This week I watched the 2007 film Up the Yangtze. The movie follows the trials of a poor family living along the shores of the river as the Three Gorges Dam nears completion and the water rises over their little home. The undercurrent running through the story is the way wealthier people skirt the obvious: the human, cultural and environmental toll the dam has wrought. The well-polished up-and-coming Chinese shake their heads at the ignorant country folk who don’t get that the dam is a sign of progress and strength for the country. Meanwhile, in what to me was the most moving scene in the movie, the father (ragged from spending days pounding away at boulders) carries his furniture on his back up the hillside, balancing precariously on the uneven rocks, to save his family’s possessions from the rising water. You think he’s going to fall, but he doesn’t.

Turns out China is working on another gargantuan public works project that rivals Three Gorges in cost and scope, an irrigation system intended to move water from the south of the country to the north. It should be completed in 2050 after displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

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