The Three Gorges Dam has been called China's most ambitious project since the Great Wall and the world’s largest construction job. Comprised of one massive dam and several smaller dams, it is the world's largest hydroelectric project and is named after the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, one of China's great natural wonders, which the reservoirs behind the dams will partly submerge. [Source: Arthur Zich, National Geographic, September 1997]

The Three Gorges Dam project may be the world’s last such project because big dams are becoming increasingly unpopular. Most Chinese support the project as a way of bringing development and progress to China. Many international groups have opposed it on environmental and humanitarian grounds. The World Bank was originally supposed to provide loans to help finance the project and relocate people but changed its policy due to pressure from the United States and environmental and human rights groups.

Three Gorges Dam is not only the world's largest but also the costliest hydropower project ever undertaken. When it was approved in 1992, its cost was estimated at $8.3 billion. According to official figures, the venture cost China about $23 billion, but outside experts estimate it may have cost double that amount. Some have said it may have cost as much $88 billion.

The Three Gorges Dam may be the world’s largest producer of renewable energy. It holds back, 10.3 trillion gallons of water. It has a capacity of 18,200 megawatts of electricity. The huge dam is meeting the government’s goal of producing pollution-free electric power, the government said, generating 84 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2010. But in the process of its construction 1,350 villages were submerged and 1.3 million people displaced from their homes.

In November 2009 there were plans to fill the reservoir behind Three Gorges Dam to maximum height of 175 meters, representing the completion of the project but when the water level reached 171 meters filling the reservoir was abruptly stopped, according to the Chinese government, because of lack of water coming from upstream and worries about droughts downstream. The magazine Caijing reported the stoppage may also had something to do with warnings that rising waters were increasing landslide pressures as the soil around the dam became saturated and unsettled.

Websites and Resources

20080312-dam-1 3 gorges cnto.jpg
Good Websites and Sources on the Three Gorges Dam: International Rivers / ; China Three Gorges Project ; China Digital Times tagged articles ; BBC Pictures / ; Wikipedia Article Wikipedia Maps of China Maps of China ; Odyssey Tours Three Gorges Cruise China Odyssey Tours China Travel Planner Cruise China Travel Planner ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group) ; On Dams and Hydropower: Worldwatch Report on Hydro Power in China ;China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research ; 2010 Nu River Dam Report Dam Consturction Paper ; The Mekong River Commission (MBC) ; Nature Conservancy Report on Yangtze Dams ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group)

On Energy and Electricity: U.S. Energy Information Administration Report on Energy in China ; U.S. Energy Information Administration Report on Electricity in China ;China Sustainable Energy Program ; China Energy Report pdf file ; Another Lengthy Energy China Report ; China Energy Production Statistics ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group)


Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam is a cement dam that is 186 meters (610 feet) high and runs for 1.3 miles (2.3 kilometers) across the Yangtze River. Located near Yichang in Hubei Province, it will contain twenty-six 400-ton turbines, the world's largest, when completed. The reservoir produced by dam will be 370 miles long (600 kilometers), about the same length as Lake Superior. A total of 200 miles of canyons with spectacular limestone formations will lie under water when the Three Gorges Dam is completed in 2009 at a cost of $30 billion.

Three Gorges is the world’s largest dam in terms of water displacement, flood control; and power generation. There are higher and wider dams but none come close to producing as much electricity — 18,200 megawatts, enough energy to supply 10 percent of China's electricity needs and the equivalent of the electricity produced by 18 nuclear power plants. The electrical generating capacity of the world’s next four largest dams are 12,600 megawatts by Itaipú in Brazil, 10,300 megawatts by Guri in Venezuela, 6,809 by Grand Coulee in the U.S., and 6,400 in Sayano-Shushensk in Russia.

Three Gorges Dam is five times wider than Hoover dam and is as tall as a 60 story building. Large ships will by bypass the dam via two five-stage locks that will raise or lower the ships 500 feet. Smaller vessels will be moved up and down on a ship elevator.

About 60,000 workers were employed by the Three Gorges Dam project, with about 25,000 working on the dam itself. They used 32-ton dump trucks and giant drills that cut through granite. One dump truck driver told National Geographic that her earned 25 cents a truckload, about two dollars a day. He lived with his coworkers in a hillside shed without water or toilet facilities.

20080312-3 gorges mapgor.jpg
Area submerged by the dam

History of the Three Gorges Dam Project

The idea for huge dam project on the Yangtze was first proposed in 1916 by Sun Yat-sen and later pushed by Mao Zedong, who wrote a poem about it: “Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west, to hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain, until a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.” .

Japanese engineers did some survey work around the dam site when they occupied China. This work was continued U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Kuomintang and by the Soviets in the early years under the Communists. The first step of the Three Gorges project was the completion of the 176-foot-high Gezhou Dam, which opened in 1989 after 20 years of construction.

