China's Three Gorges Dam Project
China's Yangtze River IS the world's Jrd largest river and one of its most dangerous. The 6.300 kilometer river
surges through a legendary, 200 kilometer stretch of canyons formed by the immense limestone cliffs known as
the Three Gorges. The gorges - the Xiling, Wu, and Qutang - are home to some of the most scenic and beautiful
landscape anywhere in the world, and their splendor has inspired Chinese painters and poets for centuries. The
Chinese government began building a dam on the Yangtze River In early 1997 and expects to block the river in
the November of 1997. The project is to be completed in the year 2009 with an estimated to cost of90 billion
Yuan, or $13 billion. The Idea of building a gigantic dam m the Three Gorges area in China to harness the
Yangtze is not new. More than seventy years ago, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, pioneer of the Chinese democratic revolution,
proposed that a Yangtze Three Gorges Project be constructed. When built the Three Gorges Dam will be the
largest and most powerful dam ever built In the world. in the grand Chinese tradition of gargantuan publ ic works
projects like the Great Wall, the Three Gorges dam will stretch 2 kilometers across the Yangtze RIver, soar 600
feet into the air, and create an Immense, deep-water reservoir that will be 375 miles long and 575 feet deep With
an average width of J ,600 feet - twice the width of the natural river.
There has been intense debate about China's attempt to build the massive structure. What follows is a brief
description of that debate.
Wiry Build the Dam?
The dam will allow 10,000 ton ocean-faring cargo ships and cruise liners to navigate 1,500 miles Inland from the
Pacific Ocean to the city ofChongqing. The Yangtze's navigation capacity will be increased from 10 million to 50
million tons a year with the cost lowered by 35-37%. With 15 million people, Chongqing will become the largest
seaport In the world.
With lis total installed capacity of 18,200 Megawatts, the Three Gorges Hydropower Station will generate 84.7
billion KWH a year, one-ninth of the national total generated power. This IS enough energy for most of central
. and eastern China. This relatively clean energy source would reduce China's reliance on coal and the pollutants in
the atmosphere that accompanies it. With China's growing economy - among the fastest In the world - Chinese
officials believe the energy generated from this dam will continue to propel China's economy into the 21 st
In addition, the dam will control the "mother of all floods," - the Yangtze River. The Yangtze is the world's 3rd
largest river and one of its most dangerous. The dam would manage the 6,300 kilometer river as it surges through
a legendary, 200 kilometer stretch of canyons formed by the immense limestone cliffs known as the Three
Gorges. Historically, the population of 10 the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River downstream of the
darn site, suffered tremendous losses from flooding both in human lives and property. In 1931 alone, as a result of
flooding, 333 thousand hectares of cultivated land were stricken, 145 thousand people drowned.
Wiry not to Build the Dam?
The environmental change caused by the dam wil] be as massive as the dam itself: millions will lose their homes
and livelihoods, fertile agnculturallands will be destroyed, rare and endangered fish species will be forever lost
under an immense man-made sea.
The world's largest dam WIll flood over 62,000 acres of farmland - this at a time when SCientists are concerned
with China's increasing reliance on food imports. 13 major cities, 140 large, and hundreds of small villages along
the river's banks will be covered by the new reservoir. This "event" will necessitate the evacuation of 1.25 million
people. It will also "desecrate some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet, and drown thousands of
arc heological and cultural sites." 1
There is further concern that Chongqing and many other cities will flush tremendous amounts of sewage and toxic
waste into the reservoir, turning it into "a cesspool that will threaten the health of scores of millions who live in
the Yangtze Basin."2 No funds have been allocated by the Chinese government for water treatment. Pollution and
slow-moving water could also threaten fish, reptiles, and other wildlife that depend on the river for their survival.
Chinese scientists arc presently studying the endangered Yangtze RIver dolphins, but there are very few funds to
research the other threatened species.
How does China Answer its Critics?
China reiterates the main desire to stem the loss of Iife and property because of the danger of flooding. Every year
losses from Yangtze flooding costs China and its people billions of yuan, tremendous loss of life, acres of
productive farm fields, and months of lost time.
China has an aggressive and serious resettlement program for the displaced residents of the Yangtze River valley
behind the dam. When the reservoir is filled with water, 632 square kilometers ofland will be submerged and 21
counties and cities in Sichuan and Hubei provinces will be affected by the year 2009. Many of the people being
resettled will be moved along the shores of the newly formed reservoir. To ensure the smooth progress of the
project, the State Council, China's highest governing body, has called on various areas to support the resettlement
program 20 provinces and cities nationwide have provided support with funding, technology and materials to the
reservoir area. Scientific research institutes have provided technology to promote agricultural development in
areas surrounding the reservoir. Farmers 10 the reservoir area have become better off by applying methods of
planting American Ginseng, melons, and raising soft-shelled turtles and deer. New techniques in the planting of
rice, vegetables, and oranges have been introduced to the area. For example, Tongshuwan, a village in Hubei
Province, is the first village that will be submerged once the reservoir is filled with water. Here 1098 of 1146
people will have to be resettled. As an experimental base for resettlement, 906 people in the village have moved
to new dwellings, and those resettled have planted 60 hectares of citrus orchards. To the villagers surprise, their
living conditions have improved: their average income was 5.35 times that of 1990's figures. As of 1997 more
than 20,000 people had been resettled, 75,000 square meters of housing had been rebuilt, and over 60 new
factories had gone into operation with an additional 2,500 factories being built. State investment in the Three
Gorges Project was 90 billion yuan Of this amount, 40 billion yuan was used for resettlement.
China recognizes the need to develop renewable energy sources and end their dependence on coal. Uncontrolled
burning of coal in some parts of China releases pollutants into the atmosphere; sulfur oxides, hydrocarbons,
carbon dioxide, and particulates in the fonn of soot. Even clean burning coal plants in China pump copious
amounts of carbon dioxide mto the atmosphere. Mining for coal is also a dangerous occupation for millions of
Chinese workers - especially 10 underground mines. Both surface mining and underground mining can cause
environmental damage. Acid may pollute water by draining into streams, and subsidence of the ground may
damage buildings. Removing trees and other surface vegetation may cause soil erosion. And although heavy,
bulky and expensi ve to transport, coal must be shipped long distances, because most of the factories and and
power plants using it are far from the coal fields.
China is has one of the fastest growmg economics in the world. Developing energy resources and greater access
to world markets will allow China to compete with western countries like the United States. China is skeptical of
criticism by developed countries. They see this criticism as a blatant attempt to slow China's industrialization and
future economic clout.
I Arthur Fisher, Popular Science
2 attributed 10 Dai Qing, protester imprisoned in 1989 after she organized opposition 10 the project.
China's Three Gorges Dam Project
Case Study Review Questions
1. What are the effects of industrialization on the landscape of the Three Gorges area?
2. How will building the dam affect the people who live there? Cite both positive affects as
well as negative affects.
3. Why do you think the Chinese government has committed a vast sum of money to the
completion of the project? What do they hope to get out of the project?
4. Do you believe this project is a good idea or a poor idea? Explain.