Displacement, Destruction and the Future:

China's Three Gorges Dam

"Great plans are afoot
A bridge will fly to span the North and South
Turning a barrier into a thoroughfare.
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan's clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.
The mountain Goddess, if she is still there,
Will marvel at a world so changed."
-Mao Zedong

Source- http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/19/world/asia/19dam.html?_r=1

Through much of the twentieth, and now the twenty-first century, China has been fighting to prove themselves to the rest of the planet that they have become a successful and strong nation. The communist country has gone through several periods of rapid change and has become fully industrialized within one century. With rapid industrialization in the last sixty years, China has quickly become an important player in the international scene. However, the country's leaders have pushed forward to prove, once and for all, that they do belong in the twenty-first century, and by any means will be there at the top of the list.

In 1992 China began work on a project that would last more than fifteen years, cost over $34 billion (Topping xvii) and affect the lives of more than 1.9 million people (Topping ix). This same project is also promised to control dangerous flooding, generate 13% of China's power and even provide new communities and stimulate tourism. This project is the Three Gorges Dam, situated on the iconic Yangtze River. The scope of this construction project is enormous and its effects are equally such. By building the dam China is securing itself a place among the most powerful and advanced nations on earth. Or is it?

Why dam the Yangtze?

Yangtze River - http://blog.ratestogo.com/10-best-river-cruises-in-the-world-part-i/

The Yangtze River, also known as the Yellow River, begins in Himalayas and makes its way into China through a series of steep limestone valleys, dropping some 18,000 feet before finally meeting the South China Sea. The river is the lifeblood of Yunnan Provence China, with more than 350 million (Butler 5) people living along its banks, the Yangtze is as important to humanity as rivers like the Nile and the Mississippi are. It provides irrigation, drinking water and transportation to all who live along its banks. An entire livelihood is made by the skilled sailors who navigate the Yangtze's swift currents to deliver goods and people to settlements up and down the river. Tourists have flocked to the Three Gorges area to take riverboat cruises and to photograph the breathtaking landscapes and villages "untouched" by time. The Yangtze has provided for centuries opportunities and occupations to a great portion of China's population.

Unfortunately, the blessings of the river come at a great cost. The gorges that line the Yangtze, which are what draw many of the tourists, also work as funnels, creating dangerous rapids and whirlpools that the upper Yangtze is infamous for. During long monsoon periods the Yangtze has been known to flood: the steep banks force the water upward and create deadly tidal waves of river and storm water. Between 1931 and 1992, the river had rose over 450 feet through floods, destroying farmland, villages and killing hundreds of thousands of people (Butler 5).

By damming the Yangtze, the Chinese government promises three things: control of floodwater, more electricity and improved river navigation. The project also provided a chance to clean up pollution, provide thousands of jobs and modernize the Yangtze's cities. The most alluring side effects of the Three Gorges Dam to most Chinese officials is the prospect of increased power. When completed early next year, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. China is in the middle of what some could call an energy crisis: their economy is growing rapidly but they are quickly outgrowing their electrical needs. Also, in recent years, China has been looked down upon by many industrialized countries because of the amount of air pollution generated by the innumerable dirt coal-burning plants that attempt to feed China's insatiable appetite for power. China has announced a project to expand its renewable energy by 2020, with the Three Gorges Dam at the center of a series of smaller hydroelectric plants (Yearly).

Taming the Dragon: Construction and Costs

Damming the Yangtze River was not a recent idea: it was originally proposed by Chinese Revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen as a way to modernize China and improve the Yangtze Valley's economic potential (Hayman 30). From then onward Chinese leaders have toyed with the idea of building such a dam, however they normally stopped planning as it was too expensive for the time or more important issues loomed in the future.

Since the 1950's, the vision of a great dam across the Yangtze was extremely appealing to China's government: it was referred to as "Chairman Mao's desire" and "Deng Xiaoping's support and concern" (Qing 13). Mao Zedong himself voiced the need to built one great dam across the river, which was immortalized in his poem about the future project which heads this report. With support from such important and visible leaders, it was hard for many to oppose the building of the dam.

When the Three Gorges Dam was officially proposed to the National People's Congress (NPC) in 1992, the events at Tienanmen Square were still resonating throughout the country: perhaps this was the reason why the project was so easily approved. In the congress, 1,767 votes approved while only 177 opposed, though it is inte
Construction ontheShipLift:-http://www.flickr.com/photos/tims/150277117/in/set-72057594141339765/
resting to note that 644 abstained from voting (Qing 8).

