THE MOUNTAINS OF the Three Gorges (Qutang, Wu, and Xiling) are some of the most spectacular scenery in all of CHINA. Located in the middle section of the Yangzi River (CHANGJIANG) they have long been the object of countless paintings, photographs, and other representations. And now they are the site of the world’s largest hydroelectric project.
The Yangzi is the world’s third-longest river and the longest in China. It irregular and meandering course across many eastern and central provinces of China ends after a journey of 3,915 mi (6,300 km) in the East China Sea. To most Chinese, it is the “long river” (the Changjiang). The Yangzi and its tributaries drain about 706,000 square mi (1,829,000 square km). The Yangtze rises in Qinghai Province at an elevation near 16,000 ft (4,880 m) above sea level. From its source in the Tanggula Mountains, it rapidly gathers a huge volume of water. Because of its steep fall, its flow carries great quantities of silt to its mouth.
Since prehistoric times the Yangzi has been the home of a vast company of the Chinese people. The silt from floods has enriched fields in its lower reaches. On the other hand, great floods have caused catastrophes that have killed millions and made millions more homeless and destitute.
In order to institute flood control and to generate electricity, the government of the People’s Republic of China is building the largest hydroelectric project in the world to date. The Three Gorges Dam is located at Sandouping in Hubei Province. It is scheduled for completion in 2009. It will impound a reservoir that will stretch upstream for 350 mi (563 km), creating a lake about size of Lake SUPERIOR or the country of SWEDEN. The hydroelectric plant being constructed at the dam will be capable of generating 22.4 megawatts of electricity when generating at the peak of the project’s capacity.
The Three Gorges Dam project has been the subject of extensive studies by China since the 1950s. The proposal to build the dam generated a heated debate in the Chinese government that lasted for some time before the final decision to build the dam was made by the People’s Congress. Ultimately the size and cost of the project delayed its beginning until 1994, when, despite enormous opposition, construction began. Ten years later two-thirds of the project had been completed. The remainder has been planned for completion in 2009.
The Three Gorges Dam will flood enormous areas. This has required the relocation of over 1.25 million people. Most of them went to other areas of China, especially to urban areas, because the newly formed lake will submerge millions of acres of bottomland. The cost of the relocation of this number of people has been borne by the government. However, critics claim that even this funding has not been enough nor well spent in many places.
Building the Three Gorges Dam required the removal of nearly 4.5 billion cubic ft (125 million cubic m) of earth and rock. To construct the 600-ft- (183-m-) tall dam required 918 million cubic ft (26 million cubic m) of concrete. Part of the construction included a five-level ship lock for vessels to transit between the lake and the bottom of the dam.
One of the benefits of the Three Gorges Dam is the enormous electrical output it will generate. The original plan was to install 26 700,000-kilowatt turbo-generators. However, an expansion plan was approved in 2003 that will add six turbo-generators through a connecting tunnel inside of an adjacent mountain. The expected peak electrical output when the project is finished is 22.40 megawatts. This will be a clean air resource for supplying China’s energy growth.
Critics have denounced the project for its social and environmental costs. The critics claim that the cost-benefit ratio is too high to justify the project. Some have claimed that the very cost of the project, which rivals the construction of the Great Wall, will make the cost of the electricity generated by the project unaffordable.
Other critics have argued that the physical relocation and resulting social dislocation of over 1 million people entails enormous suffering and loss. Many of the people being moved to urban areas are rural peasants who will suffer adjustment problems. The government has claimed that its resettlement program is actually a poverty relief program that will greatly improve the lot of those affected.
Other critics have focused on the over 1,300 known archaeological, historical, and cultural sites that will be destroyed by the waters of the lake. However, many more sites have been discovered since the area has been very carefully surveyed in preparation of rising waters of the lake. In the Badong district, the number of new sites climbed from 44 to over 2,000. Critics fear that much will be lost.
To preserve this cultural heritage, the government has built a Three Gorges Museum to present the history of the area. In addition several Three Gorges Cultural Protection Centers will be built for housing the numerous archeological and cultural objects from the areas. The historic city of Dachang has also been moved from its old site to a new higher location.
Environmental concerns have been of keen interest to the Chinese government in planning for the Three Gorges Dam. The high volume of silt is a major concern because in a relatively short time it could silt in the lake and greatly reduce the hydroelectrical production. To prevent this, the project has special gates for flushing silt down stream. In addition, extensive re-forestation of the upper Yangzi’s watershed along with soil erosion programs is seeking to greatly reduce the volume of eroded material in the river. However, this will not stop coastal erosion, which depends on silt.
Another environmental concern is water quality and the consequent decline of fish populations. To ensure that water quality remains high, a wastewater processing plant and new garbage disposal facilities are being constructed. Associated with this is a potentially dangerous increase in diseases such a malaria and snail fever.
Another environmental concern is with the fish population. Experience at large dam projects around the world has shown that there is an inevitable decline in the reservoir fish populations. The possibility that some species will become extinct has been used by critics to oppose the dam. The fact is that the dam will prevent some species from returning to spawning beds. Efforts to address this problem have been of concern as part of the dam’s greater plan.
An important consideration is the danger a future war poses. The dam would be an obvious target. Destruction of the dam would not only hurt electrical output, but would flood 200 million people downstream. The Three Gorges project is now a part of the Chinese government’s Great Western Development Strategy. The cost-benefit ratio for the success of the project suggests insufficient direct benefits; however, indirect benefits of enormous quantities of electrical power, of reforestation, of recreational facilities, of numerous museums and cultural sites available for tourism and other benefits may outweigh the considerable costs.