Government-funded institutions have been quietly assessing possible recourses. Officials say they've spent more than $1.6 billion on fortifying landslide-prone areas and will spend an additional $3.2 billion on water cleanup over the next three years. In January the CTGPC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nature Conservancy allowing that organization to consult on species protection and river health in the dam area. China's Ministry of Health, meanwhile, is trying to control schistosomiasis infections with a combination of drugs and applications of molluscicides, pesticides that wipe out the disease's snail carriers.
But these measures may not be sufficient to avert disaster. In February China's State Environmental Protection Administration said reservoir water quality targets had not been reached despite a cleanup effort that had been underway since 2001. And fighting schistosomiasis requires a more holistic, multi-pronged approach—particularly now that ecosystems in the Three Gorges region have been altered. To ward off an outbreak, Davis says, the government would have to prevent the use of night soil as fertilizer, build cement irrigation ditches, and ensure area villagers access to clean water. So far, that hasn't happened.
In the wake of media reports about the government's concerns, officials began to backpedal. In a November 2007 interview with state news agency Xinhua, State Council's Wang claimed that "no major geological disasters or related casualties" had occurred since the reservoir's water level was raised in 2006; five days later, the earth in Badong crumbled and the railroad tunnel landslide wiped out the bus and its passengers.
Following a brief period of openness, discussion of the dam's environmental effects has once again become largely taboo in China. Government officials fear that continued free discussion of the project's ramifications could lead to civil unrest. One internationally published Chinese scientist working in the Yangtze Basin declined to comment publicly, noting, "This is a very sensitive topic…. I can't give hypotheses."
Despite the Three Gorges dam's growing list of problems, however, hydropower remains an integral—and ostensibly green—component of China's energy mix. China still draws 82 percent of energy from coal, but large dams are crucial to the country's climate change program, which aims to increase its proportion of electricity from renewable resources from the current 7.2 percent to 15 percent by 2020. Over one third of that will come from hydropower—more than from any other source. Twelve new dams are planned for the upper Yangtze alone.
The logistical and environmental hurdles involved in executing these dams underscore China's commitment to hydropower. The Yangtze's newest dams include several smaller projects that are necessary to alleviate sedimentation caused by the Three Gorges reservoir. In his 2007 report to the National People's Congress, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that China had relocated 22.9 million people to make room for its large hydroprojects.
China's original goal was to fill the reservoir to its maximum level by 2013. Despite all the trouble, that target was moved up to 2009, Fan says, to boost hydropower output by an additional 2.65 billion kilowatt-hours each year.
"For the economic interests and profit of the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation," he says, "that's very important. But the function of any river, including the Yangtze, is not only to produce power. At the very least, [a river] is also important for shipping, alleviating pollution, sustaining species and ecosystems, and maintaining a natural evolutionary balance."
"The Yangtze doesn't belong to the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation," Fan adds. "It belongs to all of society."