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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Three Gorges Dam

(Photo: Edward Burtynsky)

Now that Three Gorges Dam has closed its gates, the stage is set for the Yangtze River to flood the Sichuan and Hubei provinces of China. The Dam will provide billions of kilowatts of electricity to the growing nation and as yet, unnumbered complications.

In 1992, despite widespread opposition, the National People’s Congress approved the Three Gorges Project, with a third of the delegates opposing or abstaining from the proposal. Although ecologists, archaeologists, and human rights advocates openly criticized the Dam’s construction, the first stage of the 17 year-long project—building the initial dam structure—was completed in November of 1997. In a speech at the damming ceremony, former President Jiang Zemin had this to say:

“[The Dam] embodies the great industrious and dauntless spirit of the Chinese nation and displays the daring vision of the Chinese people for new horizons and better future in the course of their reform and opening-up.”

On June 1st of this year, engineers completed the second phase of the Three Gorges Project. Nineteen of the Dam’s 22 gates were closed causing the level of the newly formed lake to rise over a 100 meters on the first morning of its operation, inundating hundreds of towns. By the project’s completion in 2009, 365 towns in over 20 counties will be covered by the rising Yangtze River. The rising waters have already displaced over 700,000 people with officials predicting 1.2 million people to be relocated due to “unforeseen factors.”

Beginning in August, several of the Dam’s 26 power generators will come on line, each producing over a half a million kilowatts of energy, producing 5.5 billion kilowatts of energy by the close of the year. By 2009, the Dam will generate over 80 billion kilowatts of energy annually. The Three Gorges Project will also allow the passage of 10,000-ton freight ships to navigate through the Dam’s canal locks.

In addition one of primary goals of the project, touted as “the world’s largest water conservation facility,” is to have Three Gorges Dam act as a reservoir during China’s flood season. When the dammed waters reach the intermediary level of 440 feet above sea level, the reservoir will store over 70 billion cubic feet of floodwater. By the end of the project, the reservoir capacity will increase ten-fold. However, this increased capacity will do nothing to deter flooding that has routinely occurred downstream of the Dam.

Questions now remain about the Dam’s impact on pollutants that normally flowed from the Yangtze into the East China Sea. The backup of pollutants—runoff of industrial and agricultural activities—along with E.coli pollution from human waste, may cause the reservoir to become undrinkable. The reservoir may also suffer a loss of wildlife due to the build up of silt levels during the Dam’s operation. Chen Yiyu, the vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has said protection measures for both animal and plants will be in place by 2010.

As President Jiang Zemin cautioned six years earlier:

“In short, we should take into consideration the overall situation and a long-term perspective, formulate plans on a scientific basis and adopt practical and effective measures to achieve a coordinated economic, social and ecological development.”

However, less than two weeks since its official operation, the Three Gorges Dam already has shown 80 hairline cracks in its surface. Head of the inspection committee, Pan Jiazhong, stated that though the cracks do not pose a threat to safety, leaking could occur if they are not promptly repaired.

For a slideshow of the dam project, click here.

Photos by Edward Burtynsky


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