China says Three Gorges mega-dam threats controlled
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese officials in charge of the huge Three Gorges Dam said on Tuesday they had spent billions of yuan to guard against deadly landslides around the reservoir and would seek to minimize threats as waters reached their peak.
The dam, the world's largest hydro-electric feat, seeks to tame the Yangtze River, while moving up to 1.4 million people, many of them poor hill farmers from Hubei in central China and neighboring Chongqing municipality.
Scientists studying the Three Gorges area have said that rising waters have strained already brittle shores, triggering landslides, which may worsen when waters reach a maximum height of 175 meters (574 feet) above sea level in the next year or two.
But the officials told a news conference that 12 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) had been allocated over past years to "geological repairs," and they were confident that such efforts were working.
"I would describe it as effective control. Of course effective control doesn't mean that in the future there won't be any landslides or threats that arise," said Wang Xiaofeng, director of the Three Gorges project construction committee office.
"The Chinese government is closely monitoring and is intensifying repair work, and I think we can avoid losses as far as is possible."
Li Yong'an, the general manager of the China Yangtze River Three Gorges Project Development Corp, said the dam had not triggered any "major" landslides along the mainstream of the Yangtze, a phrasing that pointedly left unanswered any effects on tributaries flowing into the reservoir.
Li also refused to say how many places around the dam face serious land instability or how many people may have to move because of the threat.
"There are no specific figures," he told Reuters, referring the questions to other departments.
Last week, a bus was crushed under a landslide at Badong County in Hubei, near a tributary to the dam, killing 31 people. A worker on a nearby railway construction site was also killed and two were missing.
Landslides across the dam area in the summer killed at least 13 people, according to local news reports and the dam environmental agency. Some villagers have already been told to move to avoid possible landslides.
Since the 2,309-metre-long dam was finished in 2003, the water level has risen in stages, reaching 156 meters last year.
Tuesday's statements were the latest in a government offensive to defend the project against claims that pollution and geological threats are piling up as the waters rise and strain brittle slopes around the 660-km (410-mile) reservoir.
Officials appeared to give credence to some fears in September when they warned of a possible "environmental catastrophe" from pollution and landslides -- a departure from years of bright official praise for the dam.
But Wang, who attended that meeting, said the warning was nothing new and environmental threats were under control.
A senior engineer on the dam blasted recent foreign reports on problems with the project as "distorted" and exaggerated. Engineer Pan Jiazheng said environmental problems, such as algae outbreaks along tributaries, were nothing major or unexpected.
"Don't describe a kitten as a tiger," Pan said.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)