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Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam spans the Yangtze at Sandouping, Yichang, Hubei province, China. Construction began in 1994. It will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world when completed. The reservoir began filling on June 1, 2003, and will occupy the present position of the scenic Three Gorges area, between the cities of Yichang, Hubei; and Fuling, Chongqing Municipality.

As with many dams under construction, there is controversy over the rights and wrongs of this project. Proponents point to the economic benefits from flood control and hydroelectric power. Opposition is mainly due to concerns about the future of the 1.9 million people who will be displaced by the rising waters; the loss of many valuable archaeological and cultural sites; as well as the effects on the environment.

Table of contents

Three Gorges Dam Project

Location: Sandouping, Yichang, Hubei province
Height: 181 meters
Expected investment: 203.9 billion renminbi (US$24.65 billion)
Number of migrants: 1.13 million
Installed power generation capacity: 18.2 million kilowatts
Functions: Flood control, power generation, improved navigation

Construction timetable (source: China Daily Business Weekly):

1993-1997: The Yangtze River was diverted after four years in November 1997
1998-2003: The first batch of generators will begin to generate power in 2003 and a permanent ship lock is scheduled to open for navigation the same year.
2004-2009: The entire project is to be completed by 2009 when all 26 generators will be able to generate power.

Fund sources (source: China Daily Business Weekly):

The Three Gorges Dam Construction Fund
Revenue from Gezhouba Power Plant
Policy loans from the China Development Bank
Loans from domestic and foreign commercial banks
Corporate bonds


Early debates

Sun Yat-sen first proposed building a dam on the Yangtze River in 1919 for power generation purposes, but the idea was shelved due to unfavorable political and economic conditions. Major floods resurrected the idea and the government adopted it in 1954 for flood control.

Vice minister of Electric Power Li Rui initially argued that the dam should be multipurpose, that smaller dams should be built first until China could afford such a costly project and that construction should proceed in stages to allow time to solve technical problems, according to Chinese issues scholars Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg.

Later, Li Rui concluded that the dam should not be built at all since it would be too costly. He added that the dam would also flood many cities and fertile farmland, subject the middle and lower reaches of the river to catastrophic flooding during construction and would not contribute much to shipping. Sichuan province officials also objected to the construction since Sichuan, located upstream, would shoulder most of the costs while downstream Hubei province would receive most of the benefits.

Lin Yishan, head of the Yangtze Valley Planning Office, which was in charge of the project, favored the dam construction, however. His optimism about resolving technical problems was further encouraged in 1958 by the favorable political climate and the support from the late chairman Mao Zedong, who wanted China to have the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, according to Lieberthal and Oksenberg. Criticisms were suppressed. But depression resulted from the disastrous Great Leap Forward (a political campaign boasting China’s economic development) and ended the preparation work in 1960.

The idea resurfaced in 1963 as part of the new policies to build a "third front" of industry in southwest China. But the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, and in 1969 the fear that the dam would be sabotaged by the Soviet Union, now an enemy, resulted in a construction delay. In 1970 work was resumed on Gezhouba, a smaller dam downstream, but it soon ran into severe technical problems and cost overruns that seemed likely to plague the Three Gorges Dam on an even larger scale.

The economic reforms introduced in 1978 underlined the need for more electric power to supply a growing industrial base, so the State Council approved the construction in 1979. A feasibility study was conducted in 1982 to 1983 to appease the increasing number of critics, who complained that the project did not adequately address technical, social, nor environmental issues.

According to Lieberthal and Oksenberg, leaders from Chongqing also demanded suddenly that the dam height be raised so substantially that it would cripple the project and free them from bearing the brunt of the costs. The new height and the demand for a more reliable study with the use of international standards resulted in a new feasibility study in 1986. But a few scientists dared to sign off on a project that had already been approved.

Ecologist Hou Xueyu was among the few who refused to sign the environmental report because it falsely hyped the environmental benefits provided by the dam, failed to convey the real extent of environmental impact and lacked adequate solutions to environmental concerns.

Environmentalists at home and abroad began to protest more vociferously. Human rights advocates criticized the resettlement plan. Archeologists[?] balked at the submergence of a huge number of historical sites. Many mourned the loss of some of the world’s finest scenery.

Increasing numbers of engineers doubted whether the dam would actually achieve its stated purposes. Chinese journalist/engineer Dai Qing published a book of relentless critiques of the project by Chinese scientists. Yet many foreign construction companies continued to press their governments to financially support the construction in hopes of winning contracts.

The project is approved

In the face of a lot of domestic and international pressure, the State Council agreed in March 1989 to suspend the construction plans for five years. After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, however, the government forbade public debate of the dam, accused foreign critics of ignorance or intent to undermine the regime, and imprisoned Dai Qing and other famous critics.

