Friday, October 14, 2011

China's enormous environmental experiment

One of the many "instant" cities that have sprung up since China flooded out communities for the Three Gorges Dam project. This is Feng Du, now located across the river from the original city. 
For better or worse, I’m an experiential learner. I try to stay on top of the current events of the world, but it’s getting up close and personal with the issues of distant lands that really works for me.
So it was that I could have a headful of knowledge about China’s massive Three Gorges dam project from years of hearing about it, yet still find myself gaping at the altered landscape along the Yangtze River from a cruise-ship window last week in the realization that I didn’t actually know a damn thing.
I’d read the articles, of course. I’d seen the documentaries. Long before our family trip to China, I got that the Three Gorges project was a mighty big deal.
At stake: The promise of 100 billion kilowatt hours of “clean” hydro power for a country still burning coal. The relocation of 1.3 million people flooded out by a dammed river.  An end to the huge seasonal floods that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. A potential environmental disaster.
But what it would feel like to sail on a river that had been so dramatically changed, in a country full of people whose lives were turned completely upside down by the project - well, it just hadn’t hit me before. We spent three days travelling the Yangtze as part of our tour, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
The cruise departed at Chongqing, a city that has swelled to a staggering 32 million in recent years. It’s a knockout, as were all of the big cities we visited in our two-week holiday.
Sure, you peer through a haze of air pollution to see any of them. But underneath the “fog” (as our guides liked to call it), China’s cities are feasts of clever, unique architecture; great food; interesting people; and a neon nightscape that’s to die for if you’re a night-light aficionado like me.
 A two-week trip is hardly enough time to understand a place, or explore why Communist countries are invariably hotbeds of capitalism at the level of the people. But an extended stay isn’t required just to notice the impact that economic progress is having on China, in ways both good and bad.
We toured a few Chongqing hot spots on the day we arrived, including an odd little exhibit in a city park featuring a detailed, winding mural of the Three Gorges region painted along a concrete passageway.
The artist had depicted the towns that lined the river’s edge before the dam, and then sketched in the new water line in red. It was remarkably effective at bringing the issues home.
Our young guide walked us along the painting, her tone of voice studiously neutral as she talked about the massive human impact.  When we gasped at the sheer number of people uprooted, the cities and heritage sites washed away, she observed sagely that “the coin flips both ways.”
She’s right. For China to be an economic leader - for its citizens to have the same standard of living we enjoy in North America - it needs the hydro power, the flood control and the huge transportation savings that the Three Gorges project created.
But what a price its people paid.
They didn’t just lose their riverside homes, they lost centuries-old towns and traditions. Many were relocated to unfamiliar regions and assigned to unfamiliar jobs. The government built them new housing - generally more upscale than they’d previously lived in - but at a cost of flooding their farm land and family histories under more than 150 metres of river water.
Seen from the cruise boat, the new shoreline looks unnatural, especially in the spots where abandoned farmland now runs straight into the water. Above the new water line, “instant” skyscraper cities and massive, dazzling bridges have sprung up to accommodate the displaced - they, too, look out of place.
Like so much of what we saw in China, the altered landscape is beautiful in its own way. You can’t help but feel the energy and growth in China, the sense of possibility.
But it’s hard to imagine any government getting away with such a bold manipulation of nature. Reports of environmental degradation since the dam was built bear that out.
As for the toll on the million-plus “emigrants,” China isn’t a country that talks about such things. I can only hope that in the end, the coin flipped the right way for them.

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