Free Essay

Taming the Dragon - the Paradox of the Three Gorges Dam

In: Historical Events

Submitted By gracie2011
Words 12339
Pages 50
Taming the Dragon
The Paradox of The Three Gorges Dam

CHE 546 Economics, Environment and Ecology
Stuart School of Business, IIT Executive Summary

The title of this paper is Taming the Dragon – The Paradox of the Three Gorges Dam. I chose this title because as I researched this topic, I realized that almost everything about the Three Gorges Dam is a paradox, beginning with the reason it was planned, designed and constructed in the first place. The primary paradox of the Three Gorges Dam is that in its quest to make life better for the country and people of China, the dam also made things unbelievably and irrevocably worse on a number of levels.

For centuries, China has depended on the Yangtze River. The river travels south from high in the Himalayas and then east toward the Pacific Ocean. The beauty of the pure water from the melting glacier at its source will turn into a ravaging, murderous river that robs people of their homes, food, livelihoods and even their loved ones and their own lives.

Another paradox of the Three Gorges Dam is that it is an enormous monument of industrialization. It is more than a way to control water levels, protecting people from uncontrollable storm water. It is a symbol of China’s commitment to its future. Abundant, clean energy.

There are those who argue that the resulting damage of the dam project is worse than the damage the river produces when it’s out of control – essentially the cure is worse than the disease. Somewhat naively, Chinese leadership believed they can control this river. For the short term they have, but not without paying an enormous price economically, environmentally, culturally, ecologically and psychologically.

Among the alternatives that some say should have been considered was a system of smaller dams that would have produced perhaps even more hydroelectric power without the escalated levels of impacts that were produced by the Three Gorges project. But who knows for sure? The fact is, there are draw backs to every solution we design because as hard as we try, our knowledge is still quite limited. And, we have not yet figured out how to communicate these highly complicated issues in compelling, persuasive ways that will help leaders and all constituents feel confident about the decisions being made.

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the complexity of the Three Gorges Dam project by reviewing the physical and cultural history of the river itself, reviewing the history of the dam project and its construction, and by reviewing the benefits and drawbacks (impacts) of the project.

In conclusion, I believe the real problem is, there are no good alternatives. There are just less bad alternatives. My opinion is that the biggest mistake made with the Three Gorges Dam was not taking the time to develop a true systemic solution that could have mitigated but not eliminated some of the damage that resulted from this project.


When I first decided to research and write about The Three Gorges Dam, I fully expected to learn how the dam negatively impacted the environment. I also fully expected that the biggest impact might be the social impact of the resettlement of the million plus people who once resided along the banks of the Yangtze. What I didn’t expect to find was information about the corruption that pushed the project through the approval process. While I wasn’t shocked that this might be the reality, it was a cold, hard reminder of how little attention is given to sustainability, systems-thinking solutions. I was reminded of the conversations I had with managers at Wal-Mart, SC Johnson, Alberto-Culver and design firms several years ago regarding sustainable design for products and packaging. Having been previously employed by a large tissue manufacturer, I was well aware of the fact that many of the “green decisions” that were made, were not made to support a sustainable strategy first and foremost. The Wal-Mart manager was the first to come clean on the subject, explaining that they “didn’t all sit around a conference room one day to develop sustainable strategies. It all started out to be about cost-savings, and we ended up with a pretty good story about sustainability that we decided to post on the [web]site”.

In 2003, I visited mainland China for the first, and hopefully, not the last time in my life. In fact, I experienced the Yangtze on a tour of the river – a “farewell tour” of sorts – before the river rose, swallowing up towns, villages and even major cities along the banks of the river.

As part of my research for this paper, I studied two videos about the dam project.
Reviewing these videos several times, memories of my own Yangtze experience began to race through my mind. My first days on the river were filled with a combination of disappointment, momentary panic and a lot of confusion. As we began to sail up the river, we were surrounded by miles and miles of concrete factories that vaguely and oddly resembled castle-like structures. Fully expecting to see lush, green natural settings, I was almost sorry I had invested the time and financial resources in this cruise up the legendary Yangtze River. And, we wondered frequently throughout the day, “what in the world could they be using that much concrete for? What types of projects could possible warrant that much concrete”? Not until we reached the Three Gorges Dam almost a full week later did we realize what was going on in that area of the Yangtze.

On day three of our trip, we awoke to exactly what we hoped to see when we decided to visit China. Day three is the day China began to turn green, lush and beautiful for us. It was the day that opened the door to my insatiable interest in China.

The Dragon River

The third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon, the Chianjiang or Yangtze River meanders for 3964 miles across China. Often referred to as “the dragon” for its shape and power, the source of Yangtze is the Glacier of Jianggendiru, high in the Kunlun Mountains in the southwestern section of Qinghai, at an altitude of 16,542 feet. Touching 32 major cities including Chongqing, Fengdu, Wuhan, and Shanghai, the banks of the Yangtze have also been home to countless towns and villages for centuries.

The Yangtze River is important to China for reasons not limited to its economy. Although it has been an important “transportation highway” for the past 200 years, capable of carrying ocean-going vessels more than 600 miles and steamers 900 miles from the sea, it also has deep cultural, agricultural and ecological importance.

The Yangtze River is China’s paradoxical asset. Throughout history, the Yangtze has been the cause of mass destruction, taking at least as much as it has given. Frequently, its banks overflow, causing fierce floods that ravage towns and cities, wash away invaluable food sources, and rob China of friends and family members. Responsible for 70 to 75 percent of the country’s floods in the 20th century alone, hundreds of thousands have lost their lives or had their lives irrevocably altered by the Yangtze.

In this century alone, Yangtze River floods have killed more than 300,000 people. There were catastrophic floods in 1931, 1935 and 1954 and 1998. In 1931, 140,000 people drowned when the river’s dikes gave way. In the flood of 1954, 30,000 people drowned, and an estimated additional 200,000 died from starvation and disease as a direct result of the flood. Over 2,000 people are believed to have died in the flood of 1991, and in 1998 an area the size of New Zealand flooded, killing 4,100 people.

At their height, these floods affected nearly 300 million people, almost equal to the entire population of the United States. It is believed that the true cost of the 1998 flood will probably never be known. However, the cost of fighting it and repairing its damage nearly destabilized the Chinese economy. In this global economy, that economic catastrophe would have reverberated around the world . China’s disaster would have been everyone’s disaster.

In Before the Deluge, The Vanishing World of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges, Deirdre Chetham, former executive director of Harvard University’s Asia Center writes, “As in many cultures, the history of the Yangtze River begins with a great flood, and then salvation for some. Water is of key importance, both in myth and in reality. The Qin, the first dynasty to unify China, succeeded in doing so in 221 BC in part because of the extensive network of canals and irrigation that it had established in Sichuan. In China, with its far-flung population and large areas of inhospitable terrain, the harnessing and distribution of water remain key elements in the political and emotional history of the nation. This has always been of utmost importance along the Yangtze, where floods and droughts are a constant part of life”.

The Three Gorges Dam Project

The Three Gorges Dam is the largest and arguably the most controversial dam project in the world. Most of what is documented about the dam indicates it was intended to control dangerous and deadly flooding along the Yangtze River. However, the dam project also produced serious unintended consequences, including the apparent relocation of the flooding from the south end of the river to the north end of the river. Now, several years after the completion of the dam, there are indications of even more serious issues not only with its construction, but with impacts associated with the its construction and presence.