The current dam was a pet project of rFormer premier Li Peng, known best for his role in the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was trained as an engineer in the great Soviet tradition of grand public works projects. In 1992, after a four year debate, the Chinese government approved a plan. Li was the driving force behind the project. In 1992, Li managed to suppress opposition to the project at home and pushed for approval for the dam. Experts say the effort was motivated by Li's desire to rebuild his political legacy in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy. The damming of the Yangtze “is an event that not only inspires people but demonstrates the greatness of the achievement of China's development”, Li said in 1997, presiding over the ceremony to mark the river's diversion. [Source: Antoaneta Bezlovam Asia Times, November 4, 2009]

20080312-yangtze  dam ESWN, env news 2.jpg

Construction of the Three Gorges Dam Project

Construction formally began in 1994. In November 1997, the Yangtze River was closed with loads of huge of rocks dropped by 32-ton dump trucks into the river. Both Chinese president Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng were on hand for the event. The river was diverted into a 2.3-mile-long canal, using a massive 580-meter-long, 140-meter-high temporary coffer dam so the Three Gorges dam could be built in the river bed.

In early June 2003, China blocked the Yangtze River and began the filling in what will be a 600-kilometer-long reservoir. Live television broadcasts showed water in the sluice being slowly cut off. Water rose at a rate of about a half centimeter every hour until mid June when the water reached an interim level of 135 meters above sea level, 100 meters above what it was before. and commercial ships began passing through the locks. As the water rose, the last hold holdouts gathered their possessions and Chinese medicine suppliers gathered snakes, scorpions, and insects scrambling in confusion as their homes were submerged. In August two 700-megawatt generators began operating.

The main wall of Three Gorges Dam was completed in May 2006, nine months ahead of schedule, and dam was declared finished. A ceremony was held to honor 100 workers who had died as of that time. The last cofferdam was blown up in June 2006, unleashing water into the hydroelectric facilities and allowing the main dam to hold back the full weight of the Yangtze River. The explosions, produced with 191 tons of dynamite, sent water shooting 30 meters into the air. Before the explosions the water was zapped with electricity to keep fish out of harm’s way.

Since the start of construction in 1992 about 16 million tons of concrete have been poured into the giant barrier across the Yangtze river, creating a reservoir that stretches almost the length of Britain and drives 26 giant turbines. Installation of the 26 generator turbines and other equipment was due to be completed in 2009, when the reservoir will reach its full level — 175 meters above sea level, 140 meters higher than it was in 2002, and 40 meters higher than what it was in 2003, and be 660 kilometers long. The reservoir is now known as Emerald Drop Lake.

Benefits of the Three Gorges Dam


Among the benefits of the Three Gorges Dam will be the creation of loads of electricity, protection for millions of people from floods, and the provision of waters for millions of acres of irrigated land. The Three Gorges Dam will control floods that have killed 300,000 people in this century alone; provide the annual energy produced by the burning of 50 million tons of coal a year; and create the world's largest water storage reservoir. The dam gives Chinese planners additional flexibility in managing storage and release of water to adapt to extremes in rainfall and drought.

The dams and reservoirs will improve the navigability of the Yangtze River creating a 660-kilometer-long reservoir of calm, deep water; widen shipping lanes; and eliminate strong currents and obstacles such as rocks and sandbars. The Three Gorges Dam will have three passage locks and the dam. The dam at has have just one.

Beijing argues that Three Gorges Dam is desperately needed to bring jobs and an improved quality of life for tens of millions of people living the interior of China, which lags way behind the coastal areas in terms of economic development and prosperity. Many local people support the project because of the flood control and economic benefits it brings.

When it is completed 10,000 ton freighters will be able to come up the river, providing industry with access to cheap labor in central China and major river and sea trade routes. The reservoir is so large that it raises temperatures and affects humidity, wind patterns and agriculture in the area. This may help farmers by bringing more rainfall.

Raising the Water Levels at Three Gorges Dam

Elaine Kurtenbach of AP wrote: “The water level in the vast reservoir behind it hit its peak height of 574 feet (175 meters) in October 2010 according to project operator, the China Three Gorges Project Corp. The previous record was 567 feet (172.8 meters), set in 2008, the year the generators began operating. In the future, the water level will be adjusted depending on flood-control needs but kept within 100 feet (30 meters) of the maximum. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, October 26 2010]

“Company chairman Cao Guangjing called Tuesday's feat a "historical milestone." He said annual power generation will reach 84.7 billion kilowatt hours, enabling "the project to fulfill its functions of flood control, power generation, navigation and water diversion to the full."

“Warnings of damage While raising the water level increases the electricity production of the dam, some geologists have warned that damming up too much water in the reservoir carries a heightened risk of landslides, earthquakes and prolonged damage to the river's ecology. As officials attempted to raise water levels in the reservoir last fall, at least one town had to evacuate dozens of residents after a hairline crack appeared on the slopes above homes.

