The Three Gorges Dam
Staff posted on October 17, 2006 |
The Three Gorges Dam

The Issue

China has undertaken the greatest project since the erection of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal — the Three Gorges Dam project.  The Three Gorges Dam will be the largest hydropower station and dam in the world, with a 1.2 mile stretch of concrete and a 370 mile-long reservoir and 525 feet deep.  This project will cost more than virtually any other single construction project in history.


The idea of building a dam across the Yangtze river to control flooding and to and to harness it for hydropower has been the dreamof several generations of Chinese since the time of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, forerunner of China's democratic revolution.  The first proposition for construction dates back to the year 1919, when Dr.Sun Yat Sen suggested to build a dam at the Three Gorges.  Since 1954, Chinese and foreign scientists and engineers have devoted themselves to the planning, design and consulting work of the project.  

As planned, the capacity of Three Gorges dam, 17 million kilowatts, will top that of the largest dam currently operating by 40 percent.  Its projected annual power generation of 84 billion kilowatt-hours is equivalent to a coal mine capacity of 40 to 50 million tons per year.   The project will supply power mainly to the central China grid of Hubei, Hunan, Henen, and Jiangsu, and Anhui.  It will cost (in 1990 prices) as estimated RMB 57 billion ($ 10.57 billion).  Once completed, the dam will be 185 meters high and store 39.3 billion cubic meters of water.  It will create a reservoir 36 miles long and 525 feet deep. 

Supporters say the benefits of the project far outweigh the costs.  The principal advantage of the project is to generate power to keep pace with China's economic growth.  It is estimated that China's power output must rise by 8 percent annually to keep pace with 6 percent annual increase in gross national product.  In practical term, that means the nation's total 1990 power capacity of 130 million kilowatts must grow to 580 million by the year 2015.  

Chinese officials note that the dam will relieve the danger of flooding.  The Chang Jing River Valley has been chronically threatened by flooding.  For example, in 1954, a flood killed 30,000 people and left one million homeless.  In addition, navigation capacities on the river from Yichang to Chongging will be improved, thus, 10,000 tons fleets can make direct trips.   

Another advantage of the dam is to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide; generating electricity equal to about 40 million tons of coal.  China's growing coal consumption poses a huge threat to the environment.  Coal burning emits several harmful air pollution including carbon dioxide (CO2), a major contribution to the global warming.  Three quarters of the country's energy comes from coal.  China used between 1.1 and 1.2 bn tons of coal in 1993, mostly for heating and generating electricity.  Industry source predict China will consume as much as 1.5 to 1.6 bn tons by the year 2000.  Sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain, are expected to rise from 15.5 million tons in 1991 to 1.4 billion.  

However, social costs of resettlement and environmental damage are enormous.  Environmental sustainability of the project in relation to massive resettlement and ecological damage is to be focused in this paper.  Chinese officials estimate that the reservoir will partially or completely inundate 2 cities, 11 counties, 140 towns, 326 townships, and 1351 villages.  About 23800 hectares, more than 1.1 million people will have to be resettled, accounting for about one third of the project's cost.  Many critics believe resettlement would fail and create reservoir refugees.  The forced migration would raise social unrest.  Many of the residents to be resettled are peasants.  They would be forced to move from fertile farmland to much less desirable areas.   

In April 1992, the National People's Congress approved the construction of the Chang Jiang  River, the world's third largest river, as part of China's 10-year development program.  The project has four goals:  to prevent flooding of the navigation on the river, and to generate power for the surrounding communities.  It consists of three parts:  a dam, a hydropower station and navigation facilities.  

The impact to international trade is indirect, but nonetheless, important.  The construction of the hydroelectric dam requires numerous international inputs, such as machinery and hydraulic equipment.  Moreover, the generated power of 17 million kilowatts will be used for industry to boost outputs.  The ground breaking began December, 1994, but the resettlement of residents had begun two years before that.  The full-scale construction is currently underway and the projected completion date is 10 years away in the year 2010.        
Yangzi River Three Gorges Dam Three Gorges Dam on Yangzi River
The Three Gorges occupies an area along the Changjiang
(Long River or the Yangzi River) from Yichang to the ancient city of Baidicheng.
A model of the compeleted Three Gorges Dam This scene went on for over 20 miles.

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