CHUGGING ALONG: Barges transport containers and vehicles along the the stretch of the Yangtze River between Chongqing and Yichang (ROSEANNE GERIN)
It was a typical morning on the Yangtze River, overcast with mist covering parts of the lush riverbanks while fog hid the sculpted peaks beyond. I stepped onto the deck of the Princess Sheena and stared down at the brownish-gray water, the same color as the instant Nescafe coffee I drink on most mornings. For all the hype about the Yangtze's stunning natural vistas, especially those of the famed three gorges yet to come--the Qutang, Wuxia and Xiling--I was so far unimpressed.
I suppose it was because the Yangtze is primarily a working river for barges and ferries transporting trucks, new autos, containers and coal, as well as commuters and tourists via rusty Russian-made hydrofoils and small passenger cruise ships like the one I was on for a three-day trip downstream from Chongqing to the Three Gorges Dam. I would traverse only about one tenth of the 6,400-km-long river that starts as glacial runoff in west China's Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and flows east through nine provinces and eventually into the East China Sea. The stretch I was on was not the most heavily traveled in terms of boat traffic-the big barges and container ships are found further east on the other side of the dam around the major industrial and port cities of Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai.
Several days of rain prior to the cruise created small, temporary waterfalls along the gorges. Now that this section of the river has been flooded following the construction of the dam, almost no one lives on its shores, where the best farmland used to be. Water also covers much of the original poetry carved into rocks along the gorges as well as tombs and other ancient sites.
No staple crops are grown along the gorges, just cash crops like Chinese peaches and oranges. Every now and then we passed coal shoots on the riverbanks from which orange trucks dump loads of low quality coal into barges below. Farther downstream farmers supplemented their incomes by rowing tourists in slender wooden peapod boats along the Shennongxi River, a tributary of the Yangtze.
Before the 1950s, the part of the Yangtze flowing through the 76-km-long Xiling Gorge was considered the most dangerous because of its treacherous rock shoals and reefs. The government dynamited parts of the river to clear the shoals, eliminating one major problem. But the ever-present problem of deadly floods remained-a factor that still makes the Yangtze one of the most dangerous rivers in the world today. In the last century, several major floods have taken hundreds of thousands of lives and created billions of yuan worth of destruction.
Hence the need for the Three Gorges Dam, which reduces the frequency of major downstream flooding by lowering or raising the water level in the reservoir behind it. Although the dam's primary function is flood control, it was first proposed almost 90 years ago as a means of generating electricity. But construction didn't begin until December 1994, and the dam started generating power in July 2003. The project is now in the final stages and is slated to be fully operational in three years after the installation of six additional turbines. When it reaches full capacity, the power station will generate enough electricity to meet about 3 percent of the country's energy demand.
As with all massive engineering undertakings, the 180-billion yuan ($26.3 billion) Three Gorges Dam project has been highly contentious, and its costs and benefits continue to be debated. Among the plusses are flood control, improved ship navigation and clean hydroelectric power generation. Among the minuses are obligatory human resettlements, increased siltation, the loss of archeological and cultural sites and some ecological and environmental damage.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the dam is that residents in many areas along the Yangtze must relocate and find new homes and livelihoods. To date, almost 1.4 million people in the 640-km-long reservoir behind the dam, which includes the three gorges, have been displaced. It is estimated that the number could eventually reach 4 million. A local tour guide at the dam said some believe the 20,000 yuan ($2,900) that the government pays to those who must resettle is not enough, because the cost of building a new home far exceeds this amount.
But most young people are happy about moving to places where they will have more opportunities and be in more convenient locations, said Summer, a local guide in Old Fengdu, a temple complex about 170 km from Chongqing. She moved six years ago across the river to New Fengdu, a small town of low-rise apartment buildings on the opposite bank, which was built between 1992 and 2003. It is mainly senior citizens who are unhappy about what they consider to be a loss of tradition and having to abandon the places where they have spent their entire lives, she said.