A River in Peril: The Waters Rise at Three Gorges

By Suri, Manik | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A River in Peril: The Waters Rise at Three Gorges


Suri, Manik, Harvard International Review


Along the banks of China's longest river, the Yangtze, the water is rising. As the river floods, over a million villagers settled in the surrounding valley are being forced to relocate their homes hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles away. Yet this is not a natural occurrence, like the Yangtze's great floods that killed hundreds of thousands in 1931 and 1954. The rising level of the Yangtze, or Chiang Jiang as the Chinese call it, is a deliberate consequence of the Three Gorges Dam Project, one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken. Rising 600 feet into the sky and stretching 1.5 miles across the Yangtze River, the monolithic dam is expected to power 26 turbines and generate 85 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year--the equivalent of 18 nuclear power plants--making it the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Work on the enormous dam began in 1993 and is expected to be completed in 2009. Four generators are already active, with two more planned by 2004, but this tremendous power comes at a price. The vast Yangtze River Valley, responsible for almost half of China's gross industrial and agricultural output and home to more than a third of its 1.3 billion people, is being transformed forever.

Proponents of the Three Gorges Dam, most notably the Chinese government, claim that, like the Great Wall of China, the Three Gorges will become the Great Dam of China--a symbol of human achievement and a source of national pride. Aside from the symbolic merits of the dam, which would be hard-pressed to justify its US$25 billion pricetag, supporters argue that the dam's primary benefits will be its vast electricity generation potential and its ability to protect the surrounding regions from the uncontrolled flooding of the Yangtze River, which has claimed more than one million lives in the past century. Furthermore, the dam's engineers claim that the 350 mile-long reservoir created by the dam will enable large, 10,000-ton ocean-going vessels to travel deep into China's interior, significantly expanding the commercial potential within China's industrial and agricultural heartland and transforming the populous inland city of Chongqing into the largest inland seaport in the world. Thus, the dam's defenders maintain that despite the astronomical costs of the dam, the long-term benefits will more than make up the difference.

Yet not everyone would agree. Ask one of the 1.2 million people, mostly farmers, who are being forcibly relocated from the Yangtze River Valley to towns and cities across China, for their opinion of the Three Gorges Dam, and you are likely to hear a different answer than the official party line. …

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