Later it was revealed that Three Gorges Dam operators hoarded water in order to achieve the 175-meter maximum, on the not unwarranted but unfulfilled assumption that spring rains would cover the temporary downstream shortage. Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times, “The government subsequently admitted that the large, shallow lakes that form flood basins in the middle Yangtze - particularly Boyang and Dongting Lakes - were lower than usual as a result and dried up dramatically during the unprecedented drought, exacerbating local hardships.” [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, June 11, 2011]

“There is also the issue of whether the reputedly greedy and callous operators of the TGD hydropower station resisted releasing drought-relief water from the dam so that optimum head for power generation (and profits) could be maintained. They probably did, and it took a highly publicized directive from the Chinese government to open the floodgates and send 3.7 billion tons of water (about 10 percent of the reservoir's capacity) downstream.”

Problems with the Three Gorges Dam

Problems with the Three Gorges Dam include the flooding of some of the world's most scenic areas; the drowning of farmland; the submerging over 1,000 cities, villages and towns, and relocation of 1.3 million people to higher ground. Critics also claim the river won’t flow fast enough to keep the turbines turning and dam itself will become inoperable after a few years as a result of silting.

The dam has been plagued by reports of floating archipelagoes of garbage, carpets of algae and landslides on the banks. Since the 1.5 mile barrier was completed in 2006 the reservoir has been plagued by algae and pollution that would previously have been flushed away. The weight of the extra water has also been blamed for tremors, landslides and erosion of slopes.

Some environmentalists contend that the project could cost as much as $75 billion before it is finished and argue that Yangtze region would be served with a series of small dams on the tributaries that feed into the Yangtze River. They say as much energy could be supplied by the Yangtze region’s ample natural gas supplies. Others claim the dam benefits outsiders more than locals. More than 40 percent of the electricity generated by the dam will go to Shanghai and coastal areas.

The dam is built on an earthquake zone. Were it to break waters would flood one of the world’s most populated areas. There have already been alarming reports of cracks in the dam and the use of substandard concrete and building ,materials to make it. Some scientists say the sheer weight of water backed up in the 410-mile-long reservoir behind the dam has increased the danger of earthquakes and landslides. See Earthquakes

The Three Gorges Dam has been plagued by poor water quality problems. Environmentalists say the reservoir has become a repository for the waste dumped by cities and industries.Zhang Lijun, the vice minister of the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, complained that algae blooms are becoming more common as the reservoir stagnates. Local officials say they lack the funds to build treatment plants. In 2009, there was criticism that the filling of the reservoir behind the dam was exacerbating the drought afflicting the river's delta. Some have blamed the dam for causing jellyfish population surges in some maritime areas by depriving seas of silt-carried silicon which cause a decrease in the number of diatoms in the water which in turn fail to consume phosphorous and nitrogen, providing conditions for jellyfish blooms.

In November 2009 there were plans to fill the reservoir behind Three Gorges Dam to maximum height of 175 meters, representing the completion of the project but when the water level reached 171 meters filling the reservoir was abruptly stopped, according to the Chinese government, because of lack of water coming from upstream and worries about droughts downstream. The magazine Caijing reported the stoppage may also had something to do with warnings that rising waters were increasing landslide pressures as the soil around the dam became saturated and unsettled.

Floods and heavy rains in the summer of 2010 put sever strains in the Three Gorges dam. Water reached dangerous levels in the reservoir behind the dam, raising questions of whether it could indeed withstand a once every 10,000 year flood. One of the main reasons the dam was built was to control floods.

20080312-threegorges Fengie, telegraphm env news.jpg
Buildings destined to be submerged

Cities, Villages and Farms Submerged by the Three Gorges Dam

By estimates fertile land used to grow 40 percent of China’s grain and 70 percent if its rice will affected by the Three Gorges project. Beijing says that about 74,000 acres of farmland, including fertile land near the river, will be lost to the reservoir while 37,000 acres of new land will put under cultivation. Environmentalists say that 240,000 acres will be lost.

Thirteen major cities, 140 smaller cities and towns and 1,352 villages, 1,600 factories, and 700 schools will be submerged by the Three Gorges project. Wanxian is the largest victim. Two thirds of the city, including 8.5 square miles and 900 factories, will be submerged. In compensation, the new city of Wanxian will have a new railroad, a new highway linking it to Shanghai and a new mountain-top airport that can handle jumbo jets

Low-lying Yunyang has also been hit hard. More than 160,000 people from the town have had to move and countless numbers of buildings have been submerged already. Before the waters in reservoir began to rise areas that were submerged were stripped of anything that could be sold. Some places look like they had been bombed.

