Three Gorges Dam

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Sean Foley
Lead author: Sean Foley

An aerial view of the Three Gorges Dam. (Image date: 13 July 2003) Credit UNEP/Digital Globe

History of Dam Building in China

The Chinese have a tremendously poor record of dam building. Prior to 1949, only twenty-three large to medium size dams existed in China. Tremendous expansion of dam projects began during the "Great Leap Forward" - Chairman Mao's 1958 plan to springboard China into a viable economic competitor by using China's vast natural and human resources - when over 80,000 dam projects where commenced, including a dam on every one of China's main rivers (#Qing, 1998). However by 1973, forty percent of the reservoirs created from that construction were so poorly constructed they were unable to effectively control the flooding. In additional to the reservoir problems, nearly 3,000 dams had completely collapsed. When asked about the history of dam failures of the past, one provincial water manager commented, "The crap from that era (the Great Leap Forward) has not yet been cleaned up" (#Qing, 1998). In addition to collapses, nearly one quarter of dams from that era were deemed unsafe and in need of repair, putting hundreds of thousands of lives in jeopardy.

In August of 1975, heavy rains caused a buildup of water above both the Banquia and Shimantan dams in Henan province in Central China on the Huai River. The extensive flood control system in the area constrained the water to the reserviors above the dam until the pressure exerted on the dam became too great and the dams collapsed and the Huai River was unleashed (#Qing, 1998). The attempt to "Harness the Huai River" began a chain reaction which resulted in more than eighty dam collapses, including the two mentioned above, killing 85,000 people and making more than a million homeless (#Qing, 2006).

Dam Specific:

  • Height: 181 meters
  • Width: 1.3 miles
  • Expected Investment: around US $25 billion (Coonen, 2006)
  • Reservoir Length: 360-370 miles up river to Chongqing ("Chong-ching"), a distance equal to nearly half the length of California.

Three Gorges Dam History and Critics

The desire to build a dam in the Three Gorges Valley is as old as the Republic of China itself. Sun Yat-Sen first proposed a dam in 1919 and the dam area has been surveyed and studied extensively since 1930s (#Edmonds, 1992). After destructive floods in 1949, the government accelerated its efforts to develop a dam to protect the population situated along the river's flood plain. Despite being initially agreed upon in the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong pushed the start date back in order to begin construction of a smaller dam in a separate river. After the 1950s, China was so plagued with financial problems due to the failure of Chairman Mao's economic programs that building a dam on this scale was out of the question (#Edmonds, 1992). As the economic troubles continued, coupled with the increasingly poor record of dam building in China highlighted above, the notion of a giant dam on the Yangtze began to lose favor until 1980 when then leader Deng Xiaoping visited the site and recommended only "continued research." The construction of the dam was recommended yet excluded from economic plans during the 1980s "because it would not be cost effective and might cause natural or military disasters" (the potential Sino-Soviet Conflict was still a concern in China and a large dam was thought to invite attack by the Russians) (#Edmonds, 1992). The decades long research culminated at the National People's Congress in 1992, when the site and specifics were agreed upon.

Reasons for Constructions

Flood Control
One reason the dam was built was to control the devastating floods that the Yangtze produces. The dam, in conjunction with embankments and flood diversion projects that are similarly being completed, is supposed to alleviate the threat of a flood (#Luk and Whitney, 1993). However devastating the Yangtze has been in the past, flood prevention had been inadequately funded and human influences have increased the intensity of floods.

Drastic divestment in flood control throughout the last century can be cited as a reason for increased floods. Water control investment dropped from 6.7% of total construction funds in the 1970s to 2.7% in the 1980s eventually falling to 2.0% of total construction funds by the late 1980s (#Luk and Whitney, 1993). Irrigation systems, dikes, and reservoirs were thusly not cared for effectively. If the Chinese had managed the river and spent the money to prevent or lesson the effect of floods on the human population, then a dam would be unnecessary. This divestment was not unique to the Great Leap Forward's investments relating the environment. The leadership undertook such wildly inept initiatives as filling lakes to create arable lad and extensive deforestation, which led to negative environmental and economic consequences.

Energy Needs
Another reason for the construction of the dam was the immense energy needs of the booming Chinese economy. Proponents of the dam estimate that when all 26 of the US$150 million turbines are functioning, then the dam will produce one tenth of China's electricity (#Hundley, 2005). However, this too is highly speculative. The sediment carried by the Yangtze could eventually clog the turbines, slowing them down and lowering energy output. For example, the Three Gate Dam on the Yellow River, in addition to inducing floods from its upper reservoir, produces less than one third of the energy that was promised (#Qing, 1998).

