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Three Gorges Dam Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political Issues

Three Gorges Dam Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political Issues

Table of Content
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Funding
  • Major Issues
  • Environmental Impacts
  • Economic Impact
  • Fisheries Impact
  • River Sediment Flow
  • Flood Protection
  • Shipping Benefits
  • Reservoir-Induced Seismicity and Geological Instability
  • Relocation and Resettlement
  • Work Break Down
  • Conclusion
  • References

Three Gorges Dam

Executive Summary:

The Three Gorges Dam Project, located in Sandouping, Yichang in the Hubei Province, was first suggested by then President of the Republic of China Sun Yat-Sen in 1919. It was his vision to harness the power of the Yangtze River by a dam to further economic development in China, using the benefits of hydroelectric power. The Yangtze River is the third largest and longest in the world. It is 3,937 miles long with an annual discharge of 960 billion cubic meters of water into the East China Sea. The source of the river is glacial ice form the mountain range south-west of Chongquing. The drainage area of the Yangtze River is 1.8 million square kilometers, and floods about once every ten years.

Three Gorges Dam Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political Issues

The $24 billion project was formally approved in 1992 by the National People’s Congress. Construction began in 1994 and is scheduled to be complete by 2009. It is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. The dam consists of three parts: the dam itself, the ship locks, and the ship lift. The dam is 600 feet high and 1.3 miles across. It consists of a center spillway, to let water over the dam, and each side houses the hydroelectric turbine generators, twenty-six in all. The right side of the dam is fully operational, while the left side of the dam is scheduled to be fully operational by 2009. The generators will be able to produce as much power as eighteen nuclear power plants, about 84.6 billion kilowatt hours. The ship locks are located on one side of the dam. There are two in total, one for upstream traffic and one for downstream traffic. There are five locks, or stages, used to transport large ships, twelve at a time, over the dam. Both ship locks are fully operational. The third part of the dam is the ship lift, an elevator used to raise smaller ships over the dam. The ship lift is scheduled for operation in 2009.

The water behind the dam is expected to reach a final height of 525 ft by 2009. The length of the forming reservoir will be 36 miles; thus, the reservoir will be able to store up to 39.3 billion cubic meters of water. The height of the river is expected to rise as much as 375 miles upstream of the Three Gorges. Since the change is water level is so drastic, as many as 1.3 – 1.9 million people are being forced to move.


The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It is in the middle of the three gorges on the Yangtze River, the third longest in the world, in the Hubei Province of China. The project was approved by the Chinese government in 1992. However, construction didn’t begin until 1994. It is scheduled to be completed by 2009. The $25 billion project is being internationally funded by companies, export credit agencies, and banks from Canada, Switzerland, Germany, France, Sweden, and Brazil. Controversy about the project arises from human rights issues (as many as 1.3-1.9 million people have been forced to relocate) and environmental impacts.

The Chinese Government has four goals for the Three Gorges Dam project:

  1. Flood Control: The history of the Yangtze River includes many devastating floods over the centuries killing thousands of people and  causing millions of dollars in damages. The dam will reduce the Three Gorges Dam Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political Issuesimpacts of flooding since it will have a flood control capacity of  22.15 billion cubic meters.
  2. Power Generation: The use of hydroelectric turbine generators will reduce China’s dependency on coal, a hydro carbon that produces greenhouse gases. The Three Gorges Dam will produce about 84.6 billion kilowatt hours of clean energy annually.
  3. Navigation: The presence of the dam, the reservoir, and the ship locks will allow large ships to travel up and downstream for the first time. Ships from Chongquing will be able to transport goods all the way to the sea at Shanghai.
  4. Tourism: Since the Three Gorges Dam Project is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, it is expected to be popular among tourists visiting China.


International funding for the Three Gorges Dam project is a major factor in its construction. Companies and banks from Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and Brazil have all played a role in financing the dam. Government export credit agencies have loaned the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation more than $1.4 billion for the project. China Development Bank has loaned $3.6 billion for the Three Gorges Dam project, making it the primary lender.

