Near Three Gorges Dam, the Exodus Continues

Walls inside Zhang Haomin’s home in Zhenxi Township, in Chongqing, started cracking in 2008, around the time the reservoir behind the new Three Gorges Dam neared capacity.

“Early on, the cracks were small,” said Zhang, whose home is about three meters above the reservoir’s surface. “The town government had us paste paper strips on the walls to monitor the cracks. Since then, the paper has broken at least three times.”

For Zhang and thousands of his neighbors living in the hills around the huge Yangtze River reservoir, torn strips of paper mean the ground under their homes is settling—and that it’s time to go.

Altogether, about 110,000 residents are scheduled to move to safer locales in the remaining months of 2012 as part of the next phase of an on-and-off Three Gorges Dam relocation project that began in 1993.

The latest relocation plan was unveiled in April by the Three Gorges Geological Disaster Prevention Leading Group Office, a branch of the Ministry of Land and Resources.

Due to the reservoir project, officials say, cracks have been spreading inside Zhang’s and other area homes as the earth shifts. The relocation is designed to protect people from various geological hazards, the director of the disaster office, Liu Yuan, said.

In fact, the exodus is already well under way: Zhang said the number of people living on his street has fallen to about half what it was five years ago.

Most of the 1.1 million people who moved to higher ground—and in some cases all-new communities—to make way for the 148 billion yuan Three Gorges Dam between 1993 and 2008 originally lived in the valleys that flooded as the reservoir filled.

The reservoir stretches 175 kilometers through steep hills in a region that includes parts of Hubei province and Chongqing. It provides water for the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant, which was built to help satisfy the electricity demands of an increasingly energy-hungry developing country.

Settling ground, landslides and a variety property-damaging incidents at elevations above the flooded valleys have over the years prompted fresh calls for more people to get out of harm’s way.

The Changjiang Water Resources Commission, a government agency with broad oversight of issues involving the Yangtze River, reported 254 incidents of collapsing riverbanks and 235 landslides between 2008, when the water surface reached its norm at 175 meters above the reservoir bottom, and 2011. Thousands of homes and about 13,800 people were affected, although no deaths were reported.

During the early stages of the dam-building project, officials said that homes on ground more than two meters above the 175-meter level would be safe. They did not expect what happened next: The ground continued shifting and damaging homes built on land up to twenty-five meters above the water surface.

Geologists blamed the land’s instability on either side of the reservoir on the effects of weather and water. Geological experts say that, prior to the filling of the reservoir, the banks were exposed to the sun for long periods. This has been repeated every couple years, exacerbating the instability of the banks, making them prone to landslides.

Unexpected problems have surfaced since 2003, when the reservoir reached the 135-meter level.

Between January and November 2003 the disaster office counted some 4,688 landslides and similar incidents in the reservoir area—nearly twice the number recorded in 2001. And the dangerous, ground-shifting incidents continued as the reservoir filled.

Over the years, the government’s response to the unexpected risks has been mixed. Some residents have blamed squabbling among various official agencies, such as the Ministry of Land and Resources and the Changjiang Water Resources Commission, for delays in landslide prevention projects and relocations.

A commission document obtained by Caixin said only 125 safety-related engineering projects were ordered since 2001, even though experts had recommended 372 works following events including serious landslides. A total of 370 incidents forced unscheduled relocations.

Chongqing’s 70 million yuan landslide prevention project in Jiangdongquntuozi township, for example, fell far short of expectations. In the end, only 20 million yuan was spent.

In many communities affected by geological dangers, such as Zhang’s, a number of residents decided to move away rather than wait for government engineers to solve problems by, for example, shoring up the river bank. Others have stayed in their homes, often in hopes of receiving relocation funds from the government.

Under the original project management plan, home-moving compensation was to reach 5,000 yuan per person living in homes between 135 and 156 meters above the bottom of the reservoir, in addition to housing and land compensation. For those living between the 156- and 175-meter marks, total compensation was 14,000 yuan per person.

Funding arrangements have been consistently unclear, a source close to the Ministry of Land and Resources said. The Chongqing and Hubei governments, for example, say the China Three Gorges Corp., the power company building and operating the dam, should coordinate safety measures and pay all relocation costs. The power company disagrees and is waiting for a final decision by the central government.

Another issue is whether people living at higher elevations should be relocated and compensated.

Officially, the reservoir can be blamed for geological incidents that affect buildings within 177 meters of the reservoir bottom. But the Chongqing and Hubei governments say incidents at levels as high as the 182-meter mark can be linked to the reservoir and relocations should be financed by the power company.

An official at Ministry of Land and Resource says before relocations can start this year, a more overall and detailed investigation will be conducted. In the meantime, residents like Zhang Haomin will continue putting paper strips over the growing number of cracks on their walls.

Deng Hai and Zhang Yanling are Caixin staff reporters.