The Three Gorges Project Development Corporation
is the largest private company associated with the dam building but the project is being mostly supported by the Chinese government. This could be because most outside organizations including the World Bank (Thibodeau and Williams xi) refuse to support the project.

The dam will have a total of 26 680 MW turbines capable of producing 85TWh of energy per year, about 10% of China's electrical needs (Qing 4). It will also include the world's highest vertical ship lift (as pictured above). The reservoir created by the dam will be over 600 kilometers long and provide deeper channels for larger ships to travel further up the Yangtze (Qing 4).

The Lasting Effects: Dangers, Destruction, Relocation and Opposition

It is hard to imagine a project of this magnitude no generating concerns and out right disapproval. One must keep in mind that this is communist China, so opposition may be hard to find. As mentioned above, the project was proposed to the NPC only three years after Tienanmen Square, so opposition was hard to come by. However, this dam was being considered by officials all through the 1980's and quickly got the attention of many scholars, journalists and scientists. YangYangMedSm.jpg

In 1989, journalist Dai Qing published a collaborative book titled Yangtze! Yangtze! which held essays from fourty concerned parties. Immediately upon publication, Chinese officials arrested Qing, destroyed all the copies of the book they could find, banned it and threw her into jail for ten months, solitary confinement for six (Thibodeau and Williams x). Opposition to the dam project is still heavily censored and any negative views or discoveries about it are swiftly quieted (to note, several of the books I have used for this report are either censored or completely banned in China, including Qing's more recent anthology, The River Dragon Has Come!).

The opposition that is voiced, normally from works published in countries outside of China, speak out against the scope of change the Three Gorges Dam will bring upon the Yangtze River valley. Scholars and scientists fear for the destruction of an unique wildlife habitat, of the loss of priceless archaeological sites, for the inevitable erosion problems that will plague the valley, of the silt back up in the reservoir.They question the safety of the dam, of the effectiveness of government regulations on water pollution and toxic waste. They worry about where all of those 1.3 million people will go, where will they find jobs, where will they live?

Dangers of a Mega-dam

In August of 1975 an extremely strong typhoon made its way into Henan Province, China: eyewitnesses reported the force of the rain killed hundreds of birds (Si 26). At the time, the province held some 100 reservoirs, which had been constructed there because of the high amount of rainfall the area always got. The Banqiao Dam, proudly proclaimed an indestructible "iron dam" by officials (Topping xv), reached full capacity early on August 8th after hours of intense rain filled its reservoir; it was filling faster than the dam could drain. When the water rose 30 centimeters above the top, the dam burst; a wall of 600 cubic meters rushed into the river valley destroyed virtually everything. The moment the dam burst, one voice was heard yelling "The river dragon has come! (Chu Jaozi!)" (Si 33). That same morning several other dams broke, flooding the enti
Banqiao after it burst-http://ricojrod.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/top-10-deadliest-natural-disasters/
re valley and drowning 11 million mu of arable land (Si 28).

In the direct aftermath of the flood waters, an estimated 85,600 people were killed. This number was later changed to the official 23,000 (only those who instantly drowned during the disaster), but the Humans Rights Watch of Asia and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference estimate more than 230,000 people died and 11 million people were eventually effected through famine and disease (Si 38). The shock and devastation caused by the Banqiao Dam Disaster has caused many to become extremely worried about the construction and eventual safety of the Three Gorges Dam. Reports of cracks in the concrete (BBC News) and fears of cutting corners for the sake progress and time weigh heavy on the hearts of the Yangtze River's neighbors. The dread of another dam burst is one of the main reasons many oppose of the Three Gorges Dam's construction.