Concerns Before Construction

Governmental Objections
The dam has seen objections arise from all sectors of China. All were again summarily dismissed by the communist leadership. At the 1992 People's Congress where the measure was voted on, nearly one third of the delegates chose to abstain (177 voted against the measure with the majority of those votes coming from the now inundated areas) (#Edmonds, 1992). This record breaking number of abstentions shows the vast opposition to the dam when one considers the major job of the People's Congress is to automatically approve all programs that the communist leadership put before them. Some of the abstentions were said to have been because some representatives "could not understand why the congress had been asked to vote on a major project for which they had no technical expertise" (#Edmonds, 1992). Additionally, although extensive reports about the dam had been conducted for centuries, "information about the negative consequences of building the dam has been largely inaccessible to the Chinese public" (#Edmonds, 1992). One journalist, Dai Qing, was even imprisoned and threatened with a death sentence for expressing concern in her book Yangtze! Yangtze! about the negative aspects of the dam in his paper (#Coonen, 2006).

Squashed Debate
Debate was similarly squashed from the technical area as well. Of the 412 technical experts assigned to the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project, the only man promoted to the rank of specialist was the youngest member who, coincidentally, was the most fervent supporter of the project. By contrast, Huang Wanli, a hydrology and water resources expert, and Huang Shunxing, an agricultural and environmental protection expert, "were barred from participating in the assessment of the project" (#Qing, 1998).

Environmental Concerns

Before understanding the specifics of the problems surrounding the dam, one must understood that most of the dangers are the "hidden type of dangers" because the severity is not completely quantifiable or predictable (#Edmonds, 1992). However, not being able to quantify potential consequences is surely not a reason to advance blindly into a project whose outcome may not be positive (see Precautionary Principle). In actuality, the inability to truly know the affects of a project, especially one that could be so disastrous if handled poorly, should lead one away from undertaking it because the negatives would outweigh the positives in event of an emergency.

Water Pollution

The Yangtze, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, gets more than one billion tons of wastewater annually made up of more than fifty different pollutants. The pollution was made up of agricultural run-off, urban sewers, and residential wastewater and the river of the area during the late mid-1990s was deemed by one journalist "the biggest sewer system in China" (#Qing, 1998). In the Yemingzhu port area, a ship engine production plant leaks so much oil into the river that residents often would scoop liters of it out of the river, put it in their tractors, and drive-off (#Qing, 1998). The government has had relatively little to do with treatment of any pollution due to their classification of the river as only mildly polluted. Additionally, the river's ability to clean itself will be severely impaired upon completion of the dam. By damming the river, the government will create a stagnant body of water with little self-cleansing ability. Even if the government severely reduces pollution, irreversible damage could still be done due to the stagnation.

Since the completion of the dam and the accumulation of water in the reservior, the river has become, according to the state run news agency the China Daily citing a report by the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which said that both the river and the reservoir are seriously polluted and the damage is almost irreversible (#_New York Times_, April 17, 2007).

Impact on Species

The natural environment of the river is extremely diverse and contains numerous forms of aquatic life that are already in danger. The Yangtze Sturgeon and the Yangtze Dolphin, to name the most prominent, and over twenty other species are sure to have their ecosystem permanently disrupted by the dam. By slowing it down, the dam will cause the Yangtze to lose its ability to generate oxygen and hurt the entire ecosystem (#Coonen, 2006). The changes in water temperature that will occur will drastically affect their breeding patterns not to mention the utter destruction of many breeding grounds that have been around for millions of years (#Edmonds, 1992). In order to secure survival of certain species, "artificial reproduction should be expanded" (#Luk and Whitney, 1993). Also, the differing levels of silt that will enter/exit parts of the river will severely alter the river bed, which may lead to unforeseen damages. Just as the changes in silt level can bring about radical changes in the marine life, the navigational improvements will yield increased traffic which could similarly have disastrous consequences for the marine life (#Edmonds, 1992). The natural world outside of the water too will be drastically altered. Different species of animals will migrate to the reservoir, such as new forms of ducks, while some animals will surely leave.

