade later, the threat of landslides forced residents to move about three miles.
“We are now planning to move most of the government departments and population to nearby areas because they are situated where geological disasters are likely to occur,” said an official with the resettlement office who would only give his surname, Lu.
Badong has long been a thriving commercial center, producing goods such as lacquer and oils and shipping them on the Yangtze.
Effects of the rising waters have become apparent in recent years, residents say. Roads are split and buckled and need regular repair. Dilapidated buildings sit abandoned, while red-and-white signs warning of landslides are everywhere.
Along Wang Zhushu’s street, her neighbors share the same complaints.
Wang Zhonghe, whose garden is less than 10 feet from the river, said she had been jolted awake twice by small earthquakes this year. Her husband had to shave two inches off the bottom of their front door so that it would close.
Xiang Zhen, who lives on the second floor of an eight-story riverside complex, said one landslide damaged her building and cracks have been developing since 2003.
“We’re afraid of heavy rains because that will affect the land,” said Xiang, 38, a laid-off worker who now lives off the vegetables she grows.
Further downstream, residents of Yemaomian are building spacious, multistory houses less than a mile from the terraced slopes where they lived for a decade after being moved to make way for the dam.
But they don’t feel much safer. In recent months, tremors have shaken the area and gaps have opened in the earth. The local government deemed the area “landslide-prone,” and in the summer, many villagers slept in a road tunnel for fear that the rains would unleash a landslide and bury them in their beds.
Most took the $930 per head in compensation the government offered them to leave their homes and carve out a new life in an area accessible only via one potholed road.
“It’s hard to start over. Whenever I move, it affects my livelihood,” said Chen Zijiang, 26, an orange farmer who was helping his younger sister and parents carry their belongings to their new home.
Each time the family has had to abandon its orange trees and house, losing tens of thousands of dollars in crops and housing costs, he said. He has had to become a part-time driver to boost his monthly income from about $50 to $130. To add food to the table, he plans to grow beans on ground that split open in April, leaving a gash six feet long and two inches wide.
“Although moving makes us poor, we have to do it,” Chen said. “Am I happy? Do I have a choice?”