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Ecological and Technological Advances Around the World

Aired June 18, 2005 - 19:30:00   ET


STAN GRANT, CNN HOST (voice-over): Coming up this week, Three Gorges, many challenges. It may be taming one of the world's great rivers, but China's engineering marvel is unleashing a torrent of criticism. We take a close look at life on the water's edge.
And later, roam on the range. You don't need 10 fingers to send text messages anymore. These elephants are doing it every hour. Conservationists hope that poachers will be the first to get the message.

(on camera): Hello and welcome. I'm Stan Grant.

When it comes to GLOBAL CHALLENGES, few are greater or more controversial than the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam in Central China. It is the biggest dam, the largest hydroelectric scheme the world has ever seen. When it is finished, it will generate enough energy to equal 15 nuclear power plants. But for all the benefits, there is also a human cost. Hundreds of towns and villages along the Yangtze River will be consigned to history, swallowed up one by one by the rising waters.

For a country that says it is committed to clean energy and sustainable development this is a high profile and multi-billion dollar gamble.


(voice-over): It is an explosion of water. The might of the Yangtze River tamed by a great wall of concrete and steel and released with an awesome fury. It's a display of power and a project that is the very essence of power itself.

The power of a dam construction unequalled on earth. The power of China's government to push it through. The powerlessness of more than a million people swept aside in its wake.

To the Chinese, the Yangtze River is a place of myth. Winding over more than 6,000 kilometers, the longest river in China, the third longest in the world. To journey the Yangtze is to journey China's civilization, its people, its history. Mao Tse-tung famously swam its width and composed an ode to a dam then only just imagined.

"Great plans are afoot. A wall of stone that will stand upstream to the west. The mountain goddess will marvel at a world so changed."

Now others see a world not changed as much as destroyed. Dai Ching has long opposed the dam. She has not given up hope of stopping it.

DAI CHING, DAM OPPONENT: It's too huge. Only we try -- we critics try to suggest stop it, don't have it. Keep the river go through it. But no, because this is political project.

GRANT: It's here that so much concern, controversy surround the dam project. The majestic Three Gorges of the Yangtze and to some the even more breathtaking Little Three Gorges. The Three Gorges stretch more than 200 kilometers, reaching high into the sky. Tourists flock to wind through a living gallery of landscape art, but already this wonder of nature is being altered by a manmade dam. The river has been flooded to 135 meters. It will eventually reach 175.

This was the Little Three Gorges 10 years ago. The water shallow and narrow, exaggerating the sheer cliff face. Only small boats could pass.

This is it today. Still beautiful, but less dramatic, and enough water for tour cruises to pass easily. This couple have come to see for themselves. They're impressed, but concerned.

"This is a kind of natural resource, and the government should find a way to use it, but while you get the energy, you damage the scenery you get here. It's hard to find a balance," he says.

The water level is also raising fears of pollution and land degradation and disease. During the dry winter months the water will be kept at 175 meters, maximizing hydropower generation. During summer, it will be lowered to 145 meters to allow for the flood season.

80-year-old Lei Henshun taught at (INAUDIBLE) University for more than 50 years. A respected environmental expert, he's been trying to raise awareness of this problem for more than a decade. The river bears witness to his fears. It is a muddy brown color. There is floating rubbish and debris, the bodies of dead animals. Medical waste is dumped and washed ashore. Professor Lei says only now is he being heard.

"Now the government is taking the problem very seriously," he says. "But personally I think the actions are a bit late. If we took measures a bit earlier, they would have had a better effect."

"Monitoring results obtained by the environmental department show that with the rise of the water level, the quality of the water has in fact improved instead of deteriorated," this official tells me.

Raising and lowering the river water may cause alarm, yet doing nothing exposes the river and its people to devastating floods. More than a million people have been killed. Millions more left homeless by flooding on the Yangtze over the past 100 years.

The Three Gorges Reservoir, hundreds of the feet deep, nearly 400 miles long, is designed to control the 100 year floods, protecting 15 million people from flood damage.

Then there is China's hunger for power. These huge generators will produce enough energy to equal 15 nuclear power plants. The hydropower plant is the biggest in the world. It's transmission range, 1,000 kilometers, doing away with dirty coal fuel and providing millions with reliable electricity.

As with everything connected to this project, the numbers are massive.

(on camera): Seventeen years to build, a cost of $25 billion U.S., at its peak, 30,000 workers. And at the center of it all, one man.

You're racing against time.