Thirteen replacement cities are currently being built along 370 miles of water ways affected by the dam. Many like New Yunyang are named after a city was submerged, New Zigui was built on a scenic promontory selected with tourism in mind. The Jiangdu Temple was moved there.

People Relocated by the Three Gorges Dam

About 1.4 million people were relocated to make room for reservoir created by the Three Gorges project. They have been relocated all over China. Some have been sent to the Shanghai area. Others have been shipped off to Guangzhou. Yet others have been sent to Tibet and other remote places. Many have been resettled in new communities near their old home towns. Some remained in what was left of the old towns.

In may ways relocating so many people has proven to be a more daunting task than building the dam itself. The government allocated $10 billion for relocation, about 40 percent of the cost of the Three Gorges dam project. People were often moved in blocks. Sometimes entire hamlets were loaded onto a boat and sent downstream, where the government provided the villagers with new plots of land. As of 2003, about 600,000 people had been relocated.

Many relocated people are happy about the move. They have left behind mud walled, dirt-floor hut with an outdoor privy and no windows for new apartments with water, gas, electricity, toilets and $1.80-a-month rent. Some people earned enough in compensation to buy a couple of houses and rent them out for income.

The last town, Gaoyang in Hubei Province, was evacuated in July 2008, allowing the reservoir to reach it final height of 175 meters above sea level. The 1,000 or so households in the town were relocated.

Problems Faced by People Relocated by the Three Gorges Dam

Critics also have complained that the government has fallen far short of its goals in helping to resettle the 1.4 million people displaced by the rising waters behind the dam. Relocated people have complained about inadequate compensations, a shortage of jobs and corruption that robbed them of money they were entitled to. One woman who was going to lose her house to reservoir told National Geographic, "I don't know when we'll have to move. Or even where we'll be moved. You have to take what the state gives you. There is no bargaining." The government position I summed up by the slogan: "Forsake the small home. Support the big home."

Some families are forced to abandon homes that ancestor have occupied for hundreds of years. In addition to moving their belongings, many displaced people also want to move the graves of the deceased loved ones. After they leave, their houses are torn down to discourage people from moving back.

Some people who were promised $4,000 a head only received $1,000 after money was deducted for moving, down payments on the new homes, and variety of other fees. Other people received no compensation or explanation of what happened to their money. One victim told the Boston Globe: “It’s absurd, and we’ve gone from one official to the next, but no one is interested in helping us....Once my land is underwater I’ve no idea what I’ll do to survive.” Some of this who took their cases to authorities or the media were beaten up by thugs.

The people who had the hardest time were the ones with no connections to work units, which are the main channel in Communist China for distributing social benefits and exerting social control. Those without work units were unable to get compensation, new housing or other benefits. Migrants without residency permits for the area also had similar problems.

Flood Control, Landslides and the Three Gorges Dam

20080312-3gorges_ast_2006135 NASA66.jpg
Dam during normal times

Critics claim that the dam won't do enough to control flooding. The flood retention capacity of the dam is 22 billion gallons. During the great flood of 1954, 300 billion cubic meters of water flowed in the area upriver the dam and an additional 359 billion cubic meters of water flowed into the area down river from it.

The Three Gorges Dam passed its first flood control test in July and August 2007, when heavy rains caused water levels in the Yangtze river to rise above flood levels. While other rivers overflowed their banks, killing hundreds and causing billions of dollars of damage, Yangtze barges navigated up and down the river and water flowed into irrigation canals as usual even though run off water poured into the reservoir at 51,000 cubic meters per second.

The Three Gorges Dam regulated the river by releasing limited amounts of water and trapping the excessive rains in the huge reservoir. When the water levels peaked boat traffic was halted and ship locks were closed and water was released at a rate of 48,000 cubic meters per second through 18 giant sluices. The rest of the water remained backed up in the reservoir. The water peaked at 43-meter danger level downstream from the dam and then started to decline.

20080312-3gorges_ast_2006135 NASA99.jpg
Dam during flood in 2006

Most people who lived ion the Yangtze were glad the dam was there. A laborer told the Washington Post, “The dam has done us some good: this year is not like “98. You should have seen it then. It was up to there,” he said, pointing to where a local suburb was located.

One of the biggest problems landslides and potential landslides created as water levels in the reservoir have risen and put increased pressure on cliffs on steep slopes, causing unstable ground to weaken or give way. Concrete reinforcements have been erected to keep roads open. Entire villages have had to be moved after crevasses appeared that portended massive landslides. As of the autumn of 2007 the number of landslides in one area of cliffs and steep mountains exceeded 4,700 and required the reenforcement or evacuation of 1,000 localities. To deal with this problem, Beijing is encouraging people who live in vulnerable areas to move to the cities and has allocated $1.6 billion to relocate people and build reinforcements.

