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Three Gorges Dam: Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't

By Edited Sep 19, 2016 1 6


Historically, Yichang in Hubei Province China, is famous for a few different reasons. The birth place of Dragon Boats, famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan and concubine Wang Zhaojun. Yichang was also the place where many of the most famous battles took place during the famous "Three Kingdoms Period". In recent times however, Yichang's historical past gets overlooked by the controversial and much maligned Three Gorges Dam Project.

To coin the phrase "you'd be damned if the do, and damned if you don't", well.... it couldn't really be any more apt when it comes to the pros and cons of the worlds largest dam and hydro-electric power plant. This massive undertaking that took place, with construction starting on December 14th 1994 and not being completed until May 2012,  has become a controversial topic not only within China but also around the rest of the world. 

A Long Complicated History

Initially envisioned by Sun Yat-Sen in 1919, he believed that locating a dam just downstream of the famous and stunningly beautiful Three Gorges area in Yichang, would see it able to generate 30 million horsepower of energy. 1932 saw the then Nationalist government begin some preliminary plans on the project. In 1944 the U.S.A became involved with chief design engineer, John L. Savage drawing up a proposal for the "Yangtze River Project" but with the advent of the Chinese Civil war, the project was put on hold.

After Mao Ze Dong came to power, he too supported the idea of this project but built the smaller Gezhouba Dam first, down stream and closer to the city of Yichang. What with that and many internal problems within the country at that time, the plans were delayed yet again.

It wasn't until the 80's that the idea re-emerged and was approved in the National Peoples Congress, finally seeing them start building around the end of 1994.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Three Gorges Dam Scenic Area
In much of the worlds media coverage on this issue, they concentrate on the fact that 1.24 million residents had to be re-homed, but often conveniently forget to mention that many of these people were living in areas that were frequently prone to flooding, in water damaged, dilapidated homes and did in turn receive compensation and relocation to new and better premises. The argument about corrupt government not following through on re-homing everyone... whilst is a possibility... sounds much more likely to be the normal China planning taking it's time to efficiently get the job done properly. In western countries it is hard to understand, but in China, that is just how things run.

Being able to control rising water levels has reduced the frequency of severe major flooding from every 10 years to every 100 years. This area is also prone to "Super Floods like the one that occurred in 1954, killing 33,169 people and forcing 18,884,000 people to move. This flood covered Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, for over three months and in 1998 another flood affected more than 2.3 million people and causing more than 4000 deaths[3]. Wuhan is about a four-hour drive away, heading downstream from Yichang, so you can see the how far the damage can spread. In fact, the Yangtze River starts in the Eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau and flows all the way through to Shanghai on China's east coast. 

Environmental Issues


Three Gorges Dam
Perhaps the biggest area of concern is the impact this structure will have on a delicate and already abused environment. Many argue that the recent earthquakes in China possibly have been caused by the construction of dams around the country. Does the biggest dam in the world contribute to this? One of the worlds worst earthquake disasters was in China and seems to have a lot of convincing evidence... not aimed at the Three Gorges Dam, but at the Zipingpu dam, which is located about three miles from the epicenter of the Sichuan Earthquake. This disastrous quake, registering 7.9 and killing over 70,000 people, has caused some geologists to report that the weight of holding such large amounts of water, so close to a known fault line, could have added too much pressure, causing the plates to shift...which sounds like it could be a huge possibility.

The Three Gorges Dam, however has been researched and tested for so many years. The location is believed to be the safest place in China for this construction to reside.

Plants and Wildlife

There are however other environmental issues that if not addressed properly will have an irreversible effect on the surrounding wildlife and nature. In a region long known for it's rich biodiversity, there has already been much proof that the dams impact on plant life and animals within the region is causing a rapid demise of many different species, bringing them close to extinction. The Yangtze River basin is home to over 350 different fish species, 47 of which are listed as protected and endangered. The Chinese River Dolphin and The Chinese Sturgeon are two included on this list.

Are big enough efforts being made to save and reverse the damage that is already occurring due to the now huge barrier that is blocking the river, injuring fish caught in the turbine blades and disrupting the eco system? The disruption is not only limited to within the water of the river either...The critically endangered Siberian Crane may possibly lose it's winter wetland area in Poyang lake basin.

Weighing It all Up

The Pros

  • With much of the world screaming at China to fall into line and reduce its carbon footprint, the worlds largest emitter of greenhouse gas says that this dam can generate as much energy as 18 coal power plants and can produce enough energy to supply the whole of Beijing (close to the same population size as the whole of Australia) with power for one year. You've got to admit, that's extremely impressive.
  • It is believed that the construction of the Three Gorges Dam will protect 15 million people and 1.5 million acres of vulnerable farmland areas of the Yangtze River from flooding.
  • Notorious for dangerous shipping conditions, the now raised water level up stream allows for larger boats to traverse the waters, travelling further inland. The whole Yangtze river trade has been boosted, and transportation costs have been cut.

The Cons

  • Over one million people had to be re-homed because of the rising water levels in certain areas.
  • Environmental imbalances within the eco system bring about greater possibilities of extinction of some animal and plant species.
  • The link in possibilities that dam constructions may increase earthquake activity

The Dream Of The Three Gorges

Rediscovering the Yangtze River - The Dream of the Three Gorges
Amazon Price: $7.99 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 19, 2016)

What Do You Think?

For a country trying to sustain a population of over one billion, three hundred and fifty four million people (1,354,040,000). Do you think the pros outway the cons?



Jun 2, 2013 11:03am
What a great article! The Three Gorges has been out of the news for a while and I had forgotten that the issues had never been resolved.
Jun 2, 2013 4:37pm
Hey Jest, They do actually work on resolving many issues...The environmental impact is the only one that concerns me, because I don't think China has much knowledge in that area. The whole of the community still do things like just throw all their rubbish in the river (which drives me absolutely crazy) so if they can't get a grasp on simple things like that, dunno how they will resolve the whole ecological system going down the drain? Thanks for the comment and read!
Jun 2, 2013 2:53pm
Good article, but isn't the fact that the Three Gorges dam simply doesn't have enough water and will therefore never generate the amount of electricity it was designed to produce also one of the main cons?
Jun 2, 2013 4:33pm
Hi Rooibos, No...it took many years for it to get to the level for it to run to it's full capacity after it initially and officially opened, and last year was (in Yichang terms) a little dry. The rainy season here is in Summer. This year however we have had plenty of rain. It may be these reports that have filtered through to you because as far as I'm aware...that isn't a problem. The levels continually fluctuate depending on how much water they have to release downstream. Thanks for your comment :-)
Jun 2, 2013 7:49pm
Perhaps, yet despite the fact that the Three Gorges Dam is the largest in the world both in terms of size and potential amount of water, the smaller Itaipu Dam in Brazil/Paraguay is still the largest in terms of energy produced.
Jun 2, 2013 8:57pm
I'll have a look, sounds interesting.
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  1. "Three Gorges Dam." Wikipedia. 20/05/2013 <Web >
  2. "Massive Hydroelectric Dams Could Have Caused the Sichuan Earthquake." Gizmodo. 20/05/2013 <Web >
  3. "China's Three Gorges Dam Faces Flood Test." BBC News. 20/05/2013 <Web >
  4. "China's Three Gorges Dam." mtholyoke. 24/05/2013 <Web >

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