There are five main companies in Canada who are helping to finance the project. AGRA Monenco, an international engineering and construction management company, signed a $25 million contract in 1994 for a project management system to provide systems layout and engineering, testing, operational guidance, and training. A year later, they signed another deal for $12.5 million in system management technology and training. This contract was financed by Canada’s Export Development Cooperation (EDC). The Dominion Bridge, Inc. signed a $64 million contract with Chongquing City and Sichuan province for the construction of a cement factory to supply the dam with cement. The EDC financed $23.5 million of this contract for machinery and electrical equipment. General Electric of Canada, in a consortium with Siemens and Voith-Hydro, German engineering companies, signed a $320 contract in 1997 to provide six turbine generators for the dam. EDC is providing $153 million to finance GE Canada. Hydro-Quebec International, an electric utilities company, agreed to supervise the construction of a 900-kilometer transmission line from the Three Gorges Dam to Changzhou in a $1.9 million contract with China Power Grid Development Company.

Three Gorges Dam Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political Issues  The French electrical equipment and engineering company GEC-Alsthom signed a $400 million contract in 1997 in a consortium with Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) and Kvaerner Energy, Swiss and Norwegian electrical equipment companies, to supply eight turbine generators for the Three Gorges Dam. GEC-Alsthom contribution is worth $212 million. In 2000, GEC-Alsthom agreed to supply the left bank power system of the dam with electrical system equipment in a $12.76 million deal. Electricity de France signed a $5.8 million deal to supervise the production of the generators in 1999.

Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, a German export credit agency, along with the banks Deutsche Genossenschaftsbank, Dresdner Bank, and Commerzbank, provided $271 million to finance Siemens bid in the consortium with GE Canada and Voith-Hydro to provide six generators to the dam. Siemens also signed an $80 million contract in 1999 to supply fifteen transformers in Changzhou at the power converter stationed there. The funding for this contract again comes from Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, Deutsche Genossenschaftsbank, Dresdner Bank, and Commerzbank. Siemens and Voith-Hydro merged in 1999 to form the new company Voith Siemens Hydropower Generation, which signed a $12.79 million contract to contribute electrical system equipment to the left bank power system of the dam. GEC-Alsthom signed a similar contract the same day.

Three Gorges Dam Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political IssuesSpillway of the Three Gorges Dam. Courtesy of

The Swiss company Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) signed the $400 million contract with GEC-Alsthom and Kvaerner to provide eight generators. The Swiss export credit agency, Bundesrat Exportrisikogarantie, loaned $143.1 million to the Three Gorges Dam project to purchase the generators. In 1999, ABB agreed to construct two power converter stations at the Three Gorges Dam and at Shanghai in a $340 million agreement. ABB also signed at $112 million deal to contribute high voltage equipment at the Three Gorges Dam electrical substation.

U.S. involvement in the Three Gorges Dam project is minimal. Private companies, such as Caterpillar, Rotec Industries, and U.S. Voith-Hydro, sold between $60 and $100 million in equipment to China for the project. Government banks and agencies did not participate in funding the dam because the project did not display environmental standards like those required by Congress in foreign developments. The World Bank also did not finance the Three Gorges Dam due to ambiguous impacts on the environment and the surrounding society.

Three Gorges Dam Major Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political Issues

Economic, environmental, social, and political concerns have been raised about the TGD project, both before the project was launched and in recent years. One of the strongest and most consistent arguments made by project proponents has been that the electricity produced by the dam would otherwise be produced by dirty Chinese coal-burning power plants, with their serious environmental impacts. One of the strongest and most consistent arguments made by project opponents has been the vast scale of the environmental and social transformations of the watershed of the Yangtze both upstream and downstream of the dam itself. These major questions are addressed here.

Economic Issues

The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River has several positive and negative economic impacts for the Three Gorges area and for China. A cost-benefit analysis was done to determine these impacts. Since the Yangtze River tends to flood frequently, measures have been taken in the past to lessen the impacts on the area. Flooding in the past has cost millions in damages to homes, land, and other property. With the building of the Three Gorges Dam, the flood frequency is increased to one-hundred years, thus lessening the impact floods with have on the economy. The dam will also provide energy for much of China. Hydroelectric power is a self-sustaining, renewable, clean energy resource. According to the Chinese government, the dam will have paid off all its debts by the year 2012, a mere three years after completion is scheduled.

The creation of the reservoir has a few economic values. It will aid in boosting agriculture, since the reservoir will hold more water for irrigation. It also will provide the surrounding areas with a stable source of drinking water. With a final depth of 525 ft, larger ships can be used to transport products up and down the Yangtze River. This increased navigability will increase the economy in the area. Trade is estimated to increase five times in the Central China. Transportation costs are expected to reduce by 35-37%. This enhanced navigability is furthered by the ship locks at the Three Gorges Dam. They are big enough to allow twelve large commercial ships to travel over the dam at once.

