In 1919, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the political revolutionary known as the “Father of Modern China,” envisioned a massive hydroelectric dam spanning the Yangtze River. After several attempts at construction throughout the twentieth century, all of which were halted for political or economic reasons, construction on the dam began in earnest in 1994 and was projected to be completed by 2009. Today, setbacks and additions have moved the dam’s full operation to 2011, and despite grave social and environmental concerns, the project—known as the Three Gorges Dam—is too far along to be stopped.
Stretching 1.5 miles wide, 600 feet high and 400 miles long, the dam already occupies such a large expanse of land that it is more visible from space than any river. The Chinese government claims that the dam will solve so many economic issues that the benefits will outweigh any problems it might cause.
Ocean freighters will be able to access the country’s interior for six months out of the year, which will stimulate the agricultural and manufacturing industries located there. The electricity generated by the dam will be equivalent to 18 nuclear power plants. And, hopefully, the dam’s presence will help curb the Yangtze River’s devastating floods that have plagued the region for millennia.
Anything that ends repeated flooding and offers an alternative to coal-burning power seems like a promising endeavor. However, the cons of the Three Gorges Dam raise questions as to how, in an age of increasing social and environmental awareness, its construction has been allowed to continue without serious modifications.
Journalist Steven Mufson of the Washington Post calls the Three Gorges Dam “a vision that combines ambition worthy of pyramid-building Pharaohs with the destructiveness of open-pit coal mining.” Like mining and other economically lucrative projects with devastating results, the Three Gorges Dam could be a kind of twenty-first century Titanic: an overzealous declaration of technological progress.
The most publicized concerns regarding the dam are environmental. In addition to the possibility of pollutants building up behind the dam and contaminating the region’s water supply, wildlife is also threatened by the construction of the dam. The entire area had to be logged before construction could begin, destroying valuable habitats. Construction of the dam has already contributed to the near extinction of several species, including the Baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, and the critically endangered Siberian crane. Additionally, the buildup of silt in the reservoir may threaten aquatic biodiversity and lead to sinking and erosion of coastal areas.
According to CNN.com, journalist Dai Qing, who was thrown in jail for ten months after criticizing construction of the dam in 1989, calls the project “the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world.” She proposes using tributaries of the Yangtze to create smaller, less damaging projects that might accomplish some of the same energy goals as the Three Gorges Dam.
But perhaps even worse than the potential environmental damage is the potential human cost of the project. As many as 1.4 million Chinese residents have already been displaced as a result of the project, with four million more expected to be relocated in the next 10 to 15 years. The dam will also completely submerge 1,300 valuable historical and archeological sites such as the burial grounds of the ancient Ba people.
Worst of all, despite the regular floods the dam could prevent, if the dam itself were to break, the entire Yangtze delta would become flooded, possibly taking millions of lives. Those lives would also be at risk, critics have mentioned, if China became engaged in war. The dam would undoubtedly be the first and most destructive target.
These are only hypothetical consequences. Real consequences, however, are already evident in the areas surrounding the dam. In the hurry to put such massive technology into action, it is clear that shortcuts in both construction and design have been taken. Geologists have found water seeping out of the reservoir into the ground, the banks of the reservoir have been weakened by enormous pressure changes and fatal landslides have increased dramatically in the region.
Whether the most significant problems that arise out of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam are human, environmental or both, the dam represents the kind of overextended display of human innovation that usually results in unforeseen consequences—only this time those consequences are well within our sights, and they are downright frightening.
Corruption, sloppy construction, lack of foresight into environmental consequences and disregard for human life have all contributed to the construction of this dam. Of course we need alternative energy, but the purpose of the Three Gorges Dam is not to reduce CO2 emissions, it’s to power China’s booming economy.
Photo courtesy of: MCT Campus