The timeline of The Gorges Dam Project spans 90 years, beginning in 1919 when Sun Yat-sen, widely regarding as the father of modern China, proposed the dam near the Three Gorges as means to control floods. For political and economic reasons, the dam was not voted on until 1992 after a four-year debate, and not until an alternate dam project was completed and deemed unsatisfactory. Work on The Three Gorges Dam began in 1993. Completed a decade later, the reservoir finally reached full capacity in October 2010.

The Three Gorges Dam is the biggest construction project in the world since The Great Wall was built 2500 years ago. It took 40,000 people total of 16 years to build the dam at an estimated $28 billion –a cost equal to 14 space shuttles. But, as expensive as this dam was, it was still $2 billion less than the cost of the August 1998 floods.

As long as the Golden Gate Bridge and twice as high at 610 feet high, the dam, like The Great Wall, is visible from space. It is located 1200 miles upstream from the port city of Shanghai in the stretch of the Yangtze known as Three Gorges, named for the natural limestone formations that are considered to be among the most beautiful natural resources in China and the world.

By the time the dam was completed, enough rock was excavated from the riverbed to build the equivalent of 100 Empire State buildings. Army trained demolition experts led by expert team leaders, followed a carefully detailed demolition plan. The fallout from this demolition filled the sky with 15 tons of black dust each day. Workers removed the rubble, which was later ground up and used to make concrete for the wall of the dam. Whatever was not used for the dam wall was sold for public works projects such as roads for China’s rapidly expanding infrastructure.

After a history of the Yangtze River flooding that resulted in the catastrophic loss of lives, a battered economy and ecological loss in 1931, 1953 and again in 1998, the current dam was served up as a means to mitigate future damage by controlling the water flow in the river, particularly during the region’s monsoon season, June through September.

According to a documentary produced by Discovery, one of the world’s most respected engineers, Lu Youmei, the General Manager of The Three Gorges Project Corporation, was in charge of the project. “Releasing water in a controlled manner will prevent flooding. This is the reason we are building the dam. To prevent flooding.”

The dam was to serve other purposes as well. Specifically, it would provide a safe shipping route between Chongqing, one of China’s five national central cities and an important industrial center with a population of more than 31 million, and the coastal city of Shanghai.

Another reason for developing the dam was supporting China’s need for cleaner power. Largely dependent on coal for everything from industrial burners to home stoves, China’s burgeoning population was increasing the burden of the coal industry to meet short and long term demand, and the environmental impact of coal on air quality was beginning to affect the health and well-being of everyone – not just miners. Energy shortages were also beginning to limit economic expansion.

Hydroelectric power produced at the dam site appeared to be the perfect solution. It was also an opportunity to validate China as a producer of clean energy. It already accounts for six percent of the power supply and has major growth potential. Chen Deming, one of the China’s top economic planners, said hydropower was a critical noncarbon energy source and described the negative impacts of dams as “controllable.”

Deming said officials would emphasize environmental protection and resettlement issues on future projects. “We believe that large-scale hydropower plants contribute a lot to reduce energy consumption, air and environmental pollution,” Mr. Chen said at a September news conference. China, he added, planned to develop hydropower on “a considerable scale.”

The TVA Model and The Three Gorges Dam

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a corporation owned and operated by the US government. Created by legislation signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, TVA was intended to provide navigation, power, fertilizer manufacturing and flood control to the Tennessee Valley, which was severely undeveloped and hit hard by the Great Depression. Before TVA was established, less than three percent of the households in the valley had electricity, and malaria reached epidemic proportions in some areas, afflicting up to 30 percent of the population. The average expenditure per child for education in the valley was equal to about one third of what was being spent per child for the aggregate of the rest of the country, making education in the valley almost non-existent.

The average farmer's income in the valley was $639, almost half of the national average of $1,835. In short, the standard of living in 1933 in this ten state area of the United States , “the land of opportunity”, was very similar to the standard of living in most Third World nations.

Not unlike the area along Yangtze River, the Tennessee Valley was at the mercy of nature. The periodic flooding of the Tennessee River prevented the development of cities along the river's banks. Fires burned 10 percent of the woodlands every year, and because of soil depletion, 4.5 million acres were on the decline, and 300,000 acres had already been destroyed.

The TVA produced dramatic and drastic changes for the valley. In less than a decade, the number of households in the valley with electricity went from 6,000 to almost half a million. During its first two decades, the TVA constructed 20 dams, requiring 113 million cubic yards of concrete, rock, and earth—more construction materials than were used to build the seven great pyramids of Egypt.

One of the most important benefits of the TVA was the creation of about 200,000 jobs during its two-decade period of dam construction. At that time, it was the largest construction project in the world, and like every other large dam project that preceded it, this project required a major resettlement program. At least 15,000 families, 19,000 graves, 170 schoolhouses and 180 churches were moved from the areas that were flooded to create the lakes located behind the dams.

What made the TVA project unique was the concept of multipurpose dams. Prior to the creation of the TVA, dams were constructed for sole purpose of flood control. The TVA planners designed a system for power generation, improved navigation, irrigation, and recreation in addition to flood control. The TVA managers also knew that electricity would be the single most important factor in improving the standard of living of the people in the valley. Electricity promised the mitigation of some of the most strenuous aspects of agricultural work, which until then had been stalled at 19th century levels of technology. The advent of electricity and fertilizer factories tripled agricultural productivity in the Tennessee Valley region.

Other achievements of the TVA included:
• The establishment of the TVA’s own Health and Safety Department, to rid the valley of its endemic diseases
• A library system developed with libraries established at every dam construction site, which connected otherwise isolated communities to the rest of the world
• The establishment of model farms, where farmers were taught modern agricultural methods
• In return for free fertilizer from the TVA, farmers trained their neighbors in modern farming practices they learned from the TVA
• The transformation of a population that made the TVA the model for development in nations around the world

In 1992, after significant due diligence, the Chinese government decided to start construction of its own “TVA” on the Yangtze River. [Since that decision, U.S. government policy has virtually prohibited U.S. organizations and companies from participating in the project. However, in September 1996, the leadership of the TVA, and of the state of Tennessee, organized a joint conference in Beijing on "Economic Opportunities Through Water and Energy," to provide American input into China's great projects. The conference was organized by people who understand the history and purpose of the TVA: Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist, the chairman of the TVA, and then-U.S. Ambassador to China, James Sasser, who is a former Senator from Tennessee].

Representatives from dozens of U.S. companies were invited by TVA to attend this conference, including water and energy experts, and a representative of a U.S. nuclear company. David Hall, the head of the TVA's work in China, explained that to control flooding in China, projects have to be planned on the tributary rivers, like the Han and the Li, not just on the Yangtze. Described as an integrated regional resource development approach, the TVA model entails developing a river system by looking at all the possible uses of the water, ensuring that competing uses of water, such as navigation, flood control, in their case, water supply for irrigation and flood protection optimize the way the water is utilized. This determines the number of dams required, where they should be located, their size, the design of the navigation locks, and all the necessary supporting facilities that will be designed and constructed.