Ecological Concerns

"If the Three Gorges could speak, they'd plead for mercy!" -Dai Qing

The Yangtze River and the Three Gorges area is home to many unique species of plants and animals. When the Three Gorges dam is finished, 30,000 hectares of land will be flooded, much of it prime agricultural land. No efforts have yet been made to create preserves for the many terrestrial animals that will be severely affected by this flooding including musk deer, Golden Sichuan Snub-nosed Monkeys and gorge eagles (Hayman 31). Riverine species including the black fin-less dolphin, the critically endang
Attempts at stopping erosion- http://helpychalk.blogspot.com/2007_06_01_archive.html
ered white fin dolphin (scientists estimate there are less than 100 left), Chinese sturgeon, yanzhi fish, and the Chinese giant salamander (also critically endangered) of the Yangtze are severely threatened by the construction of the dam (Qing 4). The giant Yangtze sturgeon used to spawn far up the river gorges and into Tibet, however now over fifteen years of obstruction by the dam have begun to wreak havoc upon the traveling fish's population (Hayman 31). There is no passage way for fish like the giant sturgeon in the dam, which will likely spell the end for the iconic species.

Fears for wildlife run alongside fears of massive soil erosion, landslides and silt backups. As the reservoir grows, it builds up pressure on the majestic limestone cliffs the Yangtze is famous for. The cliffs, many of which have been stripped bare of trees and other vegetation, or are over-farmed, quickly succumb to the river's forces, normally taking houses and farmland with it. The government has begun programs to restore or reinforce cliff faces to avoid landslides (see picture) but not much as been done to put local farmers at ease.

Farmers have for ce
Trash on the banks-http://www.mothertrip.com/worlds-dirtiest-rivers-and-lakes/
nturies relied on silt deposits from the Yangtze (much like Egypt's reliance on the Nile) to fertilize their farmland. However, now with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, scientists are worried about the amount of silt that could built up behind the dam. According to Professor Luna Leopold of the University of California at Berkley, the reservoir would need to have 200,000 meters dredged each year to make it accessible for large ships (Leopold 197). Besides the back up problem in the reservoir, the lack of silt deposits would cause the Yangtze river delta to erode quickly through st (McNeill 171).

The fears of pollution and toxic waste pooling in the new reservoir is growing: decades of little regulation of dumping in the Yangtze River were overlooked as the pollutants were normally swept out to sea by the swift currents. Now with the building of the Three Gorges Dam, a reservoir will pool the garbage and toxic chemicals in a place decided by the Chinese government to be a prime source of drinking water and recreation. Fish in the areas where raw sewage is dumped into the river are inedible and have ruined the careers of many fishermen (Hui 162). Many scholars have concluded that the government has not done enough to regulate pollution and clean up the river, according to journalist Jin Hui "The Three Gorges dam will exacerbate an already serious pollution problem in the Yangtze River... the dam will cause pollution from industrial, residential and township-level sources to concentrate in the river rather than be flushed out to sea... the Yangtze River... will be a poisoned river." (Hui 170).

Loss of China's Cultural Heritage Sites
Huanling Temple, one of the many sites threatened by the flood waters- http://www.flickr.com/photos/easternjourney/2641600820

One of the most vocal groups against the Three Gorges dam project were the archaeologists of the Yangtze River valley. There are more than 1,300 known archaeological sites in the area, of those, archaeologists determined around 500 are worthy of preservation, unfortunately they have only the time and funds for about half (Childs-Johnson and Sullivan 200).

Two major types of archaeological sites will be flooded: architectural monuments and subsurface sites that require excavation. The expanse of time these sites cover are incredible and invaluable. Alarmingly, a few sites have been destroyed by construction crews in wake of relocation projects, such as was the case for the carving known as "Conversing About Beautiful Mountains and Rivers" (Bingqi et al. 215).

Some sites, especially temples, have been moved by the government to higher ground, or have been relocated for use in a tourist attraction-like historic village (Butler 55).

The People: Destruction, Displacement and Relocation

Perhaps the most visible and most poignant consequence of the Three Gorges Dam Project the mass displacement of more than 1.9 million people. Never before has a man-made project changed so many lives. Back when the dam was first proposed, Li Boning, a prominent Chinese official and scholar made some approximations as to how many people will be affected, how the government was going to handle it and the benefits the dam will have on the Yangtze's inhabitants. Boning estimated that exactly 140 towns and 1,351 villages would be flooded and only 35 towns will have to completely be relocated (Ren 41). The slow construction would give people adequate time to relocate and the government will help in reclaiming high-elevation land to replace flooded farmland, which there was plenty of (Ren 45). Lump sum reimbursements would be provided to all residents who would have to leave and tear down their homes (which would later become hazards to shipping traffic if not properly destroyed) and only 725,500 would have to move (Ren 40).
A carpenter's home - http://lindabutlerphoto.com/

By reading Boning's estimates (which are from a book titled Developmental Resettlement is Good) one would imagine that the relocation of the some-odd million people, while long, would be a reasonable, well planned and run project by the Chinese government. Unfortunately for many, that is not the case. Perhaps the most glaringly wrong item in Boning's estimates is his population, in which he used only statistics from 1990, and did not take into account the 19% growth rate the area is experiencing (Ren 52). The amount of land available for farmers to relocate to is also far less than what Boning proposed there was (3.89 million mu). With the population density high and the cliffs and embankments higher, less than 30% of Boning's land is feasibly arable (Ren 59).

