The Three Gorges Dam is a construction project unlike anything the world has ever seen. Structures like the Itaipu Dam in Brazil, the Petronus Towers, and even Hoover Dam pale in comparison to this massive public works project. The only projects that compare are the Coliseum, the Grand Canal, and the Great Wall of China and these only because of the difficulty of the era that they were constructed in. (Socyberty.com)
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, in the Hubei province of China, is not only the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, it is the largest electricity generating plant of any kind in existence. Spanning a length of nearly 2.5 kilometers, it is a monumental feat of engineering, a tribute to China’s economic and technological might.
At the same time, it is also a most controversial project because of its huge negative impact on the surrounding environment. Its 660 kilometer long reservoir has displaced 1.3 million people in the densely populated Yangtze valley (Miller, Spoolman, 329). While it cannot be denied that the dam is wreaking a good deal of havoc upon the local environment, just as it was predicted, it will also do a lot of good to the world’s environment in general by dispensing with the need of burning 30 million tons of coal every year. Besides producing the cleanest conventional form of electricity, the dam also significantly increases the Yangtze’s navigation capacity and dramatically reduces the devastating flood potential of the river (Shaw 24).
Construction work on the project began in late 1994. The dam commenced its operation in 2006. Completion took place in October 2008, though the Three Gorges will become fully operational only in 2011 or 12. Thereafter its 32 massive turbines would generate an estimated 100,000 GWh of electricity annually. Its electric production capacity of 18,200 MW can power roughly 18.2 million homes. Overall construction cost of the dam is 26 billion USD. The project is overseen by China Three Gorges Project Corporation (CTGPC), a state-owned company. Sinohydro has undertaken the construction of the dam, the Yangtze Power Company runs its operations.
The Three Gorges dam is built on an unprecedented scale. This is an encouraging fact from an engineering perspective, but it also presents a cause for concern when seen from a safety point of view. According to an independent study, there are some “major assumptions and gross underestimations” involved in the plant’s design (Williams). Such elements significantly increase the risk of dam failure. Should the dam ever develop a breach and the damage not contained, it could lead to a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Therefore there is a great need to extensively investigate into the various safety matters related to the dam and do everything possible to increase its robustness. Another cause of concern is the deteriorating quality of water of the heavily-polluted Yangtze River from which the Three Gorges draws its energy.
Efficiency and sustainability are two major factors that need to be looked into in assessing the overall worth of a power-generating plant, whether it be fossil-fuel based, hydroelectric or nuclear. Efficiency is more of an issue in older and fossil-fuel based power plants. The Three Gorges dam is a new project still awaiting its formal inauguration; highly sophisticated and highly efficient state-of-the-art technology has gone into its making. Efficiency is therefore not an issue with the Three Gorges, the average efficiency of the generators is over 94%. The plant’s gross efficiency is 90.15%. Cost-wise, the dam would break even by generating a little over 1,000 TWh of electricity. Within a year of its completion in 2008, it generated 348 TWh; so it is likely to meet its full costs within a year or two at the most from now, possibly before its final launch date (Maxxelli).
In terms of sustainability, the Three Gorges is essentially a sustainable power operation since it is a hydroelectric project generating electricity from a renewable source. But when we ask how conducive is the Three Gorges to the sustainable development of the region, the issue becomes complex.
An open letter to my community in the Hubei province
regarding the environmental and other problems associated with our dam
My fellow citizens and community members,
The Three Gorges dam, whatever may be the long list of complaints we have with it, is the fulfillment of the dreams of our leaders of generations ago. The concept of a mighty dam built to harness the great and wild Yangtze was originally envisioned by Sun Yat-sen in 1919. The dam was expected to produce 30 million horsepower, equivalent to just over 22,000 MW of electricity, a number that comes rather close to the actual existing capacity of the Three Gorges today. As we can see, from the beginning the dream was not just to build any dam on the Yantze, but a big dam, a really big one — which can not only be immensely useful to the society but also stand as a symbol of the emergence of China as a modern, rapidly developing country in the world community.
Plans were drafted and some groundwork was done in Chiang Kai-shek’s regime during the early 1930’s. Ironically, even when the Japanese ruthlessly occupied our country in 1939 they wanted to build a dam in the Three Gorges area, as a monument to their anticipated victory over China. In the years just after the Second World War, incidentally, the U.S. too showed interest in building a dam in the Three Gorges area, and a proposal was drafted for the “Yangtze River Project.” Many Chinese engineers were sent to America to receive special training. Preliminary works such as explorations and surveys began but the political turmoil of the era put an end to the work. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Mao Zedong was very enthusiastic about the proposed dam on the Yangtze, though nothing concrete came out of all the enthusiasm. In the 1980’s, China embarked upon a rapid course of modernization and liberalization, and plans for the Yangtze dam project were revived. But now, in the 1980’s, people had much more environmental awareness than before and many foresaw the severe disruption the construction of the proposed dam could cause to a large number of communities in its vicinity. There was much opposition to the project from the beginning. However, the opposition was either suppressed or disregarded by the government as it was adamant on going ahead with the plans. Construction began in December, 1994.
Of course most of you would be familiar with what I have been saying here, my point is only to stress on how much the Three Gorges is tied up with the history of our country, and in fact this is nothing when we consider how deeply it is tied up with the future of our nation. The Three Gorges is our national legacy.
