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Rains expose China's crisis of ecology and economy

China's three-year drought has ended dramatically with torrential rains that have caused widespread flooding with a million people forced from their homes. The rains have also intensified the problems with the notorious Three Gorges dam project.

The worst-hit central and southern Chinese provinces are also the country's agricultural powerhouse. China is the world's biggest producer of rice and cotton, both water-hungry crops. The sight of reservoirs filling is welcome, but the floods have already destroyed at least 171,000 hectares of farmland.

In the province of Jiangxi the floods are the worst on record, and the economic losses are considerable. In Zhejiang province more than 4.4 million people have been affected.

There is flooding also in Hubei province, where the crisis-ridden Three Gorges Dam is located. The world's largest hydro-electric project was supposed to control flooding in the Yangtze River delta, but the reality has proved very different.

China provinces

The Chinese government has admitted that the dam is facing “urgent problems”. Since the 1.5 mile barrier across the Yangtze River was completed in 2006, the reservoir has been plagued by algae and pollution. Because of the drought, water levels in reservoirs south of the barrier have been low. The operating company has been forced to open the sluice gates to ease the crisis, and as a result even the power generation targets have not been met.

The rains may ease the water crisis, but flooding is bad news for an area where it is said that the weight of extra water held back behind the reservoir is causing tremors, erosion and landslides.

More than 1,000 towns and villages were flooded to create the dam reservoir, with 1.4 million people forced to leave their homes and farmland. Now that number may double, as people are moved away from areas endangered by landslips. The whole topography, ecology and hydrology of the great Yangtze river has been destroyed by the dam project.

Many of these citizens will have ended up south of their old homes, in the province of Guangdong, with its megacities clustered round the now heavily-polluted Pearl River delta. It is the workshop of the world, for electronics, clothes, and plastics. Your watch and your jeans were probably made there.

And here, in the city of Zengcheng, just the kind of migrant workers who were displaced by the Three Gorges project are fighting running battles with police and the military. Protests started in the township of Xingtang after officials bullied two migrants, possibly street vendors, a man and his pregnant wife. She was pushed to the ground. Within hours thousands flooded on to the streets in mass demonstrations against the authorities.

Photos and video posted on the Internet show police cars and government offices being set alight. The authorities have cracked down with arrests, beatings and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

The tension is not just about ill-treatment of migrants, but reflects discontent amongst workers faced with unemployment and poverty. Factory orders have collapsed, ending Guangdong’s economic boom and causing huge social tensions. Some factory owners have simply disappeared, leaving workers owed months of back wages. This takes place at a time when the drought has caused a dramatic rise in food prices. Food price inflation in China this month is 11.7%.

Guangdong has 79 million permanent residents and 31 million migrants, who may not be registered but who live and work in the megacities of the Pearl River. They are the displaced landless, shaken off their land by rapid privatisation and industrial development.

Just as the combination of economic crisis and the ecological disaster of Chernobyl shook the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union out of power, so it will be in China, where a powerful revolutionary alliance of the urban and rural poor is being forged.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
23 June 2011

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