Countless treasures waiting to be excavated from the Danjiangkou reservoir area face being buried underwater, as funds for uncovering them run out, experts have warned.
The reservoir covers nearly 15,800 sq km in Hubei Province and is located on the central route of the 500-billion-yuan (US$68 billion) north-south water diversion project, which will carry water from southern rivers to the country's arid northern regions.
On its completion in 2010, the scheme will also submerge an area holding cultural relics and historic sites dating back more than 5,000 years - including thousands of tombs from the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC), experts have said.
Even dinosaur egg fossils have been unearthed there.
In 2004, heritage protection officials made detailed rescue plans to speed up archaeological work at 247 sites before the flooding of the area.
However, with less than three years to go, two-thirds of the relics are still waiting to be excavated. The delay has also put a huge strain on funds, officials said.
Although the project budget includes money for the protection of cultural relics, the three investment bodies - the central and local governments and private enterprises - have failed to agree on exactly how much is needed.
Experts have warned that by the time agreement is reached, it might already be too late.
In October last year, more than 20 archaeological institutes funded their own excavation projects at the sites. But by June, almost all of them had stopped work.
Only a few workers remained at the sites to guard them against looters.
Zhou Xingming, head of the cultural relics protection bureau in Hubei's Yunxian county, said a lack of funds was the major reason why excavation projects had been abandoned.
Thousands of yuan have already been poured into the project by local governments and archaeological institutes, he said.
The Hubei Provincial Archaeological Institute alone has spent more than 10 million yuan, Zhou said.
He said there are 105 sites in the county that need to be excavated, which account for 40 percent of the total workload in the reservoir area.
However, only a fifth of the planned workload in the county has been completed.
In the city of Danjiangkou, work has begun at just 14 of 47 sites, which account for nearly 30 percent of the workload, Zhou said.
Yin Jin, director of the Danjiangkou cultural relics bureau, said that although more than 20,000 artefacts have been unearthed and restored over the past three years, the city should have at least 100,000.