China will lose money due to the inundation of fertile farming land. The 100,000 acres that will be flooded accounts for 10% of the grain supply, 50% of which is rice. To make up for this loss, China should import more grain and rice from other countries. Resettlement of the people living in the reservoir area includes the switching of agricultural commodities. The new land is less fertile, and therefore the growing of grain and rice will be harder and more expensive. Instead, value added products, such as citrus fruits, are more viable to grow. However, since these farmers may be unfamiliar with growth citrus fruits or other products, production on these new farms may be slower and yield less economic trade. The people who are not granted land to farm will be trained to work in cities and towns. Many of the people living in the reservoir area are uneducated, thus making this transition more difficult. who are not granted land to farm will be trained to work in cities and towns.

The Yangtze River contains 300 different fish species. It is argued that the construction of the dam will prevent fish from spawning upstream, thus diminishing population sizes. This would have a negative impact on the local fishing industry and on the livelihoods of fisherman who depend on it. It has been noted that fish is now moving upstream on tributaries to the Yangtze River to spawn. The government also insists that the creation of the reservoir will make room for more fish and so increase fish population in that way. Only the future will be able to tell how the dam will affect local fisheries.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impacts associated with large scale dams often have significant negative impacts on the environment. The Three Gorges Dam is no different. The creation of the dam and associated reservoir has impacts both upstream from the dam and downstream. It affects species in the area, some endangered, water quality, and may increase the likelihood of earthquakes and mudslides in the area.

A few species will be adversely affected by the construction of the dam. There are 300 species of fish in the Yangtze River. The dam will create a barrier in the river that these species will not be able to cross. Fish will not be able to travel upstream to spawn, so the populations of the species will decrease. Other affected species include the Chinese River Dolphin, Chinese Sturgeon, Chinese Tiger, Chinese Alligator, Siberian Crane, and the Giant Panda. There are a total of forty-seven rare or endangered species in the Three Gorges Dam area that are protected by Chinese national law. The only natural habitat of the Chinese River Dolphin is the Yangtze River, and there are less than one-hundred of these endangered dolphins in the river. The reservoir created from the construction of the dam covers a significant amount of the dolphins’ natural habitat. The government plans to sustain the River Dolphin and other endangered species by creating natural reserves and artificial spawning programs. It should be noted that past attempts to relocate the Yangtze River Dolphin have failed. Dolphins in the river. The reservoir created from the construction of the dam covers a significant amount of the dolphins’ natural habitat. The government plans to sustain the River Dolphin and other endangered species by creating natural reserves and artificial spawning programs. It should be noted that past attempts to relocate the Yangtze River Dolphin have failed.

Three Gorges Dam Environmental, Economic, Social, and Political Issues   Towns and forests located in areas that will be inundated must be demolished and removed to increase navigability on the river. The loss of forests and agricultural lands will lead to erosion and the buildup of sediment at the base of the river and reservoir. This could lead to increased flooding upstream. Sediments and silt contain valuable nutrients necessary to agricultural production. The blocking of sediments behind the dam means that these nutrients may not reach fertile farmland downstream of the dam. This could reduce the fertility of the land.

The destruction of the villages also leads to problems of pollution. The Yangtze River is already polluted from the shipping of coal, acid rain, and its central location in Chinese industrial activity. Pollutants from towns and waste dumps that will be inundated will add to this pollution. Some funds were set up to aid in cleaning the area for the reservoir, but only the future will show whether a sufficient job was done. Water moves slower in the reservoir and some are concerned that the pollution will sit and worsen water quality of the river.

Other consequences of the Three Gorges Dam are lower temperature and dissolved oxygen content in water down-gradient from the dam. Dissolved oxygen is necessary for healthy aerobic activity in aquatic ecosystems. Fish and plants depend on oxygen to survive. The presence of the dam will disrupt the natural processes of aeration (the movement of water) and diffusion, ways oxygen dissolves into water. Water will move more slowly downstream, thus making it more difficult for available oxygen to be present in the water. This could have a negative impact on the aquatic ecosystem downstream.

Some positive results of the Three Gorges Dam include the use of water, a natural and renewable resource, as an energy supply. Hydroelectricity is clean since no greenhouse gases are emitted from producing this type of energy. The Three Gorges Dam will replace up to 50 million tons of raw coal in China’s energy use, prevent more acid rain, and improve health standards, since the air will be cleaner.