Landslides and Earthquakes

The geological aspects of the areas surrounding are quite disconcerting. One of the gravest concerns surrounding dams this big are the landslides and earthquakes that have the possibility of threatening the dam. Unfortunately, both landslides and earthquakes have been common in the reservoir/dam area (#Edmonds, 1998). The geological make-up of the region itself is not stable, being made up primarily of weak shale and soluble limestone (#Edmonds, 1998). Some proponents feel calm that the dam is able to withstand earthquakes of up to a 5.5 magnitude on the Richter scale, yet earthquakes bigger than that have occurred. Additionally, the added pressure on the earth from both the dam and the additional water could also cause stronger earthquakes in the future. Again, the true effects of the dam are unknown and terribly hard to predict, especially because this is the biggest dam project ever undertaken (let alone on a fault line). The resettlement of the population above the damn on hills may eventually cause landslides to increase due to excessive wear on the land (#Luk and Whitney, 1993).

Recent Concerns
Just this situation has been occurring as local farmers have reported that landslides have triggered 50 meter high tidal waves that have been slamming into the dam (#Bristow, 2007). Local farmers talk of frightening tremors and landslides and in late November, 30 people were killed after a bus was inundated in a landslide in Hubei Province (#Bristow, 2007).

May 12, 2008 Earthqauake
On May 12, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck in Sichuan Province, China. More than 8,500 people were reported dead on the first day and the death toll is expected to grow. The epicenter of the quake was a few hundred miles from the Three Gorges Dam and no damage was initially reported (#Yardley, 2008).

Land Inundation

Agriculture Land
The area now inundated by the reservoir was some of the most agriculturally prized land in all of China. The reservoir will inundate a large portion of arable land making it unusable. This will put additional pressure on what arable land is left. Without adequate care, a secondary concern becomes the treatment of the remaining land so as to not over-farm and ruin additional soil. The land the displaced population is being moved to also is not nearly as arable. The above factors have a negative impact on the agricultural production of the land to an extent not yet known fully.

Archaeological Area
The reservoir is also covering a key scenic and archaeological area. The beauty of the Three Gorges Area draws numerous tourists each year and is even featured on the currency. Numerous treasures of China's past will also be buried forever by the rising waters. These historic prizes of China are priceless and will surely be lost forever.

Population Resettlement

A total of 1.13 million people were resettled from areas that are now or will soon be underwater to the surrounding hills and newly formed cities (#Yardley, 2007). Not only have these people have been moved away from the most productive agricultural areas in china, many have not been able to get other jobs. During the construction, one man who claimed to be a representative of the migrants said, "Around eighty percent of the migrant people I talk to are dissatisfied. We've nothing against the project, it's a good dam. But we want our compensation" (#Coonen, 2006). One woman was even sentenced to five years in jail for demanding adequate compensation from the government (#Hundley, 2005).

Future of Dams

China is torn between their energy needs and a recent awareness that they need to move their energy priorities away from coal. Dams are much cleaner, but their environmental and resettlement concerns (highlighted above) make there no ideal choices for the country (#Yardley, 2007).

For now, the Chinese Government seems to want to continue developing hydropower to power their economy. They envision the Three Gorges Dam to be the anchor of a "string of hydropower mega-bases" in an effort to deversify away from coal which currently provides 67% of their energy (#Yardley, 2007).

Current Events

January 2-4, 2008


Richard Louis Edmonds, "Studies on China's Environment," The China Quarterly 156 (December 1998), 726.

Dai Qing, The River Dragon has Come: The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China's Yangtze River and its People (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 22.

Kris Hundley, "Powering Nation Brings Heavy Toll," St. Petersburg Times (Florida), 20 September 2005, 1.

Clifford Coonen, "The Dammed," The Independent (London), 17 March 2006, 26.

Richard Louis Edmonds, "The Sanxia (Three Gorges) Project: The Environmental argument Surrounding China's Super Dam," Global Ecology and Biography Letters 2 (July, 1992), 106.

Shiu-Hung Luk and Joseph Whitney, eds., Megaproject: A Case Study of China's Three Gorges Project (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), 103.

Richard Louis Edmonds ed., Managing the Chinese Environment, (New York: Oxford University Press 1998), 66.

New York Times, "World Briefing - Asia: China: Pollution Takes Heavy Toll On The Yangtze", Published: April 17, 2007, accessed 12-06.

Michale Bristow, "Deep concern over Three Gorges Dam". Last Updated: Friday, 30 November 2007, 15:35 GMT. Accessed 12-06-07.

Jim Yardley, "Quake Kills Thousands in Western China", The New York Times, May 12, 2008.

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