I am quite aware of the havoc the Three Gorges has caused and is causing. It has brought us all much suffering, and we have quite a valid reason to begrudge its existence. I do not intend to downplay the huge troubles the dam has created and the many more problems it is likely to generate in the future. What I am trying to say, however, is that this is not all there is to it. There are tremendous benefits and blessings as well that this dam has already brought to all of us. However, since our lives have been severely affected by this thing that we see as a monster that has come to ravage our lives, it is only natural that we are biased to see its negative side more. Even so, there are many well-informed people in the West who have nothing to do with the Three Gorges dam personally, and yet they have been intensely deploring the tragic environmental depredation this dam is responsible for. I have learnt many things from what they are saying, I understand and am quite sympathetic to their standpoint. Yet I consider myself a supporter of the Three Gorges dam.
Since the times the Industrial Revolution began in the West, industrial progress has always meant some kind and some degree of environmental damage. Although this need not be the case in the future, with many non-polluting, environment friendly alternative technologies emerging fast, for now we have to still pay the heavy price of progress. I am also a supporter because I see myself as a patriot. As a lover of my country, I am willing to endure some degree of pain, and sacrifice some comforts and conveniences, if it could in any way contribute to the progress of our great country. I dream of a greater China. And I believe that the Three Gorges dam could be looked upon as the magnificent gateway to the greater China of the future.
To be honest, I wish the Three Gorges dam was never constructed. I tend to agree with many experts and environmentalists who say that many smaller dams on the Yangtze, instead of one big dam, would have been much more beneficial and placed much less strain on the environment. But as I have been trying to explain, the Three Gorges dam is perhaps a part of the destiny of our nation. A historical momentum to build it had been constantly building up since the days China first awakened in the modern times and sought to become a self-sufficient, fully developed, industrialized nation. I feel that the Three Gorges dam was simply meant to be — for better or for worse. And now it is here, that much is a fact which cannot be changed.
Of course we need to carry out a movement to reduce the environmental damage in any way possible, we need to fight for the rights of the resettled people, we need to do all that we can do to increase the safety of this enormous structure sitting in our midst and posing a potential risk of an inconceivable magnitude should its integrity be ever breached for whatever reasons — but a fundamental opposition to the dam as such does not carry much meaning. The dam has changed our lives, and the lives of millions of others like us living across the Yangtze river. There is much good in it — and that is the reason the dam has been built in the first place — but unfortunately there is much bad in it too. We know both of these from our direct experience. We have been both the beneficiaries and victims of the great dam at the same time. But things being what they are, our objective should be to increase the good and decrease the bad. We have to focus on both sides. I have been trying to emphasize this point because many of us, having suffered much as a direct result of the construction of this dam, tend to see the Three Gorges project entirely as a monstrous evil that should not have ever come into existence. Although I can understand this attitude, I do not think that it is a healthy one. We need to take a more pragmatic approach and do whatever best we can do with the situation, in the existing conditions. My humble opinion is that we need to adopt a stance of cooperation rather than conflict with the government and the authorities. That way much more can be accomplished and every one of us would stand to gain ultimately.
It is true that the Three Gorges project should have been executed in a much better way, indeed many mistakes were made over the years; but it is also a fact that the building of hydroelectric dams generally results in the deterioration of the environments surrounding them, and entails much suffering in the lives of people displaced by these structures. The bigger the dams, more is the damage and greater is the suffering. Yet in the twentieth century, many big hydroelectric dams were built all over the world. This is because, in general, the benefits of these structures outweigh their disadvantages. And the Three Gorges is the ultimate in big dams. Up to an extent, the negative effects associated with the Three Gorges dam are inevitable. We have to accept them and move on.
However, much that has gone wrong in this connection need not have been so. For example, in building any massive hydroelectric dam, many towns and villages on its way would be submerged and people would have to be resettled. That much is unavoidable. But these people need to be resettled on reasonable terms which are satisfactory to them. That this did not happen in the case of the Three Gorges dam, however, does not mean that the dam itself is wrong; it is only that the authorities who have been responsible to oversee the resettlement process have been inconsiderate and negligent. There are two separate issues here and we should not confuse them. We can morally support the dam and live with it, while still fighting for better resettlement conditions. Furthermore, even if the disadvantages of the Three Gorges dam outweigh the benefits in the final analysis, we should not resent the situation and keep criticizing the government endlessly, but seek out ways in which this situation can be redressed. Solutions are possible. With collective will and effort, we can turn the Three Gorges dam into a true glory of this nation — its positive benefits surpassing the negative effects.
Maxxelli. The Three Gorges Dam. Maxxelli-blog.com. http://maxxelli-blog.com/2010/01/the-three-gorges-dam/
Miller, G. Tyler, Scott Spoolman. “Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions.” Belmont, CA : Cengage Learning, 2009
Shaw, Raynor. “Three Gorges of the Yangtze River.” New York : Odyssey, 2007
Socyberty.com. The Horrendous Three Gorgeous Dam. http://socyberty.com/activism/the-horrendous-three-gorges-dam/
Williams, Philip B. Dam Safety Analysis. TheThreeGorgesProbe.org. http://www.threegorgesprobe.org/pi/documents/three_gorges/damming3g/ch10.html