January 28, 2006:
[achtung! kunst] *archaeology* : Massive rescue operation (South-North Water Diversion project)
LONDON. China is mounting a massive operation to rescue cultural relics from hundreds of archaeological sites threatened by the South-North Water Diversion project, a hugely ambitious 100 billion yuan ($12.4 billion) scheme to divert 44 billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze River every year to the arid northern provinces along three canals running through the eastern, central, and western parts of the country. Each of the canals is over 750 miles in length. So great is the urgency of the rescue mission that almost all other archaeological activities in China have been suspended so that archaeologists from across the country can concentrate on the sites in the path of the canals.
The project was first proposed in the late 1950s, when construction began on the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Haijiang river, a tributary of the Yangtze in Hubei province. Finally filled in 1974, this caused considerable damage to many cultural heritage sites, little publicised at the time. The scheme was revived in 2002, and it is now expected that the eastern canal will start carrying water to the Shandong Province in 2007, while the central canal running from Danjiangkou to Beijing, is set to open in 2010.
Last November, the Chinese government announced that a special fund of 50 million yuan ($6.2 million) would be set aside for the protection of 45 important cultural heritage sites threatened by the construction of the eastern and central canals, although these are only a small proportion of the 788 sites identified by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) as being in danger.
Despite attempts to avoid a repeat of the disastrous situation with the Three Gorges Dam project, where a lack of funding and co-ordination led to a hasty and ill-prepared archaeological rescue, many fear that, once again, the government’s response has been too little, too late. In a report in China Daily, an official from the department responsible for the project admitted that repeated revisions to the routes of the canals had “led to cultural protection lagging behind the construction of the two canals”.
The affair has exposed the increasing frustration of Chinese archaeologists in the face of a series of giant hydroelectric projects in which little consideration has been given to the preservation of cultural heritage. According to the China Heritage Project newsletter, published by the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at The Australian National University, Canberra, until recently discussion of the environmental and heritage consequences of these projects has been routinely suppressed and details of meetings at which dissenting views were aired have been construed as “classified information”.
In 2002, there was outrage at revelations of the government’s attempts to impose a blanket ban on information concerning the Zipingpu Dam in Southwest China, which threatened the 2,250-year-old Dujiangyan weirs, the country’s oldest hydraulic system and a Unesco world heritage site. However, since then, there have been indications that a more open debate concerning the ecological and cultural repercussions of these giant projects may be emerging.
In the case of the south-north diversion project, the State Bureau of Cultural Relics—recently renamed as the State Administration of Cultural Heritage—was not included in the original negotiations in 2002, and it was only after March 2004 that its input was sought.
SACH has recommended that the immediate focus of the rescue mission should be on sites in the area of the Danjiangkou Reservoir and along the eastern channel. For part of its progress, the latter will use the Grand Canal, the world’s oldest and longest canal built in 486 BC, and much of its impact will be on the infrastructure of this and other ancient waterways.
The central canal is potentially far more destructive, passing through areas which nurtured China’s ancient civilisation, dating back to some of the earliest remains of homo erectus. Numerous grave sites and cemeteries belonging to successive cultures from the neolithic period onwards will be affected, including important remains of the Xia and Zhou dynasties, and even a section of the Great Wall.
The level of the Danjiangkou reservoir will be considerably raised, threatening the remnants of two palaces in the Wudangshan Taoist temple complex, a Unesco world heritage site. Proposals have been made to move or elevate the 600-year-old Yuzhen Palace, although some believe it should be submerged since much of the palace was destroyed by fire in 2003, while the fate of the remains of Yuxu Palace is still undecided.
As is often the case with large-scale archaeological salvage operations in developing countries, despite their deep concerns over the potential damage to cultural heritage, Chinese archaeologists are also aware of the stimulation that such a huge enterprise, with its concordant funding, will bring to their discipline.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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