Three Gorges Dam, Earthquakes and Climate

Elaine Kurtenbach of AP alarmingly reported the allegation that "many villagers and some scientists suspect the dam ... could also be altering weather patterns, contributing to the lowest rainfall some areas have seen in a half century or more."

Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times: “The Yangtze River basin historically has a surplus of water, not a dearth, and this situation is likely to persist. Research on the effects of climate change on the Yangtze River basin predicts that global warming - not the TGD - will bring more rainfall in brief, more intense episodes from the summer monsoon. It was therefore undoubtedly a matter of considerable but not unexpected relief to the government as Xinhua reported that the drought broke under torrential rains - as much as 10 inches in some localities. [Source: Peter Lee Asia Times June 11, 2011]

The Three Gorges Dam has also been linked to earthquakes. A study published by government seismologists in June 2011 showed a 30-fold increase in small local tremors since the dam was built, according to a copy translated by environmental group Probe International.

Some scientists have claimed that pressure from the weight of waters behind Zipingpu Dam, a large dam in Sichuan which stands just five kilometers from the epicenter of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, could have helped to trigger that earthquake. Fan Xiao, a chief engineer at the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, said the earthquake in May 2008 was the largest in the area for thousands of years and suggested that the weight of the reservoir's waters — 315 million tons — was a key factor. See Sichuan Earthquake [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 5, 2009]

Three Gorges Dam, Droughts and Floods in 2011

After a severe drought was followed by heavy flooding in the spring of 2011 Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times “Even the dam’s ability to regulate the notoriously changeable flow of the 3,900-mile-long Yangtze, one of China’s two major rivers, has been called into question. Faced with a historic drought this spring, cities downstream of the dam have been unable to accommodate oceangoing vessels that usually visit their ports, and about 400,000 residents of Hubei Province lost access to drinking water this month. Although no link has been proved, critics say the dam has changed regional water tables, contributing to the shortage.”

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: “The drought in the spring of 2011 had a profound impact on the middle stretches of the Yangtze. This has left 1,392 reservoirs in Hubei with only "dead water." Chinese media reported this month that the Yangtze water levels near Wuhan hit their lowest point since the dam went into operation in 2003. Long stretches have apparently been closed to water traffic after hundreds of boats ran aground in the shallows.” “There have been claims that the Three Gorges plant has exacerbated the problem by holding back water for electricity generation, but operators claim they have alleviated the problem by releasing 400m cubic metres of water from the reservoir. As a result the levels have fallen below 156 metres — the amount needed for optimum power generation.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, May 20, 2011]

Elaine Kurtenbach of AP reported the allegation that "many villagers and some scientists suspect the dam ... could also be altering weather patterns, contributing to the lowest rainfall some areas have seen in a half century or more."

Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times, “The Yangtze River basin historically has a surplus of water, not a dearth, and this situation is likely to persist. Research on the effects of climate change on the Yangtze River basin predicts that global warming - not the TGD - will bring more rainfall in brief, more intense episodes from the summer monsoon. It was therefore undoubtedly a matter of considerable but not unexpected relief to the government as Xinhua reported that the drought broke under torrential rains - as much as 10 inches in some localities.” [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, June 11, 2011]

On Three Gorges dam and drought, Zhang Boting, deputy general secretary of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, told the Global Times, "It is absurd. There are more than 20 dams in the world larger than the Three Gorges Dam. But I never heard of them causing droughts. The big flood last year could be a good refutation of this claim. It is impossible for it to cause both drought and flood."

The prognosis for China, therefore, is more dams, not fewer, as Dr John Yin, a hydrologist at the University of San Diego, told Asia Times Online: "I believe that these recent extreme events will provide ammunition to those who want to build more large dams for increasing storage capacity to handle flooding and/or water shortage problems."

Three Gorges Dam and the 2011 Lower Yangtzee Drought

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “China’s worst drought in half a century has accomplished what years of criticism and environmental activism could not: It has resurrected the debate over the long-controversial Three Gorges Dam and caused the Chinese government to admit mistakes were made when it planned its star construction project. The severe water shortage in southern provinces along the Yangtze River has caused lakes to dry up, brought farming to a standstill in many areas and left some residents and livestock desperate for drinking water. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, June 4, 2011]

Other experts outside the government say that while drawing a direct line from dam to drought may be oversimplying, it is undeniable that the massive dam was built to hold back the waters of the Yangtze River — which has in all likelihood worsened the problem.

“It is one reason but not the only cause,” said Liu Shukun of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. The drought, he said, is the result of a whole host of factors, including a severe lack of rainfall. But since the main body of the dam was completed in 2006, he pointed out, the surplus water that usually flows downstream on the Yangtze has been stopped up, eliminating a key component that would have helped now-dwindling bodies of water such as Dongting Lake and Poyang Lake.

