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In Three Gorges’ controversial shadow, China builds another dam

June 9, 1997

XIAOLANGDI, China (AP) _ Fifty-five ton trucks hurtle down the gravel road. They carry desk-size rocks to a brown and gray gash on the steep, wearily farmed banks of the Yellow River.

China is tearing up another swath of countryside to build another monstrous dam. But this time, absent are cries that peasants’ lives, the environment and cultural relics are being trampled in the march for progress.

Xiaolangdi, China’s second largest dam, has advanced quietly in the shadows of controversy that have tainted the colossal Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River. Its success results from a mixture of design and chance.

Development experts, financiers and even some environmental groups find it hard to fault Xiaolangdi’s conception and purpose: to end the recurring flooding that has given the Yellow River its reputation as a torrent of misery.

Even for its few critics, especially archaeologists unhappy with submerging the river valley that nourished early Chinese civilization, Xiaolangdi (pronounced shou-lahng-dee) is largely a sideshow.

``The Three Gorges is just so much bigger″ that it has diverted attention from Xiaolangdi, said Yu Weichao, the archaeologist head of the national History Museum who has tried to rally support to save Yangtze relics from inundation.

``Most people don’t understand Xiaolangdi,″ Yu said. ``The outcry has not been enough.″

When completed in four years, the Xiaolangdi dam will hold back a reservoir 75 miles long. It will improve irrigation, feed electricity to the rapidly urbanizing North China plain, slow the dangerous build-up of silt and contain even a devastating once-a-millennium flood.

``Once and for all it should stop the flooding,″ gushes Pieter Bottelier, who heads the World Bank’s operations in China.

The bank is so enthusiastic it has pledged loans to cover nearly a quarter of the $4 billion project. The U.S. Export-Import Bank is kicking in $55 million.

Both banks shied from lending to the Three Gorges dam because of the controversies of that project, which will create a reservoir five times longer than Xiaolangdi’s. It also is forcing the relocation of 1.3 million people, nearly seven times the number being moved for Xiaolangdi.

Grief, not optimism, is the usual emotion associated with the Yellow River. The 3,300-mile river has changed course numerous times, often drowning peasants by the tens of thousands.

Over centuries, silt carried from the windy plateaus of western China and deposited downstream has raised the riverbed. It now lies higher than the surrounding countryside for much of the river’s final 500-mile run to the Bohai Sea.

Every year another half-inch must be added to Yellow River levees to prevent catastrophic flooding during the rainy summer. Every decade or so a big storm proves too much.

``The real problem are these massive mud walls that sweep down the Yellow River every ten years or so. They wreak havoc and destroy everything in their path,″ said Steve McGurk, who studied Xiaolangdi’s economic feasibility for the World Bank.

Xiaolangdi is supposed to slow the cycle of silting and death, by trapping some sediments and flushing others farther downstream. By controlling the flow of water, the dam will also keep the river from running dry in the lower reaches as it has in recent springs.

By the time the reservoir is filled in 2013, 171,000 people will have been relocated, most of them poor peasants.

The thousand peasants who farmed the slopes where the dam is going up have already been moved to new brick houses, about 10 miles from their old cave homes.

Chinese people ``have a self-sacrificing spirit,″ said Xi Meihua, director of resettlement for the dam project. ``They are willing to move in accordance with the needs of the country.″

Although those who switched to factory work or private trading say their lives are better, those without the skills or desire to stop farming disagree.

``My life’s not as good as before. I had more land,″ said Wang Ruifang, who grows wheat and corn on a third of an acre to feed his family of five. ``Now the government doesn’t care.″

Despite the cost in money and disrupted lives, Xiaolangdi does not offer a permanent fix to the Yellow River’s troubles. After 20 years, sediment will fill 40 percent of Xiaolangdi reservoir, and the riverbed will slowly rise.

``After 20 years, we will only keep the dam for floods, not for siltation,″ said Wang Xianru, deputy director for the government company building the dam. ``At that time our grandchildren will need to think of something.″

One solution, experts say, is extensive planting and flattening of steep hills in the Yellow River’s upper reaches. That would take 300 years.

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