The Roots of Controversy

Even before the Three Gorges Dam was completed, reports of serious issues related to the dam’s construction began to surface. Landslides, increased pollution, flooding in new locations as well as social and political unrest stemming from the relocation of the millions of people who lived along the Yangtze are appearing in western media. Surprisingly, even Chinese officials have begun to speak out about unresolved issues related to the project, a move that is almost completely unprecedented. Weng Lida, secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum was quoted as saying “the problems are all more serious than we expected”.

In September 2007, Chinese officials admitted the project “has caused an array of ecological ills, including more frequent landslides and pollution, and if preventive measures are not taken, there could be an environmental ‘catastrophe’”.

It also appears that the complexity and massive undertaking of relocating millions of displaced and affected people has been grossly underestimated. While some say these errors in judgment were naïve, others believe the underestimations were intentional.
This is also contributing to a range of social, political, and economic problems.

Internationally, a debate has raged for years about large dams (those higher than 50 feet) because of their legacy of disruption. Many environmentalists contend that electricity generated by large dams should not be considered renewable because of the social and environmental damage that follow many projects. The United States has many large dams that, in recent years, have begun to be decommissioned because of environmental concerns.

Will the Three Gorges Dam Really Control Flooding?

According to a documentary produced by Discovery, one of the world’s most respected engineers, Lu Youmei, the General Manager of The Three Gorges Project Corporation, was in charge of the project. “Releasing water in a controlled manner will prevent flooding. This is the reason we are building the dam. To prevent flooding.”

Dai Qing, a journalist for the Enlightenment Daily from 1982 until 1989, was not afraid to air the opinions of dissenters in China. The daughter of a revolutionary executed by the Japanese, Dai was the first to publicize the views of Three Gorges opponents. Adopted by her father's colleague, Marshal Ye Jianying, who by 1980 had become one of the five most powerful men in China, she trained to be a missile engineer, and worked in military intelligence. This experience contributed to her disenchantment with many of the policies of the Chinese government. While at the Enlightenment Daily, Dai focused her investigative reporting on the Three Gorges Dam. This led to the publication of Yangtze! Yangtze! in 1989. Despite a ten month prison sentence which she spent in solitary confinement for “abetting the turmoil at Tiananmen Square” , being banned from publishing her research with Chinese scientists, journalists and researchers, and being fired from her job, Dai Qing continues to press the Chinese government for accountability, freedom of the press, and public debate on issues related to integrity of government decisions and law-making.

Currently a freelance writer, Dai has authored a series of books on the history of dam building in China. Yangtze! Yangzte! was the first of that series. On October 15, 2005, she appeared at a bookstore in Beijing to promote her work, and spoke openly about the
Three Gorges Dam project.

Admittedly, Dai is not a hydroelectricity expert, nor is she an expert of water conservancy. She has, however, researched The Three Gorges Dam Project for the past 20 years, mostly by reading information from unofficial sources because “the problem has been the impossibility of gaining access to key data about the Three Gorges dam, let alone knowing anything about the decision-making on the project. This is because the government regards Three Gorges as top secret, so in the end it doesn't really matter how much you read up on it”.

According to the transcript of Dai’s Beijing bookstore discussion published by Probe International, an independent environmental advocacy group that “fights to stop ill-conceived aid, trade projects and foreign investments”, Li Rui was a secretary on scientific affairs to Mao Zedong in the 1950s. According to Dai, Li recently commented on the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. “As he put it, Comrade Xiaoping made two serious mistakes in his lifetime: the suppression of the student movement in 1989 and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. As for the first mistake, his successors could do something to rectify matters in the future; but as for the second mistake, unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about it. The mistake is too big to correct. Nobody can save the Yangtze now”.

The transcript goes on to describe the first half of the 20th century as the era of the big dams. Large dam projects were being built on rivers on almost every continent -- in the United States, Europe, the former Soviet Union and Egypt.

“With encouragement and funding from the United States, the Nationalist government was all set to build the Three Gorges dam. The government of China accepted an American design for the project and sent a team of engineers to undertake a period of work-study with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States. But the idea of damming the Three Gorges did not survive the Civil War in China, which exhausted the resources, financial and otherwise, of the Nationalist government” .

According to Dai’s transcript, it was Deng Xiaoping who approved The Three Gorges Dam. “Deng used to say that he was just "a retired old man," but everyone knew he still wielded absolute power and had the final say on important issues, including Three Gorges. However, Deng wanted a smaller Three Gorges project [with the height of the reservoir kept to 150 meters above sea level, as opposed to the planned "normal pool level" of 175 meters]. He said, "I'm in favor of building the dam with a lower water level, and you can get started on it now if everything else is okay." It later turned out that nobody took any notice of his preference for a smaller project, but just highlighted his support for building the dam”.

According to Dai’s transcripts, no one knows for sure whether or not anyone ever discussed the consequences of damming the river at Three Gorges with Deng. Dai believes that “the Ministry of Water Resources and the Changjiang [Yangtze] Water Resources Commission lured Deng into making the decision to proceed with the dam by way of deceptions put forward in the interests of the "benefit groups”.

The transcript also quotes Dai saying, “Many people have known something is wrong with the project, but few have dared to speak up. And even if they have dared to do so, they haven't been able to get their views published because the media is tightly controlled by the [Communist] Party.

Dai believes that “to push the scheme forward, the groups with vested interests in it had to deceive the [Deng] and cajole the public at the bottom. And to do this, the project authority has repeatedly claimed that building the big dam would have four enormous benefits: flood control, hydropower generation, improved navigation and regional economic development.

Corruption Exposed

According to Dai, at the time of the 1998 floods, Lu Youmei, general manager of the Three Gorges Project Corporation, told China Central Television that the severe floods that year definitely would have been controlled had the dam already been completed. What he didn't mention was that the flood threat to Wuhan, the largest city in central China [about 800 kilometers downstream of the dam], comes not only from upstream areas behind the dam, but also from heavy rainfall between the dam and Wuhan. And, obviously, the dam can do nothing to control floodwater pouring in from downstream tributaries, in particular, the Xiang, Zi, Yuan, Li and Han rivers.

Dai questioned the identities of the beneficiaries of the Three Gorges Dam, and the motives for pushing for the project so aggressively in the late 1970s. At his time, China had just recovered from years of famine and upheaval for the civil war. “In my view, building the project as "the world's biggest" showpiece of the glories of the socialist system is all just rhetoric. The real driving forces behind the scheme are the vested interest groups, namely, the provinces of Hunan and Hubei, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Changjiang [Yangtze] Water Resources Commission, which are all reaping substantial benefits from the dam project”. According to Dai, Hunan and Hubei, provinces located below the Three Gorges, have had a long-running dispute over where the floodwater should go when big floods hit the region. By building the Jingjiang dike and settling tens of thousands of people in the flood-free zone behind it, Hubei has become richer and its people have achieved a higher standard of living than their neighbors in Hunan. “This was why Hunan officials and residents have been complaining that floodwater would inundate their villages and farmland if the dike ever has to be broken again. Now both provinces feel somewhat more relaxed about this issue thanks to the Three Gorges project, which holds back some of the floodwater in the wet season”.

