YICHANG, China—China is about to finish erecting the last segment of the Three Gorges Dam, its biggest construction project since the Great Wall.
On Saturday, workers will pour concrete to top off the dam, concluding a mile-and-a-half barrier that eventually will extend a vast reservoir 370 miles up the Yangtze River.
"We cannot say the Three Gorges project is perfect. We'll have to wait 30 years to make that judgment," said Cao Guangjing, the vice general manager of the construction company for the project.
Yet much of China seems to be feting the dam as a symbol of the nation's global power and vitality at the outset of the 21st century.
After a celebration at the dam on Saturday, workers will still need until 2008 to finish auxiliary projects, such as a ship elevator, and install all of the 32 turbines that will power the world's biggest hydroelectric project. When the last turbine whirs to life, the dam is expected to provide one-ninth of China's gargantuan energy needs.
China says the $28 billion dam will help reduce the frequency of killer floods in the lower Yangtze, generate power equivalent to that of 18 nuclear plants and ease seagoing vessels' navigation deep into western China, where development trails the booming coast.
Almost since day one in 1993, tremors of protest have erupted near the Three Gorges Dam, which sits alongside a geologic fault line. Its environmental impact remains a heated issue. Some people already uprooted by the huge reservoir's footprint complain bitterly of inadequate compensation. About 160,000 of them will be forced to reside far from their original homes, not just on higher ground.
China's ruling Communist Party stifles nearly all criticism, and so the dam has come to symbolize not only China's strength but also other facets of China's rise, including its disregard for the environment and authoritarian control of the peasantry.
Authorities recently cut the phone line to one of the most vociferous peasant critics of the relocations, Fu Xiancai. He couldn't be reached Wednesday.
Dai Qing, a Chinese writer and longtime opponent of the dam, calls the Three Gorges Dam "a ridiculous and evil farce" that will haunt China's leaders.
The final verdict on the dam hasn't been delivered, though. On Wednesday, the project's managers squired around three busloads of foreign journalists to peer down the impressive spillway from the 600-foot high dam's rim. The managers touted the security measures in place should disaster—natural or manmade—strike the project.
"We are completing the dam eight months ahead of schedule," said Wang Xiangtan, the deputy director of dam construction, as he signaled the final spot where concrete will be poured Saturday.
The next big test for the dam will begin in late September, when the level of the upstream reservoir will climb to 512 feet, then toward an eventual top height of 574 feet in 2009, leaving vast new areas inundated. The flooding is expected to trigger some landslides on steep slopes.
Still to be seen is the impact on wildlife in the river's ecosystem, such as the endangered Siberian crane, the Chinese river dolphin and the huge Chinese sturgeon.
Also yet to be seen is the long-term consequence of the forced relocation of such a huge number of people, eventually numbering 1.2 million. This, one official said, may mark the project's ultimate impact.
"It will determine if the Three Gorges project is successful or not," said Li Yong'an, the president of the Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corp.
China says it has prepared for virtually every contingency to protect the dam, which contains twice as much concrete as the Itaipu in Brazil, which was the world's largest dam before the Three Gorges project.
"Last November, we conducted anti-terrorist maneuvers at the dam site," Cao said. "We can rule out the possibility of dam failure from terrorist attack."
If enemy warplanes make a run at the dam, as a U.S. Pentagon report last year indicated that Taiwan might do if attacked, "China's military will have the ability to safeguard the Three Gorges project," Cao said.
In the shadow of nuclear war or other cataclysm, Cao said dam overseers would lower the reservoir, which may eventually cover 395 square miles, to prevent a deluge.
"Within two or three days, the whole reservoir will be drawn down," Cao said.
He said seismologists foresee an earthquake with a maximum magnitude of 6 striking the zone, but that the dam can withstand a considerably stronger quake.
The Three Gorges Dam will prevent massive flooding in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River region except when rains reach a scale of once-a-century intensity, said Feng Zhengpeng, a hydropower specialist with China's Three Gorges Power Corp.
Deaths from flooding are a sensitive topic in China. The failure of the Banqiao Dam in central Henan province in 1975 precipitated other dam failures that killed 230,000 people, the deadliest dam-related disaster in history. News of the calamity was officially hushed for two decades.
Three Gorges officials still fend off questions about construction quality following reports in 2000 of small cracks in the dam's left bank.
"The cracks are mainly surface cracks. They will not affect the stability of the dam," said Wang, the deputy construction director.
China expects a fivefold increase in freight tonnage moving up and down the Yangtze, Asia's longest river and the world's third longest behind the Nile and the Amazon. Ease of transport will be a boon to vehicle manufacturers and other producers in Chongqing and other major cities upstream.
Under a blazing sun, barges laden with coal and tourist cruise ships moved slowly through the two-way, five-stage set of locks on the dam's northern edge. Transit takes two hours, 40 minutes. Once a one-stage ship lift is complete, transit of the dam site may take only 40 minutes.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Three Gorges
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