Dr. Robert Eno wrote of Indiana University wrote: “Dams had been a feature of the Chinese landscape for centuries, particularly in the flood plain of the Yellow River, where catastrophic floods periodically laid waste to vast regions of farming. From the late Spring and Autumn period on, the increases in corvée labor available for massive public works projects led states to address this sort of problem more comprehensively than in the past – not, for the most part, cooperatively, but rather as one aspect of increasing political competition. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Along the lower reaches of the Yellow River, the state of Qi, which extended east from the geographically lower southeast bank, constructed a great dike about eight miles to the east, greatly reducing flood damage. The states of Zhao and Wei, which shared the northwest bank and which had not been much troubled by floods, suddenly found themselves awash in the backwaters created by the dike in Qi, and the constructed their own dikes at a similar distance from the river channel. As a result, flood damage was constrained to a strip about fifteen miles wide. The rich silt deposited there by floods actually made this land highly fertile, and farmers exploited the land very actively, only slightly discouraged by the fact that every decade or two, catastrophic floods destroyed their crops and drowned them in great numbers.” /+/

Yellow River Alteration in the 19th Century

Arthur H. Smith, an American who spend many years in Shandong Province, wrote in “Village Life in China”, an article published in 1899: “It is more than forty years since the Yellow River changed its course to its present one, taking the bed of a small stream known as the Clear River and bringing with the turbid torrent devastation and utter ruin. During more than an entire generation Central Shandong has been cursed with “China’s Sorrow,” and even when the course was altered again in 1887, the Government spent fabulous sums, and at last brought the stream back again into its former bed—a feat which few foreigners who saw the new channel thought it possible to execute. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur H. Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“The next year the region was visited by a corps of Dutch engineers, who made an elaborate survey and published an exhaustive report, to which the Chinese Government paid no attention whatever. The plea at that time was lack of money, but the funds could have been had if the execution of the work7 had been put into foreign hands, than whom no more competent ones than the Dutch could have been found. But at the time when the Director General of the Yellow River—a title the humour of which is lost on the Chinese—memorialized the Throne on the necessity of employing foreign science for this otherwise hopeless task, his proposal was rebuked by the Empress Dowager as “premature and ostentatious!”

“According to Chinese ideas the “Three Harmonies” are “Heaven, Earth, and Man.” All three of them are at present out of sorts with each other. What is imperatively needed is a reconciliation, but this can never be had until the Chinese come to a more accurate appreciation of the limits of the powers of each of the triad. A new set of men would soon make a new earth, and then the heavens would be found to be well enough as they are. In the course of ten years enough water falls for the use of all, and not too much to be managed. But man must learn how to control it, and until he does so, “Heaven, earth and man” will never be in right relations.

Dams of the Yellow River

As of the early 2010s, twenty major dams punctuated the Yellow River and another 18 were scheduled to be built by 2030. In June 2009, the Chinese media reported that several dams on tributaries of the Yellow River were near collapse shortly after being built. According to the China Sailu at least five dams in Huan County in Gansu Province are “in very fragile condition.” Shoddy construction and embezzlement were blamed for the problem. The following is a list of hydroelectric power stations built on the Yellow River, arranged according to the first year of operation (in brackets): 1) Sanmenxia Dam (1960; Sanmenxia, Henan); 2) Sanshenggong Dam (1966); 3) Qingtong Gorge hydroelectric power station (1968; Qingtongxia, Ningxia); 4) Liujiaxia Dam (Liujia Gorge) (1974; Yongjing County, Gansu); 5) Lijiaxia Dam (1997) (Jainca County, Qinghai);

6) Yanguoxia Dam (Yanguo Gorge) hydroelectric power station (1975; Yongjing County, Gansu); 7) Tianqiao Dam (1977); 8) Bapanxia Dam (Bapan Gorge) (1980; Xigu District, Lanzhou, Gansu); 9) Longyangxia Dam (1992; Gonghe County, Qinghai); 10) Da Gorge hydroelectric power station (1998); 11) Li Gorge hydroelectric power station (1999); 12) Wanjiazhai Dam (1999; Pianguan County, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia);

13) Xiaolangdi Dam (2001) (Jiyuan, Henan); 14) Laxiwa Dam (2010) (Guide County, Qinghai); 15) Yangqu Dam (2016) (Xinghai County, Qinghai); 16) Maerdang Dam (2018) (Maqên County, Qinghai). As reported in 2000, the 7 largest hydro power plants (Longyangxia, Lijiaxia, Liujiaxia, Yanguoxia, Bapanxia, Daxia and Qinglongxia) had the total installed capacity of 5,618 MW. [Source: Wikipedia]

Sanmenxia Dam

The Sanmenxia Dam is a concrete gravity dam on the middle-reaches of the Yellow River near Sanmenxia Gorge on the border between Shanxi province and Henan Province. A multi-purpose structure, it was built for flood and ice control, irrigation, hydroelectric power generation and navigation. Constructed between 1957 and 1960, it was is the first major water control project on the Yellow River and was viewed a great achievement its image was printed on China's bank notes. However, due to sediment accumulation in the reservoir, the dam later had to be re-engineered and renovated. The effects from sediment, which include flooding upstream, have been so severe that some now regard the dam as a mistake. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Sanmenxia (Sanmen Gorge) Dam is a 106 meters (348 feet) high and 713 meters (2,339 feet) long. It is is located at the head of a 688,400-square-kilometer (265,793-square-mile) catchment area and has produced a reservoir with a 16.2 billion square meter capacity. The reservoir covers a surface area of 2,350 square kilometers (907 square miles) and extends 246 kilometers (153 miles) upstream to Longmen. The power station at the dam can hold up to eight turbines but currently only seven are installed. Five 50-megawatt and two 75-megawatt Francis turbine-generators give it a total installed capacity of 400 megawatts.