“China has had a centrally planned economy since the founding of the People's Republic. This (obviously) means the central government controls the pursestrings for infrastructure projects. And those who can argue how important a project is from a political perspective, and who have good contacts among the top leaders, have an easier time obtaining funds from the central government,” according to Dai. When the major floods occurred on the Yangtze in 1998, Dai interviewed Professor Lu Qinkan, the former deputy chief engineer at the Ministry of Water Resources. He told her that as early as the late 1970s, they had undertaken a flood-control study that concluded the best way to solve the flood problem on the river was to strengthen the dikes and dredge the waterways, and doing so would cost a fraction of the amount required to build the big dam.

Dai contends that the powerful Ministry of Water Resources would not be content with such a meager funding stream, and that this is an example of official corruption.

The Ministry of Water Resources is the government department in charge of The Three Gorges project. Once the department won the right to build a project, it was able to use the project funds any way it chose, without any outside monitoring or supervision. Before the Three Gorges proposal was even approved, people in the department had already begun using project funds for their personal gain. Dai reports that bureaucrats used official funds to purchase expensive automobiles, and to build summer and weekend homes as well as impressive residences in Beijing.

As Lin Hua, former vice-chairman of the State Planning Commission, pointed out, “the project's backers would do everything in their power to repress us if it looked as if we were going to succeed in halting the scheme. They would have feared the prospect of an audit, given that 200 million yuan (US $25 million) of project money was spent even before the scheme was approved, so they had no choice but to push the project through at any cost. Once they won approval for the project, billions of dollars would start flowing from the central government, and nobody would bother to mention the small matter of that 200 million yuan”.

Dai went back to review the dam’s “much-touted flood-control benefits”. “As Li Rui argued, building the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze River would repeat the mistake made on the Yellow River with Sanmenxia. That dam just relocated the flood problem upstream, moving it from Henan to Shaanxi province. The construction of the Three Gorges would do the same, transfering the flood disasters in Wuhan, 800 kilometers below the dam, to Chongqing, 660 kilometers upstream of the project”.

“If sustainable development means maintaining the integrity of ecological systems and involving the local population that will be affected in a process that meets their social and economic needs, the Three Gorges Dam does not qualify. And, if sustainable development is the model for future approaches to interactions between humans and their environment, then Three Gorges is a relic of the past -- that is of the old Soviet-style economic planning system with its emphasis on “grandiose” engineering projects that are supported by huge bureaucracies and political elites who are more interested in national pride and political bombast than sustainable development. To the extent that the Three Gorges will destroy the Yangtze River system and damage its estuaries and extinguish local species while significantly eroding the living standards of local residents, it will compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs – the very antithesis of sustainable development.”

Pros and Cons of the Dam: Benefits vs. Impacts


On May 11, 2000, The Economist reported, “When the massive Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River was first mooted, its enthusiasts made the claim that it would help provide China with all the electricity it could ever need. Now it turns out that China is so well supplied with power that the Three Gorges management may find it difficult to sell any power at all”.

Two months before that was reported, 53 hydrology experts and government advisers forwarded a petition to China’s top leaders, including President Jiang Zemin, saying they were concerned about a plan to speed up the filling of the reservoir and wanted it overruled. Originally, the plan was for the water in the reservoir to be a depth of 156 meters (516 feet) for the first ten years of operation while silt accumulation and other factors were monitored. If feasible, the reservoir level was then to be raised gradually over the following seven to ten years, to 175 meters. But in 1997, officials decided to quicken the pace and bring the level to 175 meters within the first six years.

“The reason given was that the extra power created by raising the reservoir level would be needed in China. Whether the planners really believed this is unclear. Promoting the power-generation aspect of the Three Gorges project may have seemed a good way to counter the criticisms made by the dam’s opponents, and the suspicions of potential investors. The prime minister at the time, Li Peng, a former water engineer, got parliament to approve the $24 billion project in 1992, and remained its keenest backer”.

“China is now seeking to “rectify” the electricity market, and this year plans to shut many small coal-fired plants with a combined capacity of more than 3MW. Yuan Guolin, the recently retired vice-president of the Three Gorges Development Corporation, says that, despite such efforts, it will be some time before the power market settles down. Until it does, he believes, the corporation will have to postpone its plans to list shares on domestic exchanges. That may be just as well, given the spate of unfavorable publicity Three Gorges has received of late”.

According to the transcript published by Probe International, generating hydroelectricity was said to be one of the biggest benefits of building the dam. “In the context of China's centrally planned economy, the power companies fall over themselves to obtain government funds to get their projects started. They don't care what consequences the construction of a dam might bring about, or even whether the electricity it generates will sell or not. As a result, China's power supply has experienced significant fluctuations: a shortage of electricity today, but overproduction tomorrow.”

Qinghua University professor Zhang Guangdou complained that "the electricity generated by the Ertan dam [on the Yalong River in Sichuan] is [already] too expensive to buy." And the price of Three Gorges power is definitely costlier than that of Ertan, so who's going to buy it?”

The transcript also states that the Chinese government was aware of this situation, and has issued a series of special policies including a lower tax rate for the Three Gorges Corporation, in an attempt to lower the cost of the electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam. Another measure was to require the larger, more developed cities in coastal regions to purchase power generated by the Three Gorges Dam, emphasizing that this purchase is a political responsibility.


As mentioned above, engineers recommended that silt accumulation be monitored for the first ten years of the dam’s operation, requiring the depth of the reservoir to be maintained at 156 meters (516 feet) during that time. If after that period of time it was deemed feasible, the reservoir level could then to be raised gradually over another seven to ten year period until it reached 175 meters.

According to an article in the New York Times on November 19, 2007, Fan Xiao, a Sichuan Province geologist and a critic of the Three Gorges project, said The Three Gorges region had a history of geological fragility. He said the worst situation would be a major earthquake induced by pressure from the rising water — a possibility that officials have long discounted. Heavy silt accumulation could also pose severe problems upstream as it gradually builds up the floor of the reservoir. Silt accumulation has steadily reduced the capacity of other Chinese dams to store water, which has also reduced electrical generation.

Planners of the Three Gorges Dam estimated that sedimentation could become a problem upstream in the city of Chongqing within 20 years. But Mr. Fan and other scientists say sedimentation is already happening at a rate that could create flooding and shipping problems in Chongqing much sooner than expected.

The Yangtze River has traditionally carried a vast load of sediment from its upper reaches of the watershed to the East China Sea, supporting ecological processes in the river delta and the productivity of fisheries in the Sea. Sediment loads vary with climate factors, and with the level of deforestation and reforestation in the upper watershed. The completion of the Three Gorges Dam, however, has led to a rapid and significant decrease in downstream sediment load.

Sediment volumes have been declining from the late 1990s due to reforestation efforts and the construction of many small- and intermediate-sized dams on Yangtze River tributaries. In 2003, the closure of the Three Gorges Dam caused a further severe decrease, with sediment loads near the Yangtze’s delta dropping to only 33 percent of the 1950–1986 levels.

Among the consequences of this drop in sediment are growing coastal erosion and a change in the ecological characteristics and productivity of the East China Sea. Based on estimates of the historical sediment budget and erosion data from the river’s delta, scientists estimate that the delta will be increasingly eroded during the first five decades after full operation and then approach a balance during the next five decades as sediments start to move through the Three Gorges Dam reservoir.


