China has given the order for a massive release of water from the controversial Three Gorges Dam in a bid to ease the worst drought on Asia's biggest river in five decades.
Five billion cubic meters of water will be released downstream between now and June 10 for irrigation, drinking water, and the preservation of wildlife, officials said.
The drought is being blamed largely on a lack of recent rainfall in the Yangtze delta region, home to 400 million people and accounting for 40 percent of China's national economy.
But the U.S. $22.5 billion Three Gorges Dam project itself is also a contributing factor, experts say.
Some central regions of China have seen 40 percent less rainfall than the average this spring.
State flood control and drought relief officials estimate that 4.4 million people and 3.2 million farm animals are affected by the drought, which has left thousands of boats stranded and led to the closure of a 220 kilometer stretch of the river to container shipping.
The order to release some of the water from the Three Gorges reservoir comes just days after Beijing admitted "urgent" problems with the dam project, marking a sharp change in official rhetoric.
In a rare statement issued Wednesday following a meeting with premier Wen Jiabao, China's cabinet said: "There are problems that must be urgently resolved in the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and preventing geological disasters."
The dam also had "impacted" downstream shipping, irrigation, and water supplies, the statement said.
Work began on the Three Gorges Dam in 1993 amid fierce criticism from environmentalists, senior officials, and overseas rights groups, and the hydroelectric plant began producing electricity in 2008.
'Impossible to cover up'
Beijing-based author Dai Qing, whose book "Yangtze! Yangtze!" slammed the dam proposal and earned her a year in jail in the wake of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, said she had no sense of satisfaction in the government's statement, however.
"We in no sense feel this to be a victory," Dai said. "They have decided to go public with this matter because the multifaceted disasters caused by the Three Gorges project have become impossible to cover up, even if they wanted to."
"The beautiful Yangtze, one of China's major rivers, has already been ruined," she said. "They only start consulting people when the problems are already there."
She said the government is still deducting money from state-sector employees for the Three Gorges construction fund.
"China has seen a succession of disasters, and yet no one has taken responsibility or been punished for them," Dai said. "Obviously this can't be allowed to continue, so they must find out who is to blame and pursue them."
Overseas environmental groups have pointed to problems with large hydroelectric dams like the Three Gorges project for many years.
"Large dams ... become uneconomic in terms of drought, and may become safety risks in times of extreme floods," Peter Bosshard, policy director at the group International Rivers, said in an e-mailed response to questions on Wednesday.
"The current drought not only affects the Three Gorges Dam, but has severely impacted power generation at hundreds of hydropower projects throughout Central China."
He said China needed to improve water conservation to avoid similar problems in future.
"Water use, particularly in China's agricultural sector, is still rather wasteful, with leaky canals and pipes and thirsty crops that are no longer appropriate in a time of climate change," Bosshard said.
The government's stark admission has sparked a flurry of criticism in official media and from netizens.
"Back then we were young and hot-headed, and we thought China needed a huge project like this for the prestige of the nation," Lu Yaoru, former deputy head of a government think-tank assessing the Three Gorges project, told an official Shanghai-based newspaper in a recent interview.
Lu said he had written to the government in 1993 warning them that the problems with the dam wouldn't center around its technology but around the mass migrations and ecological destruction it would bring with it.
Netizens reacted with scorn to Lu's interview, published in the Eastern Morning News.
"This is patriotism with Chinese characteristics," tweeted user @ZhangXuezhong on the popular Sina microblogging service.
Fujian-based rights activist You Jingyou agreed. "The Three Gorges is purely a national glory project," he tweeted. "It has never been a reliable way to prevent droughts and floods or to alleviate power shortages."
He said he supports growing calls among Chinese experts for the migrants to return to the reservoir area and for improvements to the ecosystem there.
'No economic security'
Relocated resident Tao Wenfa said he had seen little of the compensation measures promised at the start of the project to the 1.4 million people who were forced to make way for the reservoir.
"The policies come down from the central government, but they're not implemented on the ground," Tao said. "We have no economic security, having been forced out here to live in the sticks."
"We used to have high hopes for this project, not just for this generation, but for our children's generation. But the local governments do as they please," he said.
"I was detained twice and beaten up once by the county authorities."
And a migrant surnamed Li from Wuxia—the once-scenic "Gorge of the Witch"—said her family is still waiting for permanent housing following their move away from the area 10 years ago.
She said that younger migrants have gone to find work in factories elsewhere, while the older people are living on social welfare payments.
"Those of us over 40 are getting by on social assistance and living in rented housing," Li said. "We still haven't got secure housing after all these years."
"There was such a fuss, and all that happened was a few people got rich," she said.
Reported by Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Ding Xiao for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.