Three Gorges Dam Essay

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When construction is completed in 2009, the Three Gorges Dam will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Spanning Asia’s longest river, the Yangtze, at Sandouping, Yichang, Hubei Province, the Three Gorges Dam will be 1.45 miles wide, 607 feet in height, and have 26 generating units with a combined capacity of 18.2 million kilowatts, producing 84.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. When the reservoir created by the dam is filled, its waters will rise to be 574 feet deep and stretch for some 360 miles, flooding thousands of villages over 243 square miles of land, and displacing roughly 1.2 million peasants. A system of ship locks are intended to bring ocean liners from Shanghai 1,500 miles inland to the city of Chongqing, which was promoted to a provincial-level municipality under direct central control in 1997 in part to coordinate the resettlement of refugees from the dam. Official cost estimates for the project are roughly U.S. $25 billion.

Construction of the Three Gorges Dam was first proposed in 1919 by the father of modern China, Sun Yatsen. Serious planning began in the 1930s, and toward the end of World War II, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s chief design engineer conducted a major study. It was hoped that the dam would provide both electricity and relief from the long history of devastating summer floods along the Yangtze. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong pushed for the building of the monumental dam as a symbol of national pride and human mastery over nature. A sharp debate emerged in the mid-1950s, however, between leaders who opposed the project on technical grounds and favored a series of smaller dams instead, and those who favored the project. Soon after, the economic depression of the Great Leap Forward and political upheavals of the Cultural Revolution put the plans on hold. Debates were revived after the death of Mao and the beginning of economic reform. Momentum picked up as Deng Xiaoping became an enthusiastic supporter of the dam, though there continued to be bitter disagreement on whether, when, and at what height the dam should be built, as well as how the surrounding area should be administered.

In 1986 a study commissioned by the government and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency concluded that the dam was feasible. This moved the project closer to implementation but also sparked a vocal debate within China, coinciding with China’s democracy movement and growing international opposition to large dams. The State Council agreed in 1989 to suspend construction plans for five years, but this changed after the crackdown on Tiananmen Square, which led to the arrest of journalist Dai Qing and other critics, and silenced opposition to the dam. With a strong push from Premier Li Peng, the State Council and Politburo approved the project in 1992. Three months later, the National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the project with a vote of 1,767 yes, 177 no, and 664 abstentions. This was an unprecedented level of dissent for the NPC, which generally rubber stamps leaders’ proposals. Construction has proceeded in three stages over 17 years. From 1993-97, the river was diverted; at the end of the second phase, 1998-2003, the first group of generators began to produce power, and a permanent ship lock opened for navigation; and in 2004-09, the entire project is to be completed. Corruption scandals and poor construction have plagued the project. In 1999 a bridge collapsed and a crack developed in the dam; in 2000, officials were arrested for extortion, kickbacks, and embezzling resettlement program money.

The major rationales for the dam are flood control, navigation improvement, and clean power generation to substitute for coal burning. By 2009, it should provide 10 percent of China’s total power supply, but most of the electricity will be sent to the prosperous coastal region rather than used in the area around the dam. Power was in short supply when the dam first generated electricity in 2003, but in 2006, the Three Gorges Power Company was concerned about a power glut and how it should offload its supply. Nevertheless, the company was also already planning to build four more dams upstream in the Yangtze’s longest tributary. The power generated by the Three Gorges Dam is eventually to pay for about 7.5 percent of its total cost. The rest has been financed by the China Development Bank, export credits, corporate bonds, and some taxes; the World Bank declined funding because of environmental concerns.

The gargantuan reservoir created by the dam threatens the habitat of many rare and endangered species including 36 endemic plants, the now-endangered Chinese sturgeon, and the Yangtze River dolphin. Though fish ladders were built, they have not been very successful. The dam also holds back sediment, which formerly carried nutrients downstream, and lowers water temperature; this further affects habitat for fisheries. Decomposing organic material in the reservoir will produce significant methane emissions. More importantly, the reservoir may alter the local climate, and worsen problems with schistosomiasis, a parasitic, snail-borne disease. Current patterns of dumping untreated garbage, sewage, industrial chemicals, and heavy metals into the river could lead to a public health disaster and affect normal dam operations if unchecked, because the reservoir will concentrate the pollution rather than flushing it out to sea. The government has laid plans to build numerous pollution control and treatment facilities, but critics remain skeptical of effective implementation.

The role of sedimentation is also disputed. While the reservoir is supposed to lessen the frequency of large downstream floods, and sluice gates are in place to flush out silt, critics warn that the technology is unproven. If ineffective, the build-up of sediment behind the dam could shorten the life-span of the dam, cause the reservoir to lose flood storage capacity, accelerate coastal erosion, and cause dam failure. Officials, however, claim that the technical issues have been resolved, that upstream erosion is being reduced through massive afforestation, and that after 100 years, the dam should still have 92 percent of its effective storage capacity.

Critics also warn that the dam is built on a fault and that water held by the dam could trigger landslides or an earthquake, but the government emphasizes the geological suitability of the chosen site, and claims that the dam could withstand even a class seven earthquake and a nuclear attack. Also of concern is the fact that the reservoir will flood thousands of graves and more than 1,000 recognized cultural and archeological relics.

Finally, the reservoir will inundate very fertile farmland and has necessitated the involuntary resettlement of some 1.2 million people, who have been moved either to higher land, to live with relatives in nearby urban areas, or to more distant provinces. Although government officials state that the involuntary migrants are “satisfied with their new lives, enjoying better living conditions,” independent surveys have found a majority saying they are worse off. Among other problems they face in their new homes are inadequate or missing compensation, discrimination, and reduced standards of living because of the poorer quality of the land they received, and difficulty finding jobs.


  1. Deirdre Chetham, Before the Deluge: the Vanishing World of the Upper Yangtze River (Palgrave, 2002);
  2. Li Heming, Paul Waley, and Phil Rees, “Reservoir Resettlement in China: Past Experience and the Three Gorges Dam,” The Geographical Journal (v.167, 2001);
  3. Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael Oksenberg, Policy Making in China: Leaders Structures and Processes (Princeton University Press, 1988);
  4. Dai Qing, Yangtze! Yangtze!: Debate over the Three Gorges Project (Earthscan Publications, 1994);
  5. Dai Qing, The River Dragon Has Come: The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of Chinas Yangtze River and Its People (Armonk, 1998).

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