(voice-over): Cao Quanjing is the man in charge of pulling all of this together. Only 38 years old, he is vice president of the project. He spent 20 years working on this in one way or another, planning and then constructing.

From boy to man, he has heard the criticism, the questions about cracks in the dam. He admits to a few, now fixed, but is confident it will stand any test.

CAO QUANJING, THREE GORGES DAM PROJECT: We have advisors from United States and from Austria and also from Japan. We also have international (INAUDIBLE) expertise and we can prove that.

GRANT: Now the end is in sight. Cao Quanjing says under-budget and ahead of time. Chairman Mao's ode to a new landscape admired by the Gods almost a reality.

(on camera): The Chinese government finds itself in a bind. This is a classic story of people versus progress, development versus the environment, and there are no easy answers. What's at stake here is more than just this wondrous beauty but the very social fabric of the country itself.

(voice-over): Twice a month these people come here to worship at this tiny temple. It has been for them a timeless ritual. No more.

Time is against them. Soon their temple will be gone and their town lost to the rising waters of the Yangtze River. Victims of the dam project the government says is in their best interests.

"How can poor people afford to move? They have a problem even to make a living. Most survive on the lowest Social Security fund from the government, about 100 yuen. How to solve our life problems? We have no place to live and many of us are old people and children," she says.

This is the human cost of progress. Hundreds of towns and villages are being swallowed up as the river is flooded for the Three Gorges dam project. More than a million people are losing their homes, their livelihoods, families and friends separated.

It is a sensitive issue for the government. They are keen to show us the success of their relocation program. They take us to model relocated villages where the people tell us they are living better lives in better houses, closer to work and schools.

This lady tells me how the government has provided her with clean, cheap energy, piping methane gas produced by her pigs straight into her home.

"Our living standard has improved indeed. We thank the party and the government. It's much more convenient then before," she says.

Some people are better off. But stay here long enough and a different reality emerges. Even in the most controlled environment, people speak out, telling us about allegations of corruption, money not paid, land lost and fears of an uncertain future.

"Corruption. We should investigate corrupted issues and ask them to compensate the economic losses to our country," he tells me.

Lu Yun Chen (ph) is a farmer in Chingshe (ph). 80 years old, he has lived through the old and new China.

He has a picture of Chairman Mao and reveres it still.

"He is the family God," he tells me, "and we respect him. I told my sons and grandsons we rely on Chairman Mao's revolution."

But China's current leaders are not so God-like, especially the local officials. 40 billion yuen, $5 billion U.S., is being allocated for relocation. Those who organize their own resettlement can be paid about 20,000 yuen. Others half that, and others still who go through government relocation programs as little as 7,000 yuen, less than a thousand U.S. dollars. People complain they are paying out of their own pockets, and Lu, for one, wants to know where the money has gone.

"I'm not afraid. I dare to speak out and take action and beat down those officials," he says.

The government itself acknowledges corruption is a problem, its relocation office prosecuting those who break the law. Some can even be sentenced to death, although it hasn't happened yet. But finding and proving corruption is a tricky proposition if our experience is a guide. Officials try to keep us far away from ordinary people.

This is the city of Yuenyang (ph), more than 150,000 people relocated into new houses, a bright new city built from the ground up. But there is another Yuenyang (ph), the original city, where a way of life is being torn down. To get there, we take an early morning cab drive, slipping under the guard of our government minders.

Our taxi driver repeats a familiar tale, poor people paying out of their own pockets to move.

"Yes, we had to pay a lot. We only got several thousand to move, but we need to pay about 10 times that for a new house," she says.

(on camera): I don't want to get out of the car and speak to the camera in public for fear that local government officials will spot me and perhaps confiscate our material. In fact, they didn't want us here at all. We were told by the officials that this city had been completely submerged, it was no longer here. Well, in fact, we came here and discovered that yes, indeed, much of it is still standing. There are people living here. Many of them don't want to move. In fact, many of them can't afford to move and simply don't know what their future holds.

(voice-over): Much of the city is being torn down. People still live among the ruins. We met a group of ladies outside the town heading for their local temple. You can see here the conditions they have to live under. Walking past dangerous ruins, pollution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is pure (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Absolutely disgusting.

GRANT: And sewage running like water. These are the people of a town the government prefers to tell us no longer exists and soon in fact will be gone.

"We need to move, even if we miss our home, because that is the party policy," she says.

This lady points out her home here among the rubble, but she is afraid of being seen on camera, fearful of what may happen to her. She and all the others must go. That the government makes clear.

