China : The Three Gorges Dam is an environmental mistake and a human disaster leading now to a severe drought


The Damming of the Yangtze River
Biology 191B Kevin Tiyaamornwong
Issue Paper 2 87711272

Since the 1920’s, when the dam was first proposed, the Three Gorges Dam has been a topic for debate in the People’s Republic of China. The construction of the world’s largest hydro-electric project on the Yangtze River would be a detriment to the native flora and fauna, submerge rich farmlands, destroy archaeological sites, and force the evacuation of millions of people. Faced with international, as well as domestic, criticism about the ecological and social havoc the Three Gorges Dam would cause, the government of China has remained unnerved and has started construction on this highly questionable project. In December of 1995, Chinese Premier Li Peng officially launched the project at a construction site at Sandouping. However, the fight is not over yet since it will take close to twenty years to finish this massive water project.

The Yangtze River is the third largest river in the world, spanning a length of 6,300 kilometers. Construction of this dam would be along a 200 kilometer stretch in the upper reaches of the river known as Three Gorges. The Xiling, Wu, and Qutang Gorges, collectively called the Three Gorges, contain some off the most scenic and beautiful landscape in the world. However, with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, most of this awe-inspiring scenery would be submerged and lost forever.

Never before has a dam of such magnitude ever been attempted in the world. The Three Gorges Dam will stretch 2-kilometers (1.3 miles) across the Yangtze River, tower 185 meters into the air (610 feet), and create a 600-kilometer (385 miles) reservoir behind it (Probe International). It will also be the most costly dam ever built once, and if, it is completed. “Estimated costs of the project have increased sixteen fold in the past nine years (officially from $4.5 billion in 1986 to $17.5 billion in 1995) but experts expect the cost to exceed $40 billion before completion…,” (Topping, 1996). The reason for such an enormous hydro-electric project, China contends, is to generate up to 18,000MW of power for China’s energy hungry industrial centers (obviously not the hundreds of factories and businesses that will be submerged), transform the Yangtze River into a more navigable waterway, and to protect the middle and lower reaches of the river from disastrous floods (Probe International). However, would the environmental and social cost of the Three Gorges Dam make it a feasible project?


The man-made sea created by the dam would submerge important archaeological sites, some dating as far back as the Paleolithic Age. Thousands of invaluable relics, ancient burial sites, 200,00 year old fossils, and new information of a little known, obscure people known as the Ba will be lost (Topping, 1996). Even though $37.5 million has been “earmarked for the rescue of archaeological sites threatened by the dam’s construction” (Childs-Johnson, 1996), only “ten to twenty percent of these treasures could be saved.” (Topping, 1996). Estimates range from $180 million to $360 million to save ten percent of the most important sites and monuments. The Chinese government is expecting these archaeologists to do work that normally requires hundreds of years within ten years. There is simply not enough money or manpower to salvage many of these invaluable cultural relics.

The construction of the Three Gorges Dam will not only destroy traces of past civilizations but will also destroy the lives of the Yangtze River’s current inhabitants. In what is called the largest population resettlement ever undertaken for a civil-engineering project, the Chinese government will force the evacuation of 1.9 million people from their ancestral homes (Topping, 1996). Many times people who are relocated are treated poorly and they get little compensation for their homes and land. It will be especially difficult to replace the rich farmland that will be lost by the many farmers who live in this portion of the Yangtze River.

There are always environmental problems associated with the construction of river impoundments and the Three Gorges Dam is no exception. Dams’ flows are regulated, which profoundly affects the lotic systems, their hydrology, ecology, and biology. Life in lotic environments is adapted to natural flow regimes, with their periods of high, low, and average flow. Three Gorges Dam will inevitably cause the extinction of the Chinese alligator, river dolphins, the Siberian white crane, and the Chinese sturgeon is one of earth’s few living fossils dating back to the time of the dinosaurs (Topping, 1996).

Another major environmental problem is that of sedimentation. The deposit of sediment at the dam will create clear water downstream from the dam. “If clear water from Three Gorges flows into such a channel [that depends on a combination of water and sediment] part of each year for many decades, the channel will react. Experience in many countries demonstrates that the reaction will be some combination of bed erosion and bank erosion.” (Leopold).


Controlling sedimentation is a very uncertain process. As Luna B. Leopold states, “The sedimentation conditions at various times during the first 100 years of operation have been forecast by use of mathematical models and physical analogues that involve many assumptions of unverified reliability.” This was the reason why one of China’s largest dams, the Banqiao Dam, collapsed in 1975. Dam officials could not open the sluice gates because they were blocked by heavy layers of sediment (Topping, 1996). This dam was part of a major disaster when it collapsed in August, 1975, with sixty-one other dams. An estimated 86,000 to 230,000 people died and an estimated 11 million were stricken by disease and famine.

Another possible cause for the destruction of dams is earthquakes. Seismologists claim the reservoir will be over a seismically active fault line and the enormous weight of the reservoir could cause an earthquake which could possibly destroy the dam (Topping, 1996).

The only thing keeping the Chinese government from going full force into this project is their lack of foreign investment. Experts believe the cost of constructing the dam will exceed $40 billion and that this could wreck China’s economy. Usually major players in dam construction, the World Bank has decided against involvement this time. The US Export-Import Bank has also discontinued its assistance to US exporters considering contracts with the Gorges project (Topping, 1996). According to Probe International, Canada’s export credit agency, the Export Development Corporation, is the only export credit agency providing financing for the project. However many other export credit agencies in the US, Germany, and Japan are considering involvement in the Three Gorges Dam.

Efforts to halt construction of the Three Gorges Dam are now centered on stopping governmental agencies and private corporations from becoming involved in the project. It has also been proposed that construction of many smaller dams along tributaries of the Yangtze would be cheaper, less destructive on the environment, and would achieve the same results in terms of electricity and flood control. From the construction that has gone underway and from the diversion of some of the Yangtze River flow, it is obvious that the Chinese government, in its child-like “mine is bigger than yours” mentality, is determined to construct the largest megadam the world has ever seen.

Works Cited

Childs-Johnson, Elizabeth, Joan Lebold Cohen, and Lawerence R. Sullivan. (1996, November-December). Race against time. Archaeology.

Leopold, Luna B. Sediment Problems at Three Gorges Dam. Website location:

Probe International. Three Gorges Dam Campaign. Website location: Gorges/

Topping, Audrey Ronning. Environmental controversy over the Three Gorges Dam. Earth Times News Service. Website location:

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