East Asia: Human–Environment Interaction

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Hundreds of thousands of Chinese died in floods in the 20th century. Most of these deaths were caused by the flooding of the Chang Jiang and the Huang He rivers. These vast river floodplains are home to, and help feed, hundreds of millions of people, and this makes people vulnerable to the rivers' wrath. In addition to the many deaths, the flooding has also forced millions of people to abandon their homes. But since the early 1990s, the Chinese have been building an enormous dam on the Chang Jiang that will help to control flooding. This is one example of how East Asians have shaped their environment.

The Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam is being built on the Chang Jiang in China. The dam is helping to control flooding along the great river, the third longest in the world after the Nile and the Amazon. But the dam is also generating power and is expected to allow ships to sail farther into China.


The Three Gorges Dam is China's largest construction project and is the world's biggest dam. The dam towers more than 600 feet high and spans a valley more than one mile wide. This dam will create a reservoir around 400 miles long. At least 1,000 towns and villages will have disappeared under the waters when the reservoir is filled.


The building of the Three Gorges Dam is a complicated issue because it has had both positive and negative effects. Experts disagreed about whether the dam should be built. But the Chinese government, which began construction of the dam in 1993, argued that the dam will have three positive effects.

First, the dam will help control the frequent flooding of the Chang Jiang, which causes great damage and loss of life. This is critical because the Chang Jiang irrigates about half of China's crops. Also, the river drains about one-fifth of China's total land area.

Second, the dam will generate huge amounts of electrical power. Giant turbines will produce electricity that will be hooked up to electrical grids in central and eastern China. This will improve the reliability of electricity throughout China. By some estimates, the dam's turbines will produce about 2 percent of China's electrical power by 2010.

Finally, the dam will make it easier for ships to reach China's interior. A series of locks along the river raise ocean-going ships up from the river to the reservoir. The Chang Jiang carries more than half of the goods moving on China's interior waterways. The dam and the locks will increase shipping capacity and decrease shipping costs.


Most observers agree that the Three Gorges Dam will also have negative effects. The central issue is whether the negative impact on the environment will be greater than the positive benefits. First, the human costs of the dam will be enormous. Huge numbers of people will have to be moved—somewhere between one million and two million people. Also, hundreds of historical sites and scenic spots will be submerged.

Second, the dam is likely to cost more money than originally anticipated. The Chinese government first estimated the cost at approximately $11 billion dollars. However, other estimates now place the cost closer to $75 billion. A number of banks and other financial institutions have chosen not to participate in the financing of the dam because of their concerns about the cost.

Third, environmental concerns about the dam trouble many observers. The giant reservoir created by the dam will put hundreds of square miles of land under water. This will reduce the habitat of many animals. It is feared that abandoned factories submerged under the reservoir may leak contaminating chemicals into the water. The huge reservoir will affect the climate and temperature of the region as well as the plant and animal life. Such species as the alligator, leopard, sturgeon, white crane, and river dolphin may not survive.

The Three Gorges Dam is scheduled to be completed in 2009. However, the Chinese government has not been careful in protecting the environment from the consequences of building the dam. Some international groups are reluctant to invest in the project because of environmental concerns, and this might delay its completion.

Use of Space in Urban Japan

Throughout history, the geographic challenges facing Japan have been different from those facing China. One of the most important challenges is that Japan is made up of a series of mountainous islands. Most of the cities are on the coasts of these islands. But because of nearby mountains, many of the cities cannot expand to absorb any more of the Japanese population, which is about 127 million people. Tokyo is a good example. One of the world's largest cities, it holds more than 25 million people. There is, however, no more land for the city to grow.


More than 60 percent of the Japanese people live on only about three percent of the land. The population is clustered along the narrow flat coastal plains.

These plains are among the most densely populated areas in the world. The largest cities in Japan are Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, and Sapporo. Close to 80 percent of the people in Japan live in cities.

Partly because of their large populations, some Japanese cities have become very polluted. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, a number of Japanese cities experienced poisoning from mercury and PCBs— industrial pollutants that build up in animal tissue and can cause disease and birth defects. PCBs were banned in 1977. However, cars and factories still cause massive levels of air and noise pollution.


The Japanese have shown great ingenuity in adapting to limited space. Because of the cost of land, houses are small by American standards. The rooms are separated by sliding screens and are sparsely furnished. People sleep on thin mattresses called futons that can be rolled up and stored during the day.

Many people, especially in the biggest cities, live in apartments. It is not uncommon for a family of four to live in a one-bedroom apartment. Some Japanese attempt to escape the overcrowding by moving away from the city to distant suburbs, but they must commute for two or even three hours a day to and from work. One of the solutions to the shortage of space is landfill. Landfill is a method of solid waste disposal in which refuse is buried between layers of dirt to fill in or reclaim low-lying ground. The Japanese have used landfill to reclaim land for most of the major cities along the coast.

Tokyo, for example, has built factories and refineries on landfill sites. One result of the use of landfill sites has been to enlarge some of Japan's ports. These reclaimed areas are designed to handle the great number of ships that sail in and out of the port.

You will explore more about how East Asians live in the next chapter, on human geography.