"If we have carried out the government policies but our persuasion proves futile, then we would forcefully tear down their houses to be submerged within the time limit. But basically we will protect their legal rights. What we do is move their possessions to their new homes through force without damaging any of them," he says.

"How can they force us to go? We just can't afford to leave and we don't get a house to move to," she tells me.

But leave they will, one way or another. China is growing. It is hungry for development and the energy needed to fuel it. The people of old Yuenyang (ph) remain out of sight with their faith but so little hope.



GRANT: Constructing the Three Gorges Dam means working with nature, the force of the mighty Yangtze River. For others, working with animals can be an equally tricky proposition, particularly tracking them in the wild. But now advances in technology are making that task easier and more accurate.

Gary Strieker went to Kenya to find out how it's being done.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There she is. That's her. She's afraid

GARY STRIEKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The object here is not just to dart an elephant, but to do it in such a quiet way that the animals don't even know a dart has been fired and don't connect the presence of humans to an elephant suddenly falling asleep. It's crucial that elephants allow these researchers to get up close so the animals can be darted and fitted with radio collars.

This female has worn collars for 12 years, providing valuable information about her and her family and now her last collar is taken off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Although we do disturb the elephants a little bit, the data that we get is going to help them survive, and that's absolutely the bottom line.

STRIEKER: About a thousand elephants range over this dry landscape that includes Sanburo (ph) Game Reserve in northern Kenya. 45 of them are now wearing active radio collars, essential devices for studying where and when elephants move across a region covering thousands of square kilometers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have (INAUDIBLE) frequency. The closer we get to her, the stronger the signal will be. Hang on, I've got something.

STRIEKER: Wildlife researchers have been tracking elephants with radio collars for more than 30 years. Most collars now include GPS devices that receive global position signals from satellites that record the elephant's exact geographic location.

Collars like these would store GPS data that could only be retrieved by removing the collar and connecting its chip to a computer for downloading.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like a time capsule and we don't get the information until we recover the collars.

STRIEKER: Later collars, like this one, have transmitters that communicate stored data through a radio connection. But this collar is the latest and most advanced. It sends the elephants GPS information in a text message using its own cell phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The biggest difference in this newest generation of collars using mobile phone technology has been the ability to get that information in realtime. We are able to ask the elephant at any given time, where are you now, and the elephant will send us a text message saying this is where I am right now.

STRIEKER: The project is assisted by a local mobile phone company that has cell phone towers in the area. The collar sends a text message every hour updating the elephant's location. If the collar is beyond the range of a cell tower, it stores the data until the tower picks up its signal again. Logging into their database anytime, researchers can see in fine detail exactly where the elephant has traveled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the dots here are the positions of the elephant. Each one representing the peak of an hour. What this tells us very nicely is the overall movement of the elephant up this river valley.

STRIEKER (on camera): By collecting all this data with this new radio collar technology, these researchers are building a solid understanding of the way elephants use this landscape, and that will be critical knowledge as they try to find ways for elephants to have a long-term future here, to co-exist with a growing population of humans.

(voice-over): For centuries, coexistence with elephants has been a tradition with the Samburo (ph) people.

Their folklore is filled with stories of elephants. Tribal clans are named for them. But as their population grows and more of these pastoral people start planting crops, there will be greater risk of conflicts between the Samburo (ph) and elephants.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Got dots close together and suddenly they zoom up here. He's traveling very fast and the reason is because there is a village in this area and he can only come here at night and skirt around it.

STRIEKER: This study shows what areas of land elephants need to survive and what corridors they use for traveling between those areas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And by establishing these corridors we can tell people, you know, if you leave these corridors open, then you'll have less conflict, but if you start putting your settlements and your villages right on a migratory corridor, that's when you get problems with elephants and humans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Elephants are being poached. If we don't know about it, there's nothing we can do.

STRIEKER: Meanwhile, the project also monitors the causes of elephant deaths.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These elephants are situated in a very risky region where you have the Capetown to Cairo road passing through their range.

STRIEKER: On the black market, there is still a high price for illegal ivory, and this study shows 20 percent of elephants that die here are killed by poachers.

Wildlife authorities need early warning if poaching should increase, and these researchers would be the first to know, receiving phone messages telling them where the elephants go and what happens to them.

Gary Strieker for GLOBAL CHALLENGES in the Samburo (ph) Game Reserve, Kenya.


GRANT: Well, it always pays to phone home. On that note, we have to leave you. That is all we have time for with GLOBAL CHALLENGES. I'm Stan Grant. Thanks for watching.



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