Former Premier Li Peng crusaded for the dam and pushed it through the National People’s Congress in April 1992 despite the opposition or abstention from one-third of the delegates. Such actions were unprecedented from a body that usually rubberstamped all government proposals.

Resettlement soon began, and physical preparations started in 1994. While the government solicited technology, services, hardware and financing from abroad, leaders reserved the engineering and construction contracts for Chinese firms.

But corruption scandals plagued the project. It was believed that contractors have won bids through bribery and then skimped on equipment and materials to siphon off construction funds. The head of the Three Gorges Economic Development Corp. allegedly sold jobs in his company, took out project-related loans and disappeared with the money in May 2000. Officials from the Three Gorges Resettlement Bureau were caught embezzling funds from resettlement programs in January 2000.

Much of the project’s infrastructure was so shoddy that Premier Zhu Rongji ordered to rip it out in 1999 after a number of high-profile accidents. To offset construction costs, project officials had quietly changed the operating plan approved by the NPC to fill the reservoir after six years rather than 10. In response, 53 engineers and academics petitioned President Jiang Zemin twice in the first half of 2000 to delay full filling of the reservoir and relocating the local population until scientists could determine whether a higher reservoir was viable given the sedimentation problems. But construction continued.

Debate over the dam

Cost: The project is thought to have cost more than any other single construction project in history, with unofficial estimates as high as US$75 billion or more. Supporters reported, however, that the plan is within its US$25 billion budget and insisted early on that the project would pay for itself through electricity generation. To some, this seems unlikely given that there is no current market for the electricity produced by Gezhouba dam, which is supposed to partially finance the project, as a result of a glut of electricity from the closure of many state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Supporters further argued that demand would rise once a new national transmission grid is in place. But those from Probe International, a Canada-based organization opposed to the dam, believe that by the time the demand has climbed, competition from cheaper, superior alternatives will have drawn away the ratepayers. Unless they are forced to buy the Three Gorges power, or unless the government subsidizes the power and indirectly passes the cost onto the taxpayers, it will be impossible to recoup the investment in the project, which will then go bankrupt, the critics added.

Meanwhile, critics fear that other projects in need of investment will suffer as China throws all of its resources into one big boondoggle. Experts believe that the project faces a shortage of funds, especially since many foreign financiers and governments, with some notable exceptions, have considered the dam too risky to get involved.

Resettlement: In the 1980s, China passed regulations to protect the rights of those displaced by the dam projects and assure them of adequate compensation. But human rights activists asserted that rural dwellers are being discriminated, that they are not being consulted about their eviction, that they are often crowded onto poor land with unsatisfactory living conditions and few job opportunities, that they are not being taught new job skills, that corruption is diverting the funds meant to compensate them, that their local culture is threatened and that the government has provided no channels for them to express dissatisfaction.

But supporters denied these charges and pointed out how the lives and property of those 15 million people living downstream would be improved from the reduction of devastating floods and from the extra electricity supply, which is expected to stimulate the local economy, provide more jobs and improve the standard of living.

Environment: Dam defenders point to the environmental benefits given by the dam, such as the availability of hydroelectric power, which is much cleaner than the coal burning China has relied heavily for decades. They believe the dam will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing coal burning (thereby protecting the ozone layer) and have none of the radiation hazards at nuclear plants.

Critics pointed out, however, that new, cheaper alternatives such as gas-fueled combined cycle plants and co-generators produce virtually no pollution or greenhouse gases. They added that water pollution would increase as the power of the Yangtze, which helps flush pollutants dumped by the factories on the riverbanks, is reduced and as more factories are relocated to the edge of the reservoir. But dam defenders said they would prevent pollution while critics alleged that officials had merely told ships to stop dumping sewage.

Opponents also said the dam would alter the current ecosystem and threaten the habitats of various endangered species of fish, waterfowl and other animals. They added that the project would necessitate extensive logging in the area and erode much of the coastline. But dam defenders pointed to measures such as fish ladders being taken to address these issues, which some critics believed would be ineffective.

Local culture and natural beauty: Opponents said the 600-kilometer (370 mile) long reservoir would inundate some 1,300 archeological sites, destroy the legendary beauty of the Three Gorges and thereby substantially reduce the tourism revenue. Dam defenders said, however, that many cultural and historical relics are being moved to higher ground and that the rise in the water level would not affect the scenery as much as the critics claimed.

Navigation: Dam defenders asserted that the project, which involves the installation of ship locks, would increase river shipping from 10 million to 50 million tons annually, with transportation costs cut by 30 to 37 percent. Shipping would become safer although the gorges have been notoriously dangerous to navigate. Critics argued, however, that heavy siltation would clog ports such as Chongqing within a few years based on the evidence from other dam projects.

