Lives, Interrupted—China and the Three Gorges Dam

 Lives, Interrupted—China and the Three Gorges Dam

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Every morning, while visiting the small town of Todos Santos on the Pacific side of Baja California, I passed by a fenced enclosure on the beach. Inside, protected by tarps and buckets, were hundreds of baby sea turtles awaiting their release into the ocean. When that day arrived, we were each handed a turtle, no larger than a chicken egg, to deploy on their journey into the Pacific’s currents. The surf rolled forward to receive them, tossing some back toward the sand, while others disappeared into the foam and emerald depths of the sea. About one in a thousand sea turtles survive to adulthood.

When I ponder the economic disruption we face in America, and in my native homeland of China, I think about the sea turtles, their brief moment in the palm of our hands.

It’s small comfort to people in China who have been uprooted by the Three Gorges dam to know that the hydroelectric power generated by the project will feed a global economic engine. The region’s farmers all too often feel the fist of the Communist government’s policy. A recent study by Green Watershed, a non-government organization based in Yunnan province, found that many of the 7,000 inhabitants who lost homes and the 30,000 farmers who surrendered land for dam projects were living in dire poverty. Some have resorted to picking through refuse to make a living.

In metropolitan areas like Chongqing, it’s easy to ignore the scavengers. They root through the trash bins and carry their bags on bamboo poles with a quiet resolve, as comfortable beneath the skyscrapers as they are amid the alleyway produce stands. And yet, my encounters in 2006 in the ghost town of Fengdu revealed a longer shadow of desperation among the poor. The town, once the famed waypoint for travelers the world over, had been reduced to rubble. On the town’s remaining street, I met a gaggle of demolition workers chiseling away at the remaining half a dozen buildings. One told me that he had been a farmer until the government seized his land. He stuffed his hands in his pockets to depict corruption--the resettlement funds all too frequently got siphoned off along the way to the people who needed them.

The Chinese government recently announced that it will invest 124 billion yuan, about 19 billion US dollars, to support the migrants in 20 counties affected by the Three Gorges dam. This includes job training for tourism and the electronics industry, as well as the building of schools. If these objectives can be accomplished over the next ten years, it may help mend the social fabric rent apart by the sharp edge of capitalism.

And yet, the problems are so complex and intertwined that I can’t help but feel a pragmatist’s skepticism. Added to the millions displaced by dam building is the floating population of 200 million rural migrants who form the underclass of China’s cities. They have hounded me at the Summer Palace with tchotchkes (small toys, baubles and knickknacks), offered to carry my bags, and liberated me of the cash in my wallet. While waiting for a ferry going down the river to the Three Gorges town of Wushan, I talked to a fellow with his carrying pole by his side. Only a few years older than me, he said that a hard life had aged him, and without education he did not have a chance to improve his circumstances. This man, and millions more, are the fledgling turtles afloat in China’s big sea. In this great tide of change, it’s sink or swim if you’re poor, sick, or too old to work.

Migrations and disruptions have always been a part of life. Catastrophic events seem to crop up in the news so often that it’s easy to forget about the lasting effects felt by the people whose lives are uprooted. How can we do right by the victims of the Haitian earthquake, the fishermen ruined in the wake of the Gulf Oil spill, the citizens of Japan living in the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant? What about the millions displaced by the Three Gorges project, as well as by dams the world over?

It’s time we examined our impact on the planet, beyond our myopic lenses as nations and individuals. Restoration efforts are one step, but they are not enough. The salvation of a few hundred sea turtles won’t restore the decimated species of the world’s oceans, and neither will a hundred billion yuan bring back lost livelihoods and the ancient wisdom submerged beneath Yangtze waters.


Li Miao Lovett writes about cultural and environmental issues from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED Public Radio, China Rights Forum, and Words Without Borders. Her debut novel, In the Lap of the Gods, is a tale of love, loss, and rebellion amidst the rising waters of the Three Gorges Dam.