BEIJING, Sep 17 (Reuters) Chinese heritage officials are scrambling to save thousands of cultural relics dating back 3,000 years and threatened by a 25 billion dollars project to pump water from the country's southern rivers to its arid north.
The 1,300-km central route of the south-to-north water transfer project, scheduled to pump water from a major tributary of the Yangtze river to Beijing by 2010, cuts across the Yellow river plain -- the so-called ''cradle of Chinese civilisation'' dotted with ancient sites.
With only three years left to complete the project, heritage workers had finished less than a third of their task, the Beijing News said.
''Looking at it from our current excavations, whether in terms of quantity or quality, the relics along the (route) are far, far more valuable than those along the Three Gorges dam,'' today's Beijing News quoted Li Taoyuan, a senior archaeologist from central Hebei province, as saying.
The 185-metre Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze river, China's longest, has inundated hundreds of cultural sites, along with some 116 towns in Hubei province and neighbouring Chongqing municipality.
Junxian, a village in Danjiangkou city, at the southern extreme of the project, had ''tens of thousands'' of ancient tombs dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC), Li said, indicating the scale of the task.
''For the work involved excavating and protecting relics in the entire region (of the project), the time constraints defy imagination,'' Li said.
Archaeologists were also competing against grave robbers, the paper quoted Yin Jiang, chief of Danjiangkou heritage bureau, as saying.
''Some of the excavation tools these modern grave robbers use are even more advanced than archeologists', Yin said.
Funding and manpower issues, combined with a wide terrain with a relatively sparse population, meant it was ''difficult to effectively attack the grave robbers,'' Jin said.
REUTERS SKB VC1450