Wan wrote: “A government official in the Yangtze drought relief office was quoted in local media saying the dam had lowered the water in two nearby lakes. Worsening matters, the drought has pitted China’s need for water and its need for energy; this is the time annually when China’s hydropower usually ramps up. Instead, the government has been releasing water from dams, dropping water levels and weakening its power generation ability. At Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest hydroelectric plant — the government has increased the water being released, from 7,000 cubic meters per second on May 7 to 11,000 cubic meters recently, drastically dropping the dam’s water levels.

Pollution and Silt and the Three Gorges Dam

Environmentalists estimate that a 250 billion gallons of raw sewage and industrial contaminants such as arsenic, cyanide and methyl mercury will be trapped behind the dam instead of being naturally flushed out to the sea. At least 19 new sewage treatment plants are planned, mainly in large cities, but as of 2003 only a few had been completed. After water began backing up in the reservoir, E coli levels in the water jumped, potentially making the water undrinkable.

The Three Gorges Dam collects dangerous levels of pollution from Chongqing. Already massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides run-off, industrial pollution and waste from Chongqing is accumulating in the backed-up reservoir. Changes in the flow of the rive have caused seawater to move inland in the Yangtze Delta

The water behind Three Gorges dam is still quite polluted even though $2.55 billion has been spent on clean up projects. The quality has not improved significantly on the Yangtze River and has deteriorated in some branches that feed the reservoir behind the dam. Improvements that have been made have been overshadowed by increased pollution from fast development and the fact the river has been slowed and no longer flushes itself out.

20080312-3 gorges sturgeon.jpg
sturgeon affected by the dam

The Three Gorges Dam will affect the rare Chinese river dolphin, already suffering from collisions with boats; paddle fish, which weigh up to 1,000 pounds (about only 3,000 remain); the endangered 10-foot-long Chinese sturgeon; the finless porpoise, the giant panda and the Siberian white crane.

Silt collects at the base of the Three Gorges dam and requires constant dredging. Critics charge the dam may make floods worse by trapping much of the 520 million tons of silt that flows down the river every year. They also say the silt will impede electricity generation and silt up the harbor making it unusable to vessels. No one knows how much silt will accumulate. Different experiments have provided different results. See Yellow River,

A study published in 2007 revealed that the Three Gorges Dam is indeed collecting huge amounts of sediment and causing erosion downstream. The study published in the Geophysical Research Letters, calculated that the dam collects 151 million tons of sediment a year, two thirds of all upstream sediment. The huge sluice gates at the bottom of the 185-meter dam are opened between June and September to lower water levels and flush away sediment collected in the reservoir during floods.

Three Gorges Dam and Sedimentation

Huang Wanli, the only Chinese hydrologist brave enough to refuse to endorse the San Men Xia dam, Mao’s disastrous dam project, said that Three Gorges, unlike San Men Xia, was located in a "scouring" zone rather than a "deposition" zone. Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times, “In other words, the TGD [Three Gorges dam] reservoir could theoretically be flushed out with intermittent high flow release of sediment-laden water. However, as a practical matter, the coarse gravel and rocks carried through Sichuan in the Yangtze could not be flushed out because of their size and weight, and the reservoir would silt up. Then, in a replay of the Xian crisis, Chongqing's port of Jiulongpu, near the west end of the TGD reservoir, would become unusable within 10 years.” [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, June 11, 2011]

Dr John Yin, a hydrologist at the University of San Diego, told Asia Times Online: "There are reports that the Yangtze River sediment discharge to the East China Sea has been significantly reduced in recent years for about the same amount of water, and that the river channel morphology is changing downstream of TGD due to less sediment being discharged. These are the evidences of sediments being held in the middle-upper reaches of the river. However, whether the current observed sedimentation rates in the reservoir are higher or lower than the original estimates prior to the construction of the TGD is a question yet to be answered by the scientific community."

“The operating authority cycles reservoir height to various levels up to 175 meters depending on flow and demand conditions. The fluctuations exert serious stress on the local geology and trigger landslides (exacerbating the reservoir's sedimentation woes and raise the threat of destructive mini-tsunamis), but might also alleviate the impact on Chongqing.”

“China's hydrologists also hold out hope that dam construction on the Yangtze's Sichuan tributaries will stem the flow of sediment into the reservoir. In a 2009 paper, researchers at the Nanjing Hydraulic Research Institute modeled sedimentation at Chongqing over 100 years with and without upstream reservoir construction. Outcome with reservoirs: pretty good. Outcome without reservoirs: not so good. After the construction of reservoirs in the upstream, sediment deposition reduces to 17 million cubic meters, only 10.3 percent of the deposition without reservoirs. Without reservoirs the Chongqing reach has severe deposition, which covers about 30 percent to 40 percent of the original river widths.”