The Sanmenxia Dam is now regarded by many as a gigantic failure for which Mao and his planners were directly responsible. Built with Soviet assistance and desperately and expensively repaired by China alone in the 1960s, it consumed a disproportionate share of the national budget and served as a drag on economic growth, the critics argue Some of these critics have been arrested by the Chinese government.

The Sanmenxia Dam was supposed stop chronic flooding on the Yellow River. Instead it slowed the rivers current, causing silting on a massive scale and increasing the likelihood of flooding. One engineer told National Geographic the only way to fix it is to blow it up. Others have suggested build another dam to correct the problems made by Sanmenxia

Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times, Improperly sited and designed, the dam's reservoir silted up almost immediately. Rivers feeding the reservoir slowed and dumped their sediment, raising beds and increasing flood risk. Within months, Shaanxi's capital, Xian, faced the real threat of inundation in the next major flood. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from rich Shaanxi farmland and relocated into hopeless desolation. Their 50-year struggle to return and obtain fair compensation and treatment is documented in Xie Chaoping's epic book, “The Great Relocation”. [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, June 11, 2011]

Great Migration for the Sanmenxia Dam

The Sanmenxia Dam displaced 400,000 people.. The 400,000 people displaced by Sanmenxia were resettled from fertile land to a desert region 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. By some estimates a third of them died in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward. Many of the survivors made their way back to land near the land they were displaced from. When heavy rains fell the Sanmenxia reservoir backed up, pushing polluted water over its banks. Three flood in five years destroyed cotton crops and poisoned villager's water supply.

Xie Chaoping was detained for 30 days in 2010 for publishing a self-funded book, “Great Migration”, that disclosed the predicament of migrants and the corruption of officials during relocations to make way for the Sanmenxia dam in the 1950s. Xie's book outlines how peasants were tricked in the 1950s into leaving their fertile land on the promise of a better life in Ningxia Those who did not starve to death within months were banned from returning to their ancestral homeland until the 1980s. The migrants were on the move for decades, some moving eight times.

In 1985 the central government ordered the local government to allocate 20,000 hectares of land to 150,000 migrants and pay them 120 million yuan in compensation. But only about half moved back, Xie's book says. They took up about 70 per cent of the land allocated to them. Xie says that according to Dali county government statistics, their average income in 2007 was about 1,150 yuan - half that of those who were not forced to move.

Xiaolangdi Dam

Xiaolangdi Dam — a Yellow River dam in Jiyuan, Henan Province 20 kilometers northwest of Luoyang — was China’s second largest dam project after the Three Gorges Dam. Built at a cost of US$3.5 billion. It has a total installed capacity of 1,836 megawatts and generates up to 5.1 TWh annually using of six 306-megawatt turbines. The dam is 154 meters (505 feet) tall and 1,317 meters (4,321 feet) wide.

The main purpose of the Xiaolangdi earthen dam (sometimes called the Yellow River Dam) is to halt the rising river by flushing out the silt. This will be accomplished with 16 reinforced tunnels that cut through an adjacent mountain which allow engineers to regulate the flow of water. During the wet season water can be stored in the reservoir to prevent flooding, and during the dry season it can be released to flush out sediment as well as provide water for irrigation. The reservoir behind the dam will be able store water until the year 2020. At the time no more water can released to flush out the sediment down river and the river and levees will once again start rising. "Our children and grandchildren will need to think of another solution to the silt problem," one engineer told Newsweek.

Work began on the Xiaolangdi Dam in 1994 with the building of huge roads for carrying out rocks and earth and the blasting of massive tunnels. The dam protects 120 million people from the river's notorious flooding; better allocates water so deprived farmlands get their share of irrigation water; and ensures the river doesn't dry up like it has in the past. The dam makes 30 percent more water available for irrigation, reducing dependency on wells and ground water, and produces more than 1,800 kilowatts of electricity. This is only a tenth of the power produced by much swifter moving Yangtze River at the Three Gorges Dam.

Unlike the Three Gorges project, the Yellow River dam received a favorable reception from bankers and environmentalists. Its estimated cost is only a forth of the Three Gorges Dam. The U.S Export-Import Bank and the World Bank pledged over US$1 billion in loans. About 170,000 people who live in the Yellow River basin were resettled to higher ground. Most of the resettled population had no objections about the move. Many left mud-walled homes and small plots of land for modern homes with conveniences and large parcels of land.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site;; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in June 2022

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