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At 3, 937 mileslong , the Chang Jiang is the third-longest river in the world and the longest river in Asia. It has its source some 16,000 feet high in the Kunlun Mountains, and flows across seven Chinese provinces (Qinghai, Yuanan, Sichuan, Hubei, Auhui, and Juangsui) before it empties into the East China Sea, just north of Shanghai. With more than 700 rivers and streams flowing into the main channel of the Chang Jiang, the river system drains more than 695,000 square miles.
It deposits about 6 billion cubic feet of silt onto its floodplain, where about half of the foodstuffs consumed by China’s billion-plus people are grown, including a large percentage of the nation’s rice, wheat, barley, corn, and beans. Some 350,000 million Chinese live on lands drained by the Chang Jiang River system, and there are almost 30 major cities along the river. In addition to Shanghai, the most significant of these cities are Nanjing, Hankow, and Chongqing.
The Chang Jiang is the major artery for the transportation of goods between the Chinese interior and the coast. Ocean-going vessels can navigate the Chang Jiang up to 600 miles from its mouth, and it is navigable by river steamers for another 400 miles. In addition, the Chang Jiang system is connected to the Huang He (or Yellow) River system by the Grand Canal. Because of the volume of its flow, especially during the monsoon season, the Chang Jiang has been prone to recurring, disastrous flooding. In 1911, more than 100,000 people died because of the flooding; in 1931, 145,000; in 1935, 142,000; and in 1954, 30,000. Although the loss of life from such floods has been greatly reduced in recent decades, the property loss and economic disruption has remained high. Severe flooding also occurred in 1981 and 1998.
In part to control this flooding and in part to provide hydroelectric power to fuel China’s dramatic economic growth, the Chinese government has undertaken one of the greatest construction projects in history on the Chang Jiang. When it is completed in 2009, the Three Gorges Dam will be 600 feet high and 1.5 miles long. When fully operational, the hydroelectric plant at this dam will provide the equivalent of one-ninth of China’s total production of electricity in 2000. The dam has had its critics. It lies along a well-known earthquake fault. Moreover, the heavy silt carried by the river may prove a chronic problem for the hydroelectric turbines and may build up behind the dam and actually exacerbate the flooding dangers. The lake that forms behind the dam will cover 80,000 acres of farmland and 140 towns and villages. In all, some 1.5 2 million people will be forced to relocate, along with about 1,600 industrial plants. Ecologically, the dam may greatly reduce the number of species in one of China’s richest ecosystems. Of particular concern are those species found only in the river basin, most notably river dolphins, alligators, and paddlefish named for the river.
- Rob Bowden, The Yangtze (Raintree, 2004);
- Linda Butler, Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake (Stanford University Press, 2004);
- Deirdre Chetham, Before the Deluge: The Vanishing World of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002);
- Ben Thomson Cowles, Through the Dragon’s Mouth: Journeys into the Yangtze’s Three Gorges (Fithian Press, 1999);
- Ying Hong, translation by Mark Smith and Henry Zhao, Peacock Cries at the Three Gorges, (Marion Boyars, 2004).