Breaking the Wall: China and the Three Gorges Dam

By Kuo, Alexander | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Wall: China and the Three Gorges Dam


Kuo, Alexander, Harvard International Review


ALEXANDER KUO, World in Review Editor, Harvard International Review

November 7, 1997, marked the beginning of the end for a scenic stretch along the Yangtze River in Yichang, China. Groups of giant Caterpillar trucks disposed large boulders into the roaring currents of the world's third longest river. The man-made obstacle sealed off a dike to divert the waterflow, marking an instrumental step toward the completion of China's Three Gorges Dam, slated to be the largest dam in the world. Diverting the river is the first step in preparing the area for the construction of numerous hydropower plants and intricate locks. As President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng looked on over a crowd of 5,000 celebrants, the international media compared the undertaking of this feat to the construction of the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of the Pharaohs.

The prodigious dam is to be built near the center of China, where a valley in the Yangtze narrows to form the Xiling, Wu, and Qutang Gorges. The result will be an enormous reservoir within those gorges. Until the year 2006, the focus of construction will be on the flood discharge system and the actual hydroelectric plant. By that year, the first 14 generators will begin the new distribution of electricity. By the year 2009, 12 additional generators will begin operating, as well as two massive locks and ships lifts. Bringing the generators to full capacity will symbolize the project's successful conclusion. The year 2009 will also mark the culmination of an unprecedented human endeavor--the assemblage of a 900 cubic foot dam. But perhaps more importantly, the beauty of the Yangtze River, a treasure trove of Chinese mythology, will also cease to exist. More than a decade prior to the dam's completion, it is already evident that the environmental and social consequences of the construction of the dam outweigh the expected benefits of energy distribution and modernization.

Beyond the Building

The world's largest dam will figuratively and literally swamp existing human structures in all dimensions. The 600 foot tall, 1.2-mile wide structure will tower over the world's third-largest river. The lake created by the dam will extend 650 kilometers upstream, creating an immense reservoir that will submerge approximately 50,000 acres of land, 19 cities, 150 towns, and 4,500 villages. The relocation process for the 1.2 million people who will be forced out of their homes has already begun.

Yet one of the most staggering figures attributed to the dam is its cost. At a minimum, dam supporters expect the entire process to cost at least US$24.5 billion; some have predicted that the cost will exceed US$70 billion. The Chinese government has sought at least US$8 billion from foreign investment to help finance this project. While companies in Europe and Japan have actively signed construction contracts, their US rivals have unwillingly been left out of the frenzy. The French and German governments, unlike the US government, have given their corporations the financial guarantees that the Chinese government requires from contractors working on the dam. Due to environmental concerns, however, the United States has withheld Export-Import Bank export credit guarantees for US companies, including Rotec Industries and General Electric. But the Export-Import Bank is not the only institution preventing investment in the dam. After conducting a four-year study through the Canadian International Development Agency that examined the financial risks of the project, the World Bank also refused to aid the project.

In the face of these roadblocks, China has taken additional measures to minimize criticism of the project. The Chinese government has persecuted and imprisoned Chinese scientists for questioning the technological feasibility of the project. Since 1989, the government has also banned public debate on the dam. The comments of Dai Qing, a journalist and one of the most vocal critics of the dam, cost her ten months in prison. …

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