Fisheries Impacts

Ecological problems have been projected to occur because of the construction of the dam and modification of the watershed, including impacts on the fisheries of the Yangtze River basin. This basin has 36 percent of all freshwater fish species in China, with more than 360 fish species belonging to 29 families and 131 genera (Xie 2003). Twenty-seven percent of all of China’s endangered freshwater fish are in the Yangtze basin, and there are as many as 177 endemic fish species (Yue and Chen 1998).

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. The dam itself blocks migration of fish and access to spawning grounds, and these impacts will be imposed on top of other significant modifications to the Yangtze that have already caused declines in fisheries. In 1981, the Chinese completed the construction of the Gezhou Dam 40 kilometers downstream from the TGD site. That was followed by rapid and sharp declines in the populations of three of China’s famous ancient fish species, the Chinese sturgeon, River sturgeon, and Chinese pad-dlefish, each of which is now listed as endangered (Xie 2003). Of special concern is the Chinese freshwater dolphin, which may already be extinct (Hance 2008). Fisheries in the upper watershed are also at risk. A study in 2003 identified six species at high risk of complete extinction, another 14 with an uncertain future, and two dozen more that may only survive in tributaries to the Yangtze (Park et al. 2003).

Fisheries are already beginning to show the effects of altered river ecology below the dam. Data released to a Three Gorges Dam monitoring program website indicate that commercial harvests of four species of carp are well below pre-dam levels (Xie et al. 2007). Annual harvest of these commercial fish below the dam from 2003 to 2005 was 50–70% below a 2002 pre-dam baseline and even more dramatic declines are being seen on larvae and eggs below the dam (see Table WB 3.1).

Han Qiwei, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has argued, correctly, that many of the ecological problems in the Yangtze predate the building of the dam (China Daily 2007a). But many of these problems have also been worsened, not improved by the project. Despite early calls from environmentalists, limited scientific investigations were done to prepare a baseline assessment of plant and animal com-munities threatened or destroyed by the Three Gorges Dam project. Only in late 2007 was a formal comprehensive assessment of plant communities initiated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Xinhua 2007d). Prior to this, research institutes from the region had conducted small-scale investigations, but no large-scale systematic search or col-lection was done. A small private botanical garden set up to support rare regional plants went bankrupt in June 2007 (Xinhua 2007d). Some gene and seed banks have been set up by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to maintain genetic stocks of plants that may end up going extinct in the wild (China Daily 2007b).

River Sediment Flow

The dam is also having a significant impact on sediment loads in the Yangtze. 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. This sediment load has varied with annual climatic factors, and more significantly, with the level of deforestation, and subsequent 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. Sediment load at Datong, near the Yangtze’s delta dropped to only 33 percent of the 1950–1986 levels (Xu et al. 2006). 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 (Xu et al. 2006). Based on estimates of the his-torical sediment budget and erosion data from the river’s delta, scientists estimate that

TABLE WB 3.1 Annual Commercial Harvest (x1,000 metric tons) of Four Species of Carp (Silver, Bighead, Grass, Black) and Numbers (Millions) of Drift-sampled Carp Eggs and Larvae Below the Three Gorges Dam Before (1997 and 2002) and After the River Was Impounded (2003–2005)

 Three Gorges Dam

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 TGD reservoir (Yang et al. 2006).

Flood Protection

A major anticipated benefit of the project is improved flood protection on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Historically, people living along the Yangtze River have suffered tremendous losses from flooding. In 1931, 145,000 people drowned, and over 300,000 hectares of agricultural land flooded. In 1954, 30,000 more died in Yangtze floods or the subsequent diseases (Boyle 2007). In 1998, a flood in the same area caused billions of dollars of damage. More than two thousand square kilometers of farm land was flooded, and over 1,500 people were killed (CTGPC 2002).

The Chinese government has already claimed flood benefits to the dam. According to Li Yongan, the general manager of the Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Office, the project averted floods in late July 2007 by storing waters that would have exceeded flood levels below the dam (People’s Daily Online 2007), though the overall long-term flood-control benefits provided by the Three Gorges Dam are only likely to be deter-mined over the next several decades as a wider range of high flows are experienced.