"As to the TGD, there is a designed project lifespan (at least 100 years for major engineering structures like large dams). So the question really is whether sedimentation problem will significantly shorten the design lifespan of the project. Sooner or later the reservoir will silt in and the Yangtze will meander through a newly created alluvial plain in the Three Gorges, topple over a man-made waterfall at the dam, and sluice profitably through a group of turbines on its way to the middle Yangtze basin. One fifth of Sichuan will be at risk of floods (Huang Wanli's estimate). Chongqing's port and perhaps even chunks of the city will be relocated, presumably enriching officials and contractors in the process.”

Submerged Archeology and the Three Gorges Dam

Another problem with the Three Gorges Dam project is that it has submerged nearly 8,000 years of Chinese history. Some 1,208 archeological sites that have been submerged have been identified so far, including 30 Stone Age sites between 30,000 to 50,000 year old. Serious work on the majority of the sites did not begin in earnest until 1999. Archeologist only managed to excavate around 80 sites.

Beijing has been reluctant to spend very much money on salvaging relics from the doomed archeological sites but allocated $125 million for the effort. Some prominent temples and relics’such as the tomb of Liu Bei, king of the Su State, and the Temple of the Han Dynasty General Zhang Fei have been relocated A 10-meter-thick dike was built around Shibaozahai Temple, a 12-story Taoist Temple, located on a peninsula that became an island after the waters rose. Hundreds of old stone bridges, pagodas and temples have been slated to be moved.

Archeologists have organized the largest ever archeological expedition in China. Compared to the 1960s project in Egypt in which Abu Simbel and other ancient Egyptian archeological sites were rescued from flood waters behind the Aswan Dam, the Chinese expedition will bring together thousands of archaeologists who will excavate nearly 300 square miles of river bank before it is covered by the dam's reservoir.

Tens of thousands of relics have been saved, including gold-plated tables and chairs, jade swords and bronze spear points and daggers. Often looters have gotten away with the best stuff. Armed with metal detector they a found a 2,000-year-old bronze candelabra called the “Spirit Tree” that sold for $2.5 million at a New York auction in 1998.

Corruption, Protests and Three Gorges Dam

Corrupt officials have pocketed resettlement money and invested it in other projects. One woman told National Geographic, "We're supposed to get 5,000 yuan ($600) a head for resettlement. The central government gives the money to our provincial officials. They give it to the county, and the county gives it to the city businesses. But as it goes down the line, each official takes his cut. Who knows what will be left by the time it gets to us?"

The billions of dollars was allocated for resettlement payments has been like cookies in a jar for embezzlers and corrupt officials. By some estimates corruption has consumed about 12 percent of the resettlement budget. A single official is believed to skimmed off $120 million and deposited the money overseas.

Corruption was partly to blame for shoddy construction. Twenty new bridges built developed cracks. At least five had to be destroyed and built over.

Unhappy villagers resettled by the Three Gorges dam project have been harassed by officials to prevent them from petitioning the central government over pollution. Journalist Dai Qing, author of the book Yangtze! Yangtze!, spent 10 months in jail for criticizing the dam project. In recent years the government has become more tolerant of criticism of the project.

There was some organized resistance. This was allowed because some members of the government opposed the project and opposition to it was viewed as a way to release general feeling of political discontent.

Unmasking the Problems at Three Gorges Dam

Peter Lee wrote in the Asia Times, “In 2004, environmental journalist Liu Jianqing penned an investigative report that stripped away much of the optimistic public relations facade erected by the Chinese government. He revealed that landslides were a much more severe problem than originally advertised, and the number of people who might have to be relocated from unstable parts of the reservoir might be double the original estimate and reach 2.3 million.” [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, June 11, 2011]

He observed that the series of five locks were a serious navigational bottleneck and not an economic panacea for the reservoir zone. The water in the reservoir was of filthy toilet quality. The much-touted relocation project - admittedly a vast improvement over the near-homicidal effort at San Men Xia - was failing many peasants through corruption, poor planning, and a shortage of economic opportunities.

Liu devoted most of the article to the existential issue: sedimentation and the possibility of major flooding of Chongqing. He wrote "I also spoke on the telephone to Li Changjun, deputy head of the planning section of Chongqing Transport Department. He said that the accumulation of sediment is "slowly becoming a reality" for Chongqing port." Liu also reported that the planned reservoir height of 175 meters : "The optimum for power generation - would create a crisis for Chongqing: Rong Tianfu is on the Three Gorges project's panel of sediment experts. He is also a former chief engineer at the Transport Ministry's Yangtze Navigation Bureau, and was responsible for issues relating to Chongqing port. He told me that once the water level in the reservoir reaches 175 meters, due to the accumulation of sediment, Chongqing's Jiulongpo port and Chaotianmen wharf will both become unnavigable."