Improved navigation on the Yangtze was said to be the third benefit claimed by the project authority, according to the report delivered in Beijing by Dai. “At the start of the feasibility study, proponents declared that 10,000-ton vessels would be able to sail directly up to Chongqing on the wider and deeper reservoir behind the dam.

Opponents of the dam project pointed out that the bridges across the Yangtze at Nanjing and Wuhan are too low for these large vessels, making it impossible for them to sail directly up to Chongqing. In response to this objection, the project authority changed the "10,000-tonne ocean-going vessels" to "a fleet of ocean-going vessels with a total weight of 10,000 tonnes”. This finessing of language in the documents could then be interpreted as a string of boats rather than a single large ship. Additionally, the project authority is said to have significantly overstated the freight volume that is able to get through the locks.

According to research conducted by Dai Qing, another major problem is the possibility of accidents associated with the locks. Previous experience with the locks at Gezhouba Dam (40 kilometers downstream of Three Gorges), provides a history of accidents that can bring traffic on the Yangtze to a grinding halt, tying up traffic for anywhere from several hours to several days.

Additionally, building the shiplock was extremely difficult. Cracks and holes were found in the structure, so to guarantee the integrity and safety of the shiplock, experts suggested dismantling it and starting again. The project authority ignored the expert advice, however and the cracks and the holes were simply repaired by filling them with cement.

Designed primarily for freighters, the Three Gorges shiplock gave practically no consideration for passenger boats. Later, in order to get the Three Gorges project approved, the project authority announced that it would build a shiplift to get passenger boats over the dam just as quickly as taking an elevator. At the time this transcript was published, the shiplift still did not exist.

In the spring of 2005, Chinese newspapers reported that freighters were stranded at the port of Nanjing, one of the best harbors along the Yangtze, due to a shortage of water. Under the circumstances, the project authority was forced to take the urgent step of opening the spillways to allow more water to get to downstream areas.

Geologic Instability

In Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, China, Peter H. Gleick presented reports of increased seismic activity as a result of the dam project. Additionally, National Geographic reports that, at capacity, the weight of the reservoir will tilt the earth’s axis by nearly an inch.

There is always an increased possibility of seismic events as large dam reservoirs are filled and pressure on local faults increases. This type of reservoir-induced seismicity was predicted for the Three Gorges region. The risk with this dam is escalated in this case because the region is already seismically active.

An increase in seismic activity in the region was reported after construction of the dam was completed and as also with the filling of the reservoir. Not surprisingly, official statements minimized the importance of this, saying that “no unusual phenomena which could disrupt the stability of Three Gorges Dam have occurred.” (People’s Daily Online 2007).

Landslide activity in the region has also increased. More frequent reports of activity in the steeply sloped regions around Three Gorges have been associated with the filling of the reservoir. Not long after the dam was closed and the reservoir began to fill, a major landslide occurred near the town of Qianjiangping on the Qinggan River not far from where the river meets the Yangtze mainstream.

Gleick reports that “early on the morning of July 13, 2003, 24 million cubic meters of rock and earth slid into the Qinggan River, completely blocking its flow, capsizing 22 boats, and destroying four factories, 300 homes, and more than 67 hectares of farmland. Official reports say that 14 people were killed and 10 more were listed as missing (Wang et al. 2004). In 2007, thirty-one people died when a landslide on a tributary to the dam in Hubei province crushed a bus (Stratton 2007).

The risk of these types of disruptions appears to be far more severe than anticipated, and is leading to new resettlement efforts as the danger zones around the margins of the reservoir expand. In the fall of 2007, officials and experts admitted the Three Gorges
Dam project had caused more frequent landslides (Xinhua 2007b,c). Tan Qiwei, vicemayor of Chongqing, told a forum in Wuhan that the shore of the reservoir had collapsed in 91 places and a total of 36 km of shoreline had caved in. In some cases, landslides around the reservoir had produced massive waves as high as 50 meters, causing even more damage along the reservoir’s edge.

Abandoning the Ecology of the Yangtze

The ecosystem of the Yangtze was once so rich, the river was considered the “Amazon of the East”. Today, there is little left of the its rich biological treasures, due primarily “to thousands of years of environmental exploitation, transformation and degradation by the constantly burgeoning population that saw this landscape as a resource to support its continuing expansion”, and as the power to fuel what became one of the world’s greatest empires.

For centuries, folktales have been told about the revered baiji, the beautiful white dolphin of the Yangtze. These tales vary by location along the river, but always include the basic story of the pursuit of love and beauty and good vs. evil, and can definitively be traced back to the Han Dynasty, sometime around 206 BC and AD 8. This river dolphin is not only part of the ecological fabric of the Yangtze River, it is part of the cultural and social fabric as well.

In addition to this legendary white dolphin, there are more than 350 other species of fish in the Yangtze River, of which 177 are found nowhere else in the world. This list of species includes two types of armour-plated sturgeon and their distant relatives, the Yangtze paddlefish, named for its large, elongated snout. Like every other species in the world, this paddlefish with an over-sized snout shaped like a boat paddle, is perfectly engineered to perform a specific task for the species. Considered the underwater sniffer dog, it’s snout is “studded with remarkable receptors that can detect subtle electric currents generated by the smaller animals on which the paddlefish feeds.” The paddlefish can grow up to seven meters long, which makes it the largest freshwater fish in the world.

There are dozens of other species, like the giant soft-shell turtle, the largest freshwater turtle in the world that is also endemic to the Yangtze. The river’s wetlands also “boast the only species of alligator found outside the Americas,” even though they are much smaller than the alligators found there.

Though the extinction and threat of near extinction of dozens of species cannot be attributed to the relative recent industrialization of China, the damage was definitely accelerated during the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong. Chairman Mao, responsible for the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1949, was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, in less than ten years, Mao created a major collectivist land reform and purged China of its intellectuals and “free-thinkers”.

Mao then initiated the Second Five Year Plan, or “The Great Leap Forward”, intended to “transform China overnight from the agrarian economy supported by countless millions of peasant farmers that existed for thousands of years into an industrial society able to compete with other world powers”. This attempt failed miserably, ultimately resulting in the starvation of an estimated 40 million farmers over a three-year period known as “The Three Bitter Years” (1959 – 1962).

Samuel Turvey writes, “The appalling – and completely avoidable – national catastrophe triggered by the Great Leap Forward inevitably had major impacts on China’s natural environment. Forest destruction escalated as peasants tried to obtain charcoal to fuel their useless furnaces, and although meaningful statistics from this period remain almost impossible to obtain, at least 10 percent of the country’s remaining forests were cut down in a few months. Starving families were driven to eat anything they could find, including baiji, which were no longer venerated under Mao’s aggressively secular regime”.

Simon Winchester, a journalist from Hong Kong wrote, “the (baiiji), goddess of the Yangtze became lunch”. Fisherman told Winchester they now felt responsible for hunting baiji during those years. “Back in the sixties we needed to eat. I took a lot of dolphins out, and sold them, or took the meat for [our] families. It didn’t matter that we once called them goddesses. We didn’t care”.

