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China's Three Gorges Is Taxed by Flooding

BEIJING—China's Three Gorges Dam is facing what could be its toughest challenge, as record-breaking storms raise water levels and doubts about the dam's ability to control floods on the Yangtze River. View Full Image Reuters An officer stands guard as residents watch rising waters at the junction of Yangtze and Jialin rivers in Chongqing, China. State media on Monday warned that weeks of torrential rains have raised water in the Yangtze and its tributaries above levels seen in 1998 when floods killed 4,150 people and forced the evacuation of 18.3 million people. Water flow at the dam could hit 69,000 cubic meters a second as early as Monday or Tuesday, the greatest water surge since the dam became fully operational last year, said an official with the China Three Gorges Corp., which manages the project, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. In 1998, water flowing at 50,000 cubic meters a second devastated huge areas along the banks of the Yangtze in central China. Wang Jingquan, a drought and flood prevention official at the water-resources committee, said the Three Gorges Dam was designed to withstand up to 110,000 cubic meters of water a second. He added that reservoir levels are below the maximum capacity of 175 meters high and that the dam's electricity turbines haven't been operating at full capacity because the area had been suffering from drought. More Archive: Reservoir of Fear At least 146 people have been confirmed dead and some 40 are missing since the start of July after landslides and flooding in storm-hit regions across China. Many victims are from the hilly terrain around Chongqing, the city located upstream on the western end of the 640-kilometer-long reservoir created by the Three Gorges Dam. All told, some 124,000 homes have been destroyed, and more than 1.3 million people have been forced to relocate nationwide, officials said. Economic losses are estimated at 29.5 billion yuan, or $4.4 billion. Shipping along one of the most important inland waterways—essential for ferrying raw materials and goods into central and western China—could be disrupted by the floods. Shipping authorities said over the weekend they could close locks on the dam if water speeds exceed 45,000 cubic meters a second. On Sunday, Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu ordered emergency flood preparations along the Huai River, another major waterway in central China, now bursting over with as much as 50% more rainfall than last year, according to state media. Xinhua/ZUMA Press Water is discharged from the sluices of the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang. The flooding reignites one of the key debates over the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Since the idea of the dam's inception nearly a century ago as a way to tame deadly flooding and generate energy, critics have said its environmental, social and economic costs would be too high. But despite unusually vocal criticism by opponents, the dam was approved in 1992. Proponents said it would generate clean electricity and open up new swaths of the Yangtze for navigation by bigger boats while preventing lethal flooding. More than a million residents along the banks of the Yangtze were relocated to make way for the reservoir, among widespread allegations of corruption and misuse of government funds. Until recent years, the government cracked down on any critics of the dam. Since then, the goals of power generation and flood control have sometimes been in conflict. Regulating water levels can reduce how much electricity is made. In the past, members of the Changjiang Water Resources Commission, the government body that overseas the river basin, have complained that the state-owned company running the dam puts profits ahead of flood prevention. In a move acknowledging its difficult balancing act, China Three Gorges joined with the environmental group the Nature Conservancy to study how to improve management of floodplains and several dams upriver from the Three Gorges. Environmentalists want to increase the amount of water flowing downstream to help restore ecosystems damaged by the dams. Increased water rates could bring in hundreds of millions more dollars in electricity revenue though could raise the risk of flooding. But critics say the dam can't prevent most flooding anyway because the biggest problem is caused by deforestation, erosion and loss of wetlands that act as a natural spongelike buffer along river banks. Questions about the dam's usefulness in flood control comes on top of other issues. The giant dam has also been blamed for increased landslides and seismic activity that could trigger an earthquake. The government also is trying to encourage more than a million residents in the impoverished region around the reservoir to move into nearby cities to alleviate overcrowding and pollution worsened by the initial forced migration to make way for the dam. —Sue Feng contributed to this article.