Moving some 1.9 million people up and away from the encroaching waters of the new reservoir is a daunting task. The Chinese government has rebuilt several cities and towns further out of reach of the Yangtze. People are promised around $8,000 (63,000 yuan) in reimbursement money for the inundation of their homes and land, however the money is taking longer than normal to reach thousands. Many blame corruption, which has plagued the project for years, with many official embezzling money or
After his house was torn down- http://lindabutlerphoto.com/
taking bribes (Butler 179).

For every thousand that leave the Three Gorges, a thousand return. Many people, especially older ones, left the valleys to search for a livelihood away from the encroaching waters of the Yangtze but have found it too difficult to secure a job and have instead returned to their old homes, even if they no longer hold a residency permit (Yardly).

Just recently, China has announced a new resettlement plan that will, by 2020, have moved 4 million people. Officials refuse to say this is another effect of the dam, but a "national experiment approved by Beijing" that will work to kick-start the area's economy (Yardly). By moving people to newly built cities, China is looking to modernize the Yangtze valley and to lessen the gap between urban and rural populations. People who can afford the new rent, live in shining white condos with indoor plumbing, running water, kitchens and clean, broad streets. However, these new blocks of apartments are not like the friendly neighborhoods of traditional villages, they are missing the old trees and cobblestone streets iconic of Chinese villages.

Uprooted #12 by artist Yang Yi

Although there is much promise from the Chinese government that improvements of living standards and a boost to the economy will come along with the building of the Three Gorges dam, there has been a general stagnation and depression about the region. As more people leave the old towns and villages, small vendors and shopkeepers loose business. Cities are flooding, not with water, but with people desperately searching for jobs.

The massive ecological, social and economic problems brought on by the dam are being tackled by the Chinese government, who might see it as an accomplishment by doing it on their own. Scores of outcries against the dam project, in the form of books, movies and art have been seen everywhere but China it seems. The rest of the world sees the warnings from the Banqiao Dam failure and the ominous cracks in the Three Gorges dam, but China plows on.

By the beginning of next year, 2011, the dam will be fully functional and much of the resettlement programs will be slowing. It will still be years before the exact consequences of this colossal endeavor are fully realized, but let us hope they aren't as dire as people expect them to be.

For More Information:



BBC News
2002 'Cracks' in China's Three Gorges Dam. April 12.

Bingqi, Su
1996 Letter to Jiang Zemin: Concerning Archaeological Sites, August 8, 1996. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.214-219. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Butler, Linda
2004 Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake. Stanford, California: Stanford Press.

Childs-Johnson, Elizabeth and Lawrence R. Sullivan
1998 The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China's Southern Heritage. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp. 200-210. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Hayman, Perry
2000 Three Gorges of the Yangzi: Grand Canyons of China. New York: Odyssey Publications.

Hui, Jin
1998 Water Pollution in the Three Gorges Reservoir. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.160-170. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Leopold, Luna
1998 Sediment Problems at the Three Gorges Dam. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.194-199. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

McNeill, J. R
2000 Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W W Norton & Company.

Qing, Dai
1998 The Three Gorges Project: A Symbol of Uncontrolled Development in the Late Twentieth Century. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.3-17. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Ren, Qi
1998 Discussing Population Resettlement with Li Boning. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.39-62. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Si, Yi
1998 The World's Most Catastrophic Dam Failures: The August 1975 Collapse of the Banqiao and Shimantan Dams. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.25-38. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Thibodeau, John and Philip B. Williams
1998 Preface. In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.ix-xiii. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Topping, Audrey Ronning
1998 Foreword: The River Dragon Has Come! In The River Dragon Has Come! John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams, eds. Pp.xv-xxix. New York: M E Sharpe, Inc.

Yardly, Jim
2007 Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for Their Human Costs. New York Times, November 19.