Shipping Benefits

The Yangtze River, China’s “golden waterway,” plays an important role in the economy of the upper river area. In that region, river navigation is almost the only means of long-distance, cost-effective transportation of freight. For Chongqing, the major port city in Sichuan province, 90 percent of goods are transported by water, and navigation on the upper Yangtze has been difficult in the past. The Three Gorges reservoir dra-matically increases the depth of water and improves navigation up to Chongqing, more than 600 kilometers upstream of the dam.

Three Gorges has been built with one of the largest systems of ship locks in the world, permitting large quantities of cargo to move into the upper reaches of the Yangtze. In 2006, 50 million tons of cargo passed through the new lock system up to Chongqing, up from 18 million tons before the dam, and the 2007 estimate exceeds 50 million tons (People’s Daily Online 2007).

Reservoir-Induced Seismicity and Geological Instability

Large reservoirs can cause seismic events as they fill and as the pressure on local faults increases (ICE 1981). Such reservoir-induced seismicity was predicted for the Three Gorges region, which is already seismically active and indeed, there has been an increase in reported seismic activity in the region following construction of the dam and the filling of the reservoir. Official statements minimize the importance of this, saying that “no unusual phenomena which could disrupt the stability of Three Gorges Dam have occurred” – a far cry from saying that there have been no significant damages to individuals, homes, or businesses (People’s Daily Online 2007).

Related to the risk of increased seismic activity is the risk of increased landslides in the regions around Three Gorges with steep slopes. Landslide activity associated with the filling of the reservoir appears to be on the rise. Very soon after the closing of the dam and the filling of the reservoir, a major landslide occurred near the town of Qianjiangping on the Qinggan River near its confluence with the Yangtze mainstream. 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 such 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, vice-mayor 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.

Relocation and Resettlement

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 (1988, 1995) acknowledged that large-scale resettlement and inundation of population centers would be among the most devastating aspects of the project.

Initial estimates of the populations to be displaced varied from around one million to almost two million. Far more than a million people have already been resettled during the project’s construction – official estimates typically say “at least 1.2 million” or “1.13 million” (Yardley 2007). Other estimates range from 1.3 million to almost 2 million (Dai 1998, Chao 2001, Tan and Yao 2006). More than 100 towns are ultimately to be submerged, including the major population centers of Fuling, Wanxian, and parts of Chongqing. Chongqing is the central municipality in the Three Gorges reservoir area and recently received approval to become a centrally administered municipality – only the fourth in the country after Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. Fourteen thousand hectares of agricultural land will be submerged, as will more than 100 archeological sites, some dating back over 12,000 years. The cities of Wanxian and Fuling have cultural histories extending back more than 1,000 years.

In fact, it now appears possible that as many as six million people in total must 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 that “at least 4 million people from the Three Gorges Reservoir area are to be relocated to cities in the next 10 to 15 years” (Xinhua 2007b). 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. 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).

Among a growing number of scholars, there is increasing concern that people displaced due to construction projects face long-term risks of becoming poorer and are also threatened with landlessness, food insecurity, joblessness, and social margin-alization (World Commission on Dams 2000, Li et al. 2001, Heggelund 2004, 2006). Certainly, the early efforts at resettlement at Three Gorges led to a worsening of condi-tions for many of the already relatively poor rural communities in the region. There has been some unprecedented discussion of these problems in scientific and policy journals, as well as the news media in China.

A factor that contributed to some of the early challenges with TGD resettlement was local government corruption, which led to significant resettlement funds ending up in the pockets of government officials, rather than passing to the refugees (Chao 2001, Heggelund 2006). Poor local planning also left many relocated people with bad land, homelessness, loss of jobs and social status, and other social ills. To make matters even worse, the resettled populations often receive farmland taken from the population who already live in the resettlement areas, raising tensions and conflicts between the host population and the new migrants (Qiu et al. 2000, Heggelund 2007). Recent research also suggests that women displaced by the project are more severely affected than men. They are more likely to become impoverished and less likely to find new work in the new areas (Yan et al. 2005). Forced migration is also apparently linked to worsening depression (Hwang et al. 2007).

Other Issues

The long-term implications of the TGD will only be understood fully over the coming decades. But it is likely to have some unanticipated implications, beyond the signifi-can’t affects already predicted or observed. Some of these are already beginning to appear: The magnitude of the dam and reservoir are so large that it is already playing a role in military planning and in affecting local climatic conditions.