Government Acknowledges Problems Three Gorges Dam

In the spring of 2011 the government made rare admissions of mistakes with the project. The most dramatic came when the State Council, led by Premier Wen Jiabao, acknowledged “urgent problems,” in a statement intended to counter mounting public anger. Around the same time the State Council, China's cabinet, announced it was necessary to spends another 20 billion yuan (US$3 billion) or so at the Three Gorges in order to deal with landslide, pollution and relocation issues.

In a statement approved by prime minister Wen Jiabao, the state council said the dam had pressing geological, human and ecological problems. The report also acknowledged for the first time the negative impact the dam has had on downstream river transport and water supplies.

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “The statement came as technicians were certifying the very last of the dam’s array of generators as suitable for hydroelectric generation, the final step in a contentious 19-year effort to complete the project in defiance of domestic and international concerns over its safety as well as threats to the environment, displaced people, historical areas and natural beauty.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 19, 2011]

In a vague statement China’s State Council, a coordinating body often likened to the United States president’s cabinet, said “Although the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention.” There were few specifics but China's cabinet, the state council, admitted several problems had not been foreseen. "Problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction but could not be solved immediately, and some arose because of increased demands brought on by economic and social development," the statement said.

The government statement on the dam was released after a meeting led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, seen by many outsiders as more responsive to average citizens’ complaints than many others in the nation’s leadership. The statement said that some problems were anticipated during the dam’s construction, but that others “arose because of new demands posed by economic and social development.”

China’s rulers may be most concerned by the impact of the dam on the displaced masses, many of whom appear to have failed to rebuild their lives after being evicted from the land covered by the reservoir. By 2020, the statement promised, displaced residents would enjoy living standards equal to those who had not been displaced. This is not the first warning either. In 2007, the state media quoted government experts who said: "There are many new and old hidden ecological and environmental dangers concerning the Three Gorges dam. If preventive measures are not taken the project could lead to a catastrophe."

The timing of the statement — as the government prepares to flesh out the details of its latest five-year plan — has prompted speculation of a possible push back against hydropower interests. Peter Bosshard of International Rivers said: "While powerful factions within the government are pushing for the rapid expansion of hydropower projects, others are warning of the social and environmental cost of large dams and the geological risks of building such projects in seismically active regions. "By highlighting the unresolved problems of the Three Gorges dam now, Premier Wen Jiabao, who has stopped destructive projects in the past, may be sending a shot across the bow of a zealous hydropower lobby which would be only too happy to forget about the lessons of the past."

Orville Schell, an environmental expert who leads the Asia Society’s Center on United States-China Relations, told the New York Times he hoped that the government’s statement signaled a commitment to address the dam’s problems. “There’s a kind of a balance sheet of benefits and liabilities that have come out of this project,” Mr. Schell said. “My sense is that the Chinese government is getting better and better at collecting information about things like this.” He added, “They know if they don’t fix these problems there will be dire consequences.”

Government Response to Problems Three Gorges Dam

The government has acknowledged the increased the danger of earthquakes and landslides caused by water in the reservoir. To ease these threats the government said last year many more people may have to be relocated. This week it promised to establish disaster warning systems, reinforce riverbanks, boost funding for environmental protection and improve benefits for the displaced.

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: “The government has already raised its budget for water treatment plants but opponents of the dam say this is not enough. "The government built a dam but destroyed a river," said Dai Qing, a longtime critic of the project. "No matter how much effort the government makes to ease the risks, it is infinitesimal. The state council is spending more money on the project rather than investigating fully. I cannot see a real willingness to solve the problem." [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, May 20, 2011]

In 2010, site engineers recommended an additional movement of hundreds of thousands of nearby residents and more investment in restoring the ecosystem. In 2011, the State Council, said that it was necessary spend another $3 billion at the Three Gorges in order to deal with landslide, pollution and relocation issues.

Three Gorges Dam Wins Quality Award

In June 2011, the Three Gorges Corporation was given one of China's top accolades - the National Quality Investment Award - just weeks after its dam's was described as having "urgent problems." Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “It may not yet match Henry Kissinger's Nobel Peace Prize as the most inappropriate award in history, but in terms of bad timing, it wins by a country mile...The selection criteria are supposed to include scale of investment and a good safety and environmental record.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, June 14, 2011]

The organiser of the award, the Investment Association of China, is made up of powerful industry groups and affiliated with the National Development and Reform Commission, which steers the economy. The ceremony for the award is not supposed to be a money making venture, but that is what is has become. The Three Gorges Corporation also contributes extra funds to sponsor the award.

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, the award is hardly a ringing endorsement of the environmental standards of Chinese industry. On the contrary, the message seems to be: "Quality schmolity. If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em!"

Image Sources: Nolls China website ; CNTO; Xindua, ESWIN. Telegraph, Envirnonmental News; NASA, Nature Conservancy ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.