Reporter's Notebook: A Journey Down the Yangtze

There have been few outright protests even as families abandoned homes they may have occupied for generations. But there is a simmering bitterness, particularly against corrupt local officials who allegedly skimmed some of the relocation compensation the government earmarked for ordinary people.

In Fengdu I met a man tending goats by the river -- his name is Dai Jifan, and he used to run a hostel for tourists who came to visit the town's famous Temple of the Ghosts. But the rising water level submerged his hostel, and the local party chief stole the money he was meant to get in return. Now the water level is rising to the bottom floor of the house where he lives, but he still has no money to relocate. The goats he keeps earn him barely enough money to eat. "What am I to do?" he asked. "I can only live life one day at a time."

Another big problem is that the slower flow of the river is allowing pollution to build up. Xiang Chun, a biology graduate from Chongqing University who is working to clean up the river, said pollution has increased faster than predicted.

"Between economic development and environmental protection there is a conflict," he said, as we floated down the river in a small boat. "Who is to decide which gets priority?"

Who indeed? Until recently the government has been promoting growth at any cost, but pressure has been growing for a greener approach to economic development. There have been numerous protests around the country about bad air, toxic water and untreated industrial discharges.

Some 300 million Chinese do not have access to clean drinking water from their taps, and over half of China's rivers are so polluted they do not support any fish. More recently the government has been embarrassed by negative publicity over Beijing's air pollution that could affect the Olympic Games, particularly outdoors endurance sports like the marathon.

So at his widely watched keynote speech at the five-year Communist Party Congress, China's leader Hu Jintao said that economic growth had been achieved "at an excessively high cost of resources and the environment" and promised to increase government spending to control pollution.

How that will affect the Yangtze remains to be seen -- the river receives an estimated 14 billion tons of waste every year, and there is often a big difference between what the central government in Beijing announces and what gets implemented by local officials on the ground.

As we passed through the narrow gorges that give the dam its name, I couldn't help noticing how dirty the water has become. And one could also see some of the landslides along the steep banks of the reservoir that scientists say is caused by the rising reservoir levels.

Coming to Shanghai

Downriver from the dam I stayed a couple of nights in Yichang -- one restaurant had a large buffet on the central table which included delicacies such as turtle and dog meat. Not to my taste, but in a country of 1.3 billion people where many still vividly remember famine you are reminded that people's choice of food springs from a different set of calculations. Chinese say they can eat anything they cannot build a house on.

I passed through Wuhan, where Mao famously swam across the Yangtze in 1956. Somehow it is hard to imagine China's leaders stripping off and jumping into the river today with all its toxic pollutants.

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