China's Three Gorges dam a step closer to completion
Author: Benjamin Kang Lim
The sluicegate of the giant dam at Yichang in the central province of Hubei is due to be shut on Sunday and water from the flood-prone Yangtze river would begin creating a 600-km (365-mile) reservoir, state media said.
The water level is expected to reach 135 metres (443 ft) by June 15, the official Xinhua news agency said. Dam officials plan to raise the water level further next year, ultimately submerging 29 million square metres (312 million square feet) of land.
The controversial $25 billion dam, on which work started in 1993 and is due to finish in 2009, has been criticised fiercely at home and abroad as impractical and an ecological disaster.
Former parliament chief and premier Li Peng, who ignored widespread opposition and championed the project, has called it one of the greatest engineering feats in history.
China says the dam is needed to tame the Yangtze, whose floods killed more than 300,000 people in the last century alone and ranks only behind the Amazon and the Congo rivers in terms of water flow.
But the project forced the uprooting of more than one million Chinese and critics say the flooding of empty towns and villages would bring severe pollution and cause silting by slowing the river's flow.
"The decades of accumulated trash from the villages, hospitals and cemeteries, including highly toxic waste material from the factories, are all still there," dissident writer Dai Qing told Reuters.
"It is hard to estimate, but there are millions of rat corpses lying around in the valley from when the authorities poisoned them in preparation for the flooding," she said.
"These things will all be there when the area is flooded and the water will be used for drinking purposes, so this problem is far from being resolved."
About 1.13 million peasants living along the Yangtze will be resettled - hundreds of thousands have been moved already - before ancient villages are submerged.
More than 1,000 ancient relics are being moved, including the tomb of Liu Bei, king of the state of Shu about 1,700 years ago and a central figure in the classic novel "Three Kingdoms".
The project also has been plagued by corruption and deep cracks appeared in the dam that required repairs.
But the government says there is more to gain than lose from the project, which would help meet future energy demand and begin generating power for the booming Chinese economy this year.
When finished in 2009, the Three Gorges dam will have 26 turbines - the largest in the world - pumping out 18,200 megawatts of electricity, equal to about 10 big coal-fired power stations using 50 million tonnes of coal a year.
Two 700 megawatts generators would begin operation in August and two others in October, Xinhua quoted Three Gorges spokesman Chi Wenjiang as saying. The project would deliver electricity to Shanghai and eight provinces in central, east and south China over the next three years.