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New plan to protect Three Gorges area
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In the wake of controversy over the impact of the Three Gorges Dam, China has pledged to take more measures to protect the environment in the area.

The new measures, announced by the office of the Three Gorges Project Committee of the State Council in a statement on Tuesday, consist of seven projects designed to address possible environmental problems and an environment monitoring system to do the assessing.

"It is still a long way to go if we speak of the environmental protection issues of the project, although more than half the construction work has been completed," said the office in the statement.

The office said it will strengthen the protection of the country's water sources and draft plans to guarantee water supply for relocated people. It will also enhance plans for the sustainable use of the dam and plans to improve the environment of submerged areas.

The office has pledged to make more efforts to prevent cities, towns, villages and enterprises neighbouring the dam from dumping pollutants, to improve protection of biological diversity of the area, and to establish a reporting and emergency response mechanism in case of water pollution accidents by building an environment monitoring system.

"We want to build a first-class hydropower facility out of the project, but we also aim for a good environment," the office said in the statement.

The Three Gorges dam, located on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, the country's longest, was launched in 1993 with a budget of 180 billion yuan (about 22.5 billion U.S. dollars) in an effort to generate power and to tame periodic devastating floods on the Yangtze.

The total project comprises a 185-meter-high dam, completed in early 2006, a five-tier ship lock and the 660-km-long reservoir.

However, the gigantic dam project has come under worries over its damages to the environment as it heads toward completion before 2009.

Chinese officials and experts have admitted at a forum held in Wuhan that the Three Gorges Dam project has caused an array of ecological ills, including more frequent landslides and pollution. They warned if preventive measures are not taken, there could be an environmental "catastrophe".

Tan Qiwei, vice mayor of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis next to the reservoir, said the shore of the reservoir had collapsed in 91 places and a total of 36 km had caved in.

Frequent geological disasters have threatened the lives of residents around the reservoir area, said Huang Xuebin, head of the Headquarters for Prevention and Control of Geological Disasters in the Three Gorges Reservoir.

The office's director Wang Xiaofeng, however, argued the environmental impact of China's Three Gorges dam has been less damaging than feared.

The environmental impact of the dam did not go beyond the scope predicted by the feasibility report in 1991, and in some aspects, they are even less severe than predicted, the office said in the statement, echoing comments made by Wang just days ago.

The statement also said the positive impacts of the gigantic dam should on the whole outweigh the negatives, citing an official report of environmental assessment of the project.

The office said negative environmental consequences that may come along with China's Three Gorges dam would not affect the feasibility of the project.

In the statement, the office highlighted the flood control effects of the dam and said the environment of the construction area is good, according to their monitoring.

The office said the country has devoted a great amount of money to preventing geological disasters in the reservoir area, which used to experience frequent cases of landslide before the dam was built.

The Chinese government has invested heavily in programs designed to restore and conserve the ecology of the Three Gorges area in recent years, including 12 billion yuan (about 1.5 billion U.S. dollars) spent on trying to harness geological disasters such as landslides.

No major geological disasters or related casualties have happened in the reservoir area since water level was raised to 156 meters last year, the statement said in reiteration of comments by Wang.

The statement revealed power generating units at the dam had turned out a total 193 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity by September since July 2003, and had provided power supply for energy-thirsty southern and eastern China as well as central China.

It said the key project has involved an investment of 45.7 billion yuan by September, with 28.6 billion yuan spent on power generation projects and 38 billion yuan for relocating people.

The combined investment was kept within the project's budget sanctioned by the government, 92 percent of the budget if calculated at prices back in 1993 when construction started.

(Xinhua News Agency November 21, 2007)

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