In 2004, the U.S. Pentagon released their annual report to Congress on military issues related to China. In that report, the Pentagon reported that Taiwanese leaders were considering the concept of targeting the Three Gorges Dam militarily as a deterrent against Chinese military action against Taiwan. They wrote:

“Taipei political and military leaders have recently suggested acquiring weapon systems capable of standoff strikes against the Chinese mainland as a cost-effective means of deterrence. Taiwan’s Air Force already has a latent capability for airstrikes against China. Leaders have publicly cited the need for ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles. Since Taipei cannot match Beijing’s ability to field offensive systems, proponents of strikes against the mainland apparently hope that merely presenting credible threats to China’s urban population or high-value targets, such as the Three Gorges Dam, will deter Chinese military coercion.” (U.S. Department of Defense 2004).

This comment was taken by mainland Chinese media and political leaders as a direct threat, or as an effort to encourage Taiwan military to develop such capability, and provoked an angry response (Hogg 2004).

While the Chinese are increasingly concerned about the implications of climatic change for the water resources of China (see Chapter 5), there is now evidence that the TGD itself is affecting climate on a far larger scale than initially suggested. Early assessments raised the possibility that the massive new reservoir might affect temperatures and other climatic variables locally, on the scale of tens of kilometers. Now a study suggests that the effects are

              Chronology of Events: Three Gorges Dam Project
1919First mention of the Three Gorges project in Sun Yat-sen’s “Plan to
Develop Industry.”
1931Massive flooding along the Yangtze River kills 145,000 people.
1932Nationalist government proposes building a low dam at Three Gorges.
1935Massive flooding kills 142,000 people.
1940sThe U.S. Bureau of Reclamation helps Chinese engineers identify a site.
1947Nationalist government terminates all design work.
1949Communist revolution in China.
1953Mao Zedong proposes building a dam at Three Gorges to control
1954Flooding along the Yangtze leave 30,000 people dead and one million
people homeless.
1955Soviet engineers play a role in project planning and design.
January 1958Mao appoints Zhou Enlai to begin planning along Yangtze.
May 1959Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO) identifies Sandouping site
for dam.
1966All work halted by the Cultural Revolution (1965–1975).
1976Planning recommences.
February 1984Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power recommends immediate
commencement of construction.
Spring 1985The National Peoples Congress delays a decision until 1987 because of
economic difficulties.
1986The Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power asked the
Canadian government to finance a feasibility study
August 1988Canadian-World Bank “Three Gorges Water Control Project Feasibility
Study” is completed and recommends construction at “an early date.”
February 1989Yangtze! Yangtze! released.
April-June 1989Democracy movement sweeps through China.
February 1992Politburo Standing Committee agrees to the construction of the project.
April 3, 1992China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) formally approved the
“Resolution on the Construction of the Yangtze River Three Gorges
Project.” 177 delegates oppose the project, 644 abstain, 1,767 approve.
April 27, 1992The Canadian government cancels development assistance for the
May 1992179 members of the Democratic Youth Party reportedly detained in
connection with their protests against the Three Gorges project in Kai
County, Sichuan (HRW 1995).
January 1993An armed fight involving over 300 persons occurred in the vicinity of the
dam (HRW 1995).
December 14, 1993The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation terminates agreements for technical
services because of economic and environmental impacts.
Early 1994The full resettlement program begins in earnest.



The Three Gorges Dam in China is rapidly approaching completion. This project, along with a vast array of peripheral projects, constitutes the largest water-supply development in the history of humanity. As with any major construction project that substantially modifies or alters a watershed, the Three Gorges Dam will have significant costs and benefits. Among the most significant benefits are the generation of electricity without greenhouse gas emissions, improvements in navigation, and potential reductions in flood risk. Among the most significant costs are massive dislocations of millions of Chinese to make way for the dam and reservoir, further ecological degradation of the Yangtze River ecosystem and fisheries, a reduction in sedimentation reaching the East China Sea, and a growing risk of new landslides and reservoir-induced seismicity. Over decades, the overall implications of the project will become more evident, but before the full benefits have begun to be delivered, the environmental, social, political, and economic costs are beginning to accumulate. Even official government spokesmen are beginning to question the substantial human and environmental costs of the project, while other officials are moving rapidly forward on new massive water infrastructure elsewhere in China, without having learned the lessons from Three Gorges. Long-term sustainable water management in China will require a better balancing of the true costs and benefits of their water choices.


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