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Controversial Three Gorges dam has problems, admits China

The world's largest hydroelectric project was designed to tame the flood-prone Yangtze River and to generate clean energy. But the water is becoming polluted, and regular landslides are making life near the dam dangerous.

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The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in Yichang, Hubei province is seen in this 2009 file photo. China's landmark dam project provides benefits to the Chinese people, but has created a myriad of urgent problems from the relocation of more than a million residents to risks of geological disasters, the Chinese government said on Thursday.

Reuters/File

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The Chinese government made a rare admission Thursday of something that millions of people living around the Three Gorges dam know only too well: There is a dark side to the country’s proudest engineering achievement.

The 1.4 million people displaced by the dam, completed in 2006, are worse off than the government promised they would be, the dammed waters of the Yangtze River are increasingly polluted, and regular landslides and tremors are making life near the dam dangerous, officials and experts have warned.

These are “urgent problems,” the State Council, China’s cabinet, acknowledged in a statement released Thursday at the end of a meeting to discuss the dam’s future. The statement offered no specific plans to deal with them, however.

“Although the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and geological disaster prevention,” the statement said.

This will be “incredibly difficult,” warns Lei Hengshun, who teaches at Chongqing University’s Sustainable Development Research Center in Southwestern China. The land on which most of the displaced people were resettled, he points out, “is poor, infertile, and mountainous.”

Resolving the water purification and landslide problems, meanwhile, “will need scientific breakthroughs,” says Yang Yong, an expert on the dam with the Hengduan Mountain environmentalist group in Sichuan province.

The dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, was designed to tame the flood-prone Yangtze River and to generate clean energy, reducing China’s dependence on fossil fuels.

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