Power generation: A major justification for the dam is the power it will generate from its twenty-six 700-megawatt turbine generators, which equals the energy produced by 18 nuclear plants or the burning of 40 million tons of coal. The power is to be sent through transmission lines mostly to eastern and central China to solve energy shortages there, where economic development is being held back.

As China’s per capita energy consumption is only one-third of the world average, and 60 million rural dwellers now lack electricity, the market potential is vast, said the dam defenders, who have also touted the inexpensiveness of hydroelectricity compared to other traditional power generation technologies.

But critics from Probe International argued that there is now an oversupply of electricity in the area because of the closure of many SOEs since 1998, the availability of power from existing hydroelectric dams and the rapid expansion of China’s power-generating capacity by 10,000-megawatts annually.

Moreover, even after demand recovers, the ratepayers in a decentralized energy market will defect to new, more technologically sophisticated alternatives, such as the energy provided by combined cycle plants, which are cleaner, cheaper, safer, more reliable, uses less fuel, promises faster returns on investment, requires less capital investment, does not require an expensive long-distance transmission system, permits greater local control over electricity supply and investment, adapts easily to rapid changes in energy needs and carries no risk of black outs. In other words, hydro-dams are already obsolete.

The experts predicted that the market for combined cycle plants could take off in five years once natural gas supplies are adequate, gas prices are allowed to rise to reflect real costs and the ratepayers are charged for transmission costs, which will increase the cost to consumers of the electricity supplied by the dam. But the dam defenders believed that the alternatives would not be able to outstand hydroelectricity at the moment.

Flood control: Dam defenders now emphasize the dam’s contribution to flood control, averring that the reservoir’s 22.1 billion cubic meter (28.9 billion cubic yard) flood storage capacity will lessen the frequency of big downstream floods from once every 10 years to once every 100 years. But critics believe that the Yangtze will add 530 million tons of silt into the reservoir on average per year and it will soon be useless in preventing floods. Furthermore, the dam could never prevent floods on downstream tributaries. Worse, increased sedimentation resulting from the dam could increase the already high flood level at Chongqing.

Others said such a large dam would increase seismic activity in the area and that a consequent earthquake could burst the dam, especially if construction is faulty. But dam defenders said the risk of this is remote.

Probe International asserted that the dam does not address the real source of flooding, which is the loss of forest cover in the Yangtze watershed and the loss of 13,000 square km of lakes (which had greatly helped to alleviate floods) due to siltation, reclamation and uncontrolled development. Instead of a dam, they recommended dykes and channel improvements, overflow area designation, better zoning, flood proofing and flood warning systems.

A summary of the arguments against the dam and the dam advocates' rebuttals

For each heading a problem as identified by the dam's opponents is given in the first paragraph. The response by the dam's supporters follows in the second.


The dam will far exceed the official cost estimate, and the investment will be unrecoverable as cheaper power sources become available and lure away ratepayers.
The dam is within budget, and updating the transmission grid will increase demand for its electricity and allow the dam to pay for itself.


Relocated people are worse off than before and their human rights are being violated.
15 million people downstream will be better off due to electricity and flood control.


Water pollution and deforestation will increase, the coastline will be eroded and the altered ecosystem will further endanger many species.
Hydroelectric power is cleaner than coal burning and safer than nuclear plants, and steps will be taken to protect the environment.

Local culture and natural beauty

The reservoir will flood many historical sites and ruin the legendary scenery of the gorges and the local tourism industry.
Many historical relics are being moved, and the scenery will not change that much.


Heavy siltation will clog ports within a few years and negate improvements to navigation.
Shipping will become faster, cheaper and safer as the rapid waters are tamed and ship locks are installed.

Power generation

Technological advancements have made hydrodams obsolete, and a decentralized energy market will allow ratepayers to switch to cheaper, cleaner power supplies.
The alternatives are not viable yet and there is a huge potential demand for the relatively cheap hydroelectricity.

Flood control

Siltation will decrease flood storage capacity, the dam will not prevent floods on tributaries, and more effective flood control solutions are available.
The huge flood storage capacity will lessen the frequency of major floods. The risk that the dam will increase flooding is remote.

Political motives

Given the evidence that the dam may not achieve its stated aims and may in fact cause irreparable damages, many critics wonder why the Chinese government continues the project. Their conclusion seems to be that the primary motive is political. The dam would be the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, which would confer prestige on China and confirm its technological prowess and the superiority of socialism.

The dam seems to have been shepherded along by hardliners, who would presumably have their power reinforced by the completion of the dam. Bureaucratic and regional politics may also play a role as agencies in charge of building the dam or provinces believe that they will benefit from the dam and outmaneuver their opponents. Corruption may be involved as well. But whatever the reason, the project seems to have generated its own momentum, and the further along it gets, the harder it would be to stop.

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