Part of Mao’s movement toward industrialization was the construction of large hydropower stations. Enormous dam projects designed to harness the power of the country’s largest rivers were typically led by people who had no previous experience or expertise in this area. Consequently, no consideration was given to impacts on the environment, conservation of resources or long-term economic effects primarily because they weren’t even aware that these were issues. Unaware, untrained, under-educated in these matters, free reign was given to ravage the environment.

The detrimental impact on the baiji from these dam-building projects -- dolphin populations that were fragmented, the accidental killing of the dolphins and other animals during heavy construction work, the prevention of the migration of fish to their spawning grounds and the drastic change of the flow of the river and water conditions – soon became apparent. The increasing exclusion of the outside world by the new communist regime made it all but impossible for outside scientists to study China’s wildlife.

Now, with the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, major changes in fish populations have been anticipated because the project is altering the dynamics of the river, the chemical and temperature composition of the water, and the character of the natural habitat and food resources available for these fish species.

Ironically, the Three Gorges Dam had little to do with the extinction of this particular dolphin. The damage to the baiji had already done by the time this dam was built. The real message, according to Turvey is that Yangtze is in desperate need of conservation for its other endangered species and aquatic mammals that are on the brink of extinction. Peter Gleick supports this assertion in Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze
River, China.

The magnitude of the Three Gorges Dam in terms of sheer size, power, impacts from construction and the effects on environment, in addition to the fact that it is the most recent dam constructed in China, exacerbates the environmental damage done to the Yangtze by those previously constructed dams.

The further irony is that China actually has some of the strictest conservation laws in Asia. They are rendered ineffective, however, as they are not enforced.

Resettlement and Regional Development

Roughly one third of China’s population lives along the Yangtze. Ancient legends and archeological discoveries suggest that the Yangtze was well populated even in ancient times.

“Since the beginning of time, the story of the Three Gorges region has been one of violence of nature topped off by the chaos of people. The customs and traditions of the region, some of which have lingered on to the present, developed to a large extent to cope with this”. Most of the people who live along the Yangtze were born and died in the same location, in some cases on the same property where their ancestors lived for centuries. And, like their ancestors, these people spent their lives farming or fishing along the river. At least until the dam was built.

In “Up the Yangtze”, a film by Yung Chang, a contemporary Chinese-Canadian filmmaker whose family is from this region, Yung documented the post-dam Yangtze River through the life of a family forced from their home by the rising river. With raw emotion, the family generously opened their home and allowed Yung to follow them through a series of financial, social and emotional hardships to help depict the experiences of the nearly two million people living along the river, who have also been forced to relocate to unfamiliar, and very often, less beneficial locales.

Yu Shui, who is known in the documentary by her English name, Cindy, is 16 and the eldest of three children of the Yu family. Uneducated and illiterate subsistence farmers who live near Fengdu, the Yus have already been displaced once, and are once again confronted with being forcibly relocated. As the dam nears completion, their family home and livelihood will be completely submerged. Struggling to make a living, they pin their hopes on the flourishing tourist industry along the river for their economic survival. Here, Cindy will be forced by her parents to seek employment to help support her family by working in the kitchen of the ship rather than pursuing her goal of attending a university to study science.

Yung says, “The Chinese believe that success is defined by five key influences: fate, luck, environment, virtue and education. You can’t change your fate, but you can predict your luck. And, by improving your character, environment and skills, you many have a better chance at success” .

It certainly does not seem that this change of environment has improved the chances of success for many of the people who have been displaced. It is not unusual to hear of families who have lived in the same location for hundreds of years, with property passed down from family to family for centuries. Now, these families are being forced to evacuate, leaving the fertile farmland they have cultivated, and where they have created a life of stability, and in some cases, even achieving a level of prosperity. They are forced to relocate upland to areas that are far less suited to farming. There, away from the water, the land is far less arable, and these people have significantly less opportunity to recreate their lives that are being swallowed up by the water.

It is not just farmers and fisherman who have been displaced by the rising river. Entire infrastructures of communities including established businesses, temples, schools, healthcare providers – everyone imaginable that provides community support – have all been relocated to rebuild their communities from scratch.

For many, government assistance for relocation never reaches them, and they are left to fend for themselves. Corruption among the government officials is rampant, and those without the means to bribe officials are generally subjected to physical and emotional abuse. In the documentary, a young shop owner tells Yung that it is very hard to be commoner in China. Refugees who have no money to bribe officials are dragged and beaten when it is time for them to move. Others, who are better off are relocated to newly constructed housing with running water, new electrical appliances, gardens and other amenities. Not everyone is that fortunate, however.

Historically, resettlement schemes, especially those associated with large dam projects, are rife with problems. However, proponents of The Three Gorges project, interested in pushing the project through the approval process, spun a new “marketing” strategy of "resettlement with development," claiming to have designed improvements in the quality of life into the resettlement plan. However, the reality of the resettlement was that only some of the funds for this project would be distributed directly to people who were displaced by the project. Instead, most of the money would be distributed primarily to local government officials, who would then order and manage construction of new factories, farms, houses, towns and roads. The “theory” was that the people being forced from the region would happily move into new homes, and resettle into an improved quality of life.

At the start of its feasibility study, proponents of the Three Gorges project estimated that approximately 725,000 people would have to be relocated. In an effort to get the project approved, resettlement estimates were deliberately and artificially kept low. According to the research conducted by journalist Dai Qing, Li Boning, the official responsible for the resettlement section of the feasibility study, said in an internal meeting, "Don't mention one million any more or we'll be giving opponents a bullet with which to kill the project."

After the project was approved [by the National People's Congress in April 1992], the government announced a figure of 1.13 million. Neither Dai nor Probe International believe this is number is accurate. Estimates vary as high as 2.5 million to as low as
1.9 million.

The resettlement policy devised by the project authority specified "settling the affected people in nearby areas, especially on slopes on higher ground." As it turns out, this policy violates a state regulation that prohibits farming on slopes with a gradient of more than 25 degrees. For this reason, the then-premier Zhu Rongji later issued a new policy after the floods of 1998 that encouraged the affected people to move out of the reservoir area altogether, in an effort to reduce the resettlement pressure on the Three Gorges environment.

As early as 2005, villagers affected by the dam organized protest activities in Hubei province. One woman was sentenced to five years in jail for protesting. Another refugee reported that because of official corruption, many migrants have received much less compensation than the government promised.

Affected villagers raised the funds to send migrant representatives to Beijing to meet with officials and to express their support of the construction, but to report the rampant governmental corruption. Even though these representatives met with a number of officials, they were ignored not only by the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee but by the official media as well. They were left with no other option but to speak to a reporter from a Hong Kong newspaper. As a result, they were jailed for "leaking state secrets" to a foreigner.

The Story of the Dahe Dam is a book written by a Ying Xing, a Chinese sociologist. Based on researching dam-related resettlements while Ying was a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he seized the opportunity to work temporarily as a local official in a rural area. As it turned out, he was sent to Yunyang County and assigned to work as an aide to the vice-governor in charge of Three Gorges resettlement. By virtue of his position, he had access to official documents from various levels of government, as well as first-hand information from villagers affected by the dam.

In a widely circulated article, Ying warned that unresolved problems stemming from the Three Gorges population resettlement were very likely to escalate, becoming explosive issues and the root of social instability in China over the next half century.

In Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, China, Gleick, who is the co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California points out that, “Every large dam built in China has led to the resettlement of local people because of the high populations and the density of towns and villages along the major rivers. Even early in the debate over Three Gorges, the Chinese Academy of Sciences acknowledged that large-scale resettlement and inundation of population centers would be among the most devastating aspects of the project”.

To date, the dam has displaced 13 major cities, 140 smaller cities and nearly 1400 villages. Recent assessments however, are indicating that the early resettlement estimates of 1.2 million to 2 million people appear to be wildly off. According to Gleick, “it now appears possible that as many as six million people in total will have to be resettled because of the dam and surrounding impacts. In late 2007, a stunning announcement vastly increased the scale and scope of the relocation effort. Vice-Mayor Tan announced “at least 4 million people from the Three Gorges Reservoir area are to be relocated to cities in the next 10 to 15 years”.

As part of this newly announced massive relocation, more than 4 million people currently living in northeast and southwest Chongqing are to be resettled in the outskirts of Chongqing city in new settlements. To no one’s surprise, officials dispute that these new relocations are related to the dam, arguing instead that they are part of a national experiment in economic reform. Other reasons given for the resettlement include regional overpopulation, limited opportunities for industrial development, and growing ecological and geological problems along the reservoirs edge, including massive landslides (Xinhua 2007b).

According the Gleick, scholars studying the affects of populations displaced due to large construction projects such as dams are finding that these refugees face increased wealth disparity over time. Long-term risks of becoming even poorer, frequently threatened with landlessness, food insecurity, unemployment, and social marginalization are the most frequently reported affects.

There is no doubt that the early resettlement efforts at Three Gorges led to a worsening of conditions for a significant part of that population, many of whom were already relatively poor. And, it is no secret that China does not tolerate criticism of government policy and leadership. So, the unprecedented discussion of these problems in scientific and policy journals, as well as the news media in China is rather amazing.

In his documentary, director Yung Chung, corroborated that political corruption contributed to some of the early challenges with resettlement. As one might expect, and as Dai pointed out in her research, resettlement funds ended up in the pockets of government officials, rather than being passed on to the refugees. Many relocated people were left homeless and unemployed. Farmers were given unarable land, and
“to make matters even worse”, writes Gleick, “the resettled populations often receive farmland taken from the population who already lived in the resettlement areas, raising tensions and conflicts between the host population and the new migrants (Qiu et al. 2000, Heggelund 2007)”. Overall, social status declined severely and other social ills began to surface.

According to more recent research, women displaced by the project have been more severely affected than men. Suffering from a trifecta of contributing factors, being unskilled, undereducated and unemployed, they are more likely to become impoverished and less likely to find new work in the new areas. “Forced migration is also apparently linked to worsening [emotional] depression” .

Souls Submerged

In June 2003, Lisa See of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the devastation of art, history and culture brought on by the Three Gorges Dam. Referencing the loss of priceless, ancient artifacts in the Iraq war, See wrote, “In China, the devastation has comes in another form. On June 1, after a decade of construction, China began to fill the reservoir for the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. In 2009, when the final phase is completed and the reservoir is filled to capacity, more than 2,000 known archeological sites — some dating to the Paleolithic era — will have been submerged, and numerous historic buildings and anthropological sites and the beautiful Three Gorges will be at risk”.

The Chinese government claims it did not have the resources to protect these artifacts, though they knew precisely where they were located. The comparatively meager $135 million allocated to preserve a fraction of the artifacts was set aside only under pressure from international sources.

Insufficient planning was another hindrance in protecting the soul of the Chinese people and of all of humanity. One archeologist has estimated that it would have taken 500 years to excavate all of the sites properly. As of 2003, only one-tenth of the known sites had been excavated.

“In this vacuum created by a lack of resources, time and will, sophisticated thieves equipped with cell phones, radios and metal detectors have ransacked tombs from the Han through the Qing dynasties” writes See. “As in Iraq, the failure of law enforcement has resulted in some farmers — armed with shovels, pickaxes and sometimes the village tractor — becoming emboldened enough to try their luck at looting. Some artifacts have already made it into the world art market. In 1998, a Han Dynasty bronze "spirit tree" — believed to have come from the Three Gorges region — sold in New York for $2.5 million”.

It has been argued that acquiring these pieces for private owners and galleries is justifiable as a way of preserving them. This is yet another paradox resulting from the construction of the dam. Not unlike other arguments centered around sustainability, many people ask, who are the rightful owners of the artifacts of our past? If the Chinese government elects to abandon these artifacts, is it not better that anyone rescue our history?

The government has not completely neglected its heritage. Some structures, such as the 1,700-year-old Zhangfei Temple, are being dismantled and moved to higher ground. Others, like the 12-story, 500-year-old Shibaozhai Temple and the White Emperor City, will be protected in situ by massive concrete dikes, creating modern islands with ancient architecture set at lower levels than the surrounding man-made lake.

Like so much of China’s history, it is usually found by accident. In 1974, Wang Puzhi, a farmer who was digging a well on his farm discovered the famous "terra cotta warriors" of Xian. In 1984, in the village of Longgupo about 10 miles from the Yangtze, another farmer stumbled across a cave that had collapsed 2,000 years ago. Inside, anthropologists found 20 layers of bones, including those of many extinct species. But the most amazing discovery was a piece of human jawbone more than 1.8 million years old. The Longgupo hominid could be the ancestor of all Asian mankind.

And then there is the greatest loss of all. Even with the pollution along the river, the Three Gorges are one of the planet's most magnificent masterpieces, having inspired countless poets and artists to reflect on man's insignificance in the face of nature. The Chinese government promises that new, pristine sights will now be accessible, but the fact is that the gorges themselves will be diminished. The majestic Kuimen Gate — a pair of towering cliffs flanking the river — will now be reduced to two rather insignificant mounds.

An Argument for Sustainability

Recently, there has been an increased focus on China’s furious economic development, along with the three other BRIC countries, due in large part to the size of their population, their projected growth, their land mass and natural resources and their appetite for energy. Less developed than most western countries and burdened with large percentages of their population “at the bottom of the pyramid”, China along with its BRIC counterparts is rife with issues related to their aggressive plans for development.

To meet the increasing demands on natural resources for energy production, China has begun an aggressive movement toward non-fossil fuel sources of energy. According to the Brundtland Commission and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, sustainable development is” develop which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

“Of critical importance to sustainable development is a concern for land usage and the need for popular input into development decisions. Land is a nonrenewable resource and is ultimately a limiting factor to sustained development over generations. The same is true for popular input: no plan, it is argued, is sustainable if it does not meet the basic needs of the people living in a region or the society as a whole and if there is no meaningful participation by affected people in the basic decision making that shapes major development projects”.

Sustainable develop is an issue highly relevant to China’s current economic and social conditions, especially in light of the Three Gorges Dam Project. According to Lawrence R. Sullivan, Associate Professor of Political Science at Adelphi University in New York,
“several years of rapid (and often uncontrolled) economic development since economic reforms were introduced in 1978, preceded by decades of nearly equal rapid growth under the centralized state planning system inherited form the Soviet Union, have left the country with economic, demographic, and especially, environmental problems. Many people in and outside China believe that these problems require immediate attention and that a shift in economic strategies to incorporate the basic principles of sustainable development is urgently needed. Problems that have brought the issue of sustainable development to the forefront of current Chinese thinking include:

• Rapid depletion of land resources through conversion of agricultural lands into industrial and commercial use.
• Growing pollution of air and water and the increase in other forms of pollution resulting from high levels of energy use, especially the burning of coal, by outworn industries from the Soviet-style planning era and from an increased per capita consumption, especially the increasing number of cars and trucks that are causing a growth in demand for oil close to 15% annually.
• Degradation of soil, forest, and grassland and increased soil erosion because of mismanagement and long-term government inattention to the agricultural sector.
• The continued impact of China’s huge population – 1.2 billion – on every facet of the country’s development.
China’s GDP has grown consistently at about nine percent a year since 1978. Not coincidently, China’s demand for energy grew along with its burgeoning economy. Hydroelectric power seems like the perfect solution to meeting the demands of aggressive economic growth in a country the size of China for obvious reasons – it’s renewable and does not emit greenhouse gas.

“China plans to increase annual electricity capacity by about 20 gigawatts per year, which is roughly equivalent to adding a major power station every two to three weeks,” writes Sullivan. Putting hydroelectric power on the fast track in China seems like an inevitability considering:

• China burns 1.4 billion tons of coal per year
• Much of the coal has a high sulfur content and is a major source of air pollution, especially in southwest China
• China does not want to become a major oil importer
• Current nuclear power and natural gas operations in China are relatively small scale.

“The Three Gorges Dam is an example not of sustainable development, but of “uncontrolled development because of its egregious environmental and social impacts and spiraling costs”, wrote Dai Qing.

Acknowledging that there are enormous impacts associated with the dam project, the Chinese government stands by its claim that the pros far outweigh the cons:

Cost Benefit
Loss of 30,000 hectares of river valley land • Government increasing reforestation projects
• The establishment of environmental monitoring system
Relocation of 1.3 million – 2 million people • Increased national pride
• Improved housing – newly constructed apartments
• New construction fuels the economy – creates job growth • Decreased shipping costs
• The ability of 10,000 ton ships to reach inland cities
• Will attract new investment in a region that has lagged in growth

Not everyone shares the Chinese government’s opinion on the sustainability of the dam project, however. In 1995, The US Export-Import Bank decided against financing US companies interested in winning contracts for the dam project. The Bank cited the following factors:

• The current design for the dam would not meet basic goals of sustainable development
• There would be adverse effects on water quality in the reservoir
• There will be “deleterious effects on ecological resources, endangered species and cultural antiquities”


There are so many dimensions to the Three Gorges Dam, attempting to analyze it feels a bit like unraveling the big ball of twine. The string seems to go on forever. And, just when you think you’ve thoroughly exhausted the information stream, you discover you’ve only scratched the surface.

The Yangtze belongs first to the people of China, particularly to those who have lived along the river, and who have depended on it for their livelihood and survival for centuries. But, in reality, the Yangtze actually belongs to all of us.

Throughout history, we have all made mistakes, and we’ve all been swept up by greed and selfishness of our resources. We’ve also all made the mistake of thinking that our own individual actions are inconsequential to the condition of the environment.

In the case of the Yangtze River, much of the environmental and ecological damage had already been done by the time the Three Gorges Dam was approved and certainly by the time it was completed. For a variety of reasons, including ignorance, lack of sophistication, greed, the project was pushed through before a true systems-thinking approach could be designed, approved and constructed.

This project was not unlike any other project in corporations around the world. We are always in a hurry to do things the wrong way, and we never have enough money to do them the right way. This notion is ridiculous of course, because more money and time is spent correcting the short-sighted decisions that were made in the first place.

The problem with this approach with regard to the dam seems obvious. The scale of the project on all levels raised the stakes to monumental proportions – the magnitude of the dam increased the damage to the environment, its ecology, China’s economy and worst the souls of its people at least proportionately to the scale of the project. The damage now is for sure irrevocable, and no matter what position is taken by Chinese officials, it is most likely not manageable.

On the surface, it appears that the resettlement is the worst impact of the dam. I believe this is the second worst impact because of the complexity of the impact on the people. The resettlement was a disaster that touches these people deep in their psyche. This resettlement has broken their spirits, their resilience and their ability to fight through this difficulty. It has not only robbed them of what they achieved, it also robbed them for what they were working toward.

I do believe the worst impact is more abstract than the tangible and visible impacts on the environment and on the region’s ecology. I say this not to minimize the impact on those areas. I believe the worst impact of the dam is the way the dam has changed China, its rivers, its land and its people forever. The dam is a natural, physical, emotional and psychological “reset” that impacts not just China, but everyone who comes in contact with China in any way.

This is not to say that nothing about the dam is good or productive. But I do think that trying to analyze the pros and cons, the benefits vs. the costs is really a moot point because this is an enormous reset. The world will never be the same because this dam has been built. All we can do now is to manage the damage, to try to be better students of nature, and to try to not make the same mistakes going forward.

In many ways, country leadership is like human development on a macro scale. Our leaders often behave like spoiled, whiney children who have not yet developed a sense of right or wrong. They have little or no sense of integrity or responsibility to the greater good. So, they make short-sighted, bad decisions that we all pay for in the end.

Because the impacts of their decisions are so enormous, they are almost invisible to us – we don’t recognize what we’re seeing – it seems to abstract. That is until the damage affects us individually, but by then, it’s beyond too late.

Education is key to rectifying these bad decisions. We cannot and should not let China wallow in their damage. For the most part, their intentions were good. Even their plan was decent. It’s the tactics that are concerning.

The world needs to own projects that are the magnitude of Three Gorges because we all pay for the mistakes that are made in projects of this size. Everyone’s resources are limited by what we know and what we can afford. But our decisions would be so much stronger if we pulled our resources and behaved more rationally and with greater responsibility to the future of the planet.

Similar Documents

Premium Essay

California an Interpretive History - Rawls, James

...CALIFORNIA CALIFORNIA An Interpretive History TENTH EDITION James J. Rawls Instructor of History Diablo Valley College Walton Bean Late Professor of History University of California, Berkeley TM TM CALIFORNIA: AN INTERPRETIVE HISTORY, TENTH EDITION Published by McGraw-Hill, a business unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Copyright © 2012 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. Previous editions © 2008, 2003, and 1998. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written consent of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., including, but not limited to, in any network or other electronic storage or transmission, or broadcast for distance learning. Some ancillaries, including electronic and print components, may not be available to customers outside the United States. This book is printed on acid-free paper. 1234567890 QFR/QFR 10987654321 ISBN: 978-0-07-340696-1 MHID: 0-07-340696-1 Vice President & Editor-in-Chief: Michael Ryan Vice President EDP/Central Publishing Services: Kimberly Meriwether David Publisher: Christopher Freitag Sponsoring Editor: Matthew Busbridge Executive Marketing Manager: Pamela S. Cooper Editorial Coordinator: Nikki Weissman Project Manager: Erin Melloy Design Coordinator: Margarite Reynolds Cover Designer: Carole Lawson Cover Image: Albert Bierstadt, American......

Words: 248535 - Pages: 995