The Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam


A. Willis

The Three Gorges Dam


China has long been a civilization that has strived to be the best. In fact, China was one of the original cradles of civilizations starting in the Yellow River valley. Since the beginning of time people living along the rivers in China have tried to control the rivers that brought both great booms and horrible busts. One such way, humans have in recent times is with the Three Gorges Dam. This dam is one of the greatest engineering marvels that was ever assembled. No matter how great this dam is, it is still filled with controversy and disagreements between the local residents, Non-Government Organizations and the National government. While the dam is the largest single producer of electricity in the world, it has also caused many ecological and humanitarian issues that are still running rampant today.

The Yangtze River

Map of the Yangtze River

To understand why the dam is so controversial it is important to first understand the history of the region that the dam lies on. The Three Gorges Dam is on the Yangtze river, which is the longest river in Asia and is the third longest river in the world. It has long been important for agriculture, and economic reasons to the Chinese people. While most of the history in China has been center in the Northern region, the Yangtze river has still been very important to the people in the south. It runs form the Tibetan plateau to the South China sea, and along that route it stretches 3915 miles[1]. Along this river, one third of the Chinese population lives and is today is the most important river in China. In fact, the most densely populated area in all of China is in the Yangtze river delta. While many large cities are along the banks of the river including Wuhan, and Chengdu, the largest is Shang Hai. The Yangtze Basin produces about one half of Chinas agriculture production. Some of these crops include corn, wheat, cotton and many more. Fishing is another important enterprise along the river, this is including artificial cultivation of fish. There are in fact 30 species of economic importance that reside in the river including carp and perch. The Yangtze has long been the cultural border between North and South China. In the 19th Century it was also one of the basis for the imperial and foreign investment in China, especially Shang Hai[2].

Location of the Dam

Location of the Dam along the Yangtze

The Dam is located by the town of Sandouping, in the Province of Hubei. Hubei is located in the middle of the country and is about in the middle of the Yangtze river as well. This picture shows a good representation of how large the reservoir actually is.

History of the Dam

The Three Gorges Dam during construction

It is apparent that the Yangtze river has been and still is very important to a significant portion of the Chinese population. This is where the Three Gorges Dam joins the picture. The Dam was first thought of in the 1920s under the nationalist party in China. It was then later rethought of by the communist leader Mao in 1953. The actual planning of the Dam began in 1955. In the 1950s however there were significant problems that people were worried about. The first reason was that if the dam collapsed during production or afterwards that there would be massive flooding downstream that could endanger the lives of millions. The next reason was that the building of the dam would displace over 1.3 million people that resided, in over one thousand towns and cities. Along with the displacement of people, there was the destruction of ancient and historically significant scenery, excavation sites, and architecture. The last reason was the fear that the dam would increase industrial pollution in the river. Proponents argued that other smaller dams could be built in multiple safer areas and still produce the same output of energy as the Three Gorges Dam. Because of these initial problems the production of the dam was delayed until 1992. In 1992 Premier Li Peng convinced the Chinese government to approve the dam. In 1994, it was official that production of the dam would begin. This was not without issues either as the World Bank would not approve any loans for the production of the dam, because of the humanitarian and ecological impacts that it would have. In 1997 the river was finally diverted, and then in 2003 the reservoir began to fill with water. With the filling of the reservoir also brought the destruction of over 1200 historically significant sights. Construction of the main concrete wall was completed in 2006. The remainders of the dam’s generators were completed in 2012 and the ship lift was finally completed in 2015. This marked the completion of a project that was pushed against back and forth for almost 100 years[1]

Future Plans for Dams

While the Three Gorges Dam has been criticized so heavily, the Chinese government is still planning on replicating the designs on many other rivers in China including the Upper Mekong, the Nu, and even farther upstream from the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. One of the reasons of the drastic environmental damage was the submergence of many industrial sites such as dump, factories and mines. Along with factories upstream that are dumping waste, making the reservoir filled with garbage, industrial pollutants and silt. The Dam is also creating erosion downstream which is therefore creating landslides[1].

The Floating Population Caused by the Dam

A map of the size of the reservoir

As seen by the sheer size of the reservoir is sometimes easily underestimated how many people were truly displaced by this dam. While the arrival of the communist party to China in 1949, the country has been no stranger to forced migration of its people. This group of people in China has sometimes been called the “floating population”. In recent years this floating population has caught more attention both domestically and internationally. While over a million people were displaced by the Three Gorges dam, it is only a small portion of the floating population. Dams in general all over China have displaced over 10 million people. This shows the opportunity cost debated by the government, between the cost of electricity production and the livelihood of its citizens. These migrants have no other choice but to move, yet governments decide that infrastructure is more important. This does unfortunately take place all over the world including the United States. The United States the big displacement of people occurred for the Tennessee Valley Authority, where many people in Appalachian country were also forced to move or be flooded out. This shows that forced migration is not necessarily unique to China itself[2].

One difference between migrants displaced by dams and migrants displaced by political refugees and environmental refugees is that the migrants of dams will never have any opportunity to move back to their homelands. One reason why China may have wanted forced movement was the aspects of industrializing quickly and urbanizing the rural population. They were given the idea by the Soviet Union who were also financially supporting the movement. The Chinese government forced people to move so that they would have greater control of their population and would know where their people would have resided. To do this the gave residents specific places where they must live. To increase heart ache, all residents who were displaced where only given a small amount of money in little money bags and weren’t given any land for farming or living. Because of the lack of money or funding, many of the people that were relocated came back to the reservoir areas which created improvised economic areas[3].

History of Dam Displacement in China

During the 1950s and 60s there were more dams than ever built before in China. During this time, around 8 million people were displaced. Some of these major dams include Xin’anjiang built in 1960 and Sanmenxia built in 1962 were both built on the yellow river. While these dams were not the largest in the world both displaced over 300,000 people. To give perspective to this the Itaipu Dam, which was the world’s largest hydroelectric power station was built in 1982 by Brazil. From the production of this dam, only about 50,000 people were displaced. Now coming back to the Three Gorges Dam. It displaced at least 1.2 million people with some sources saying as many as 1.5 million. The sheer area of the reservoir was planned to expand to 1000 square kilometers, and the depth of the Yangtze river would reach 175 meters. To try and avoid the previous issues of resettlement the State decided that they would try and do three things. They would settle migrants on nearby farmable areas, they would allow migrants to move to urban areas with relatives, and lastly if all else failed they would move migrants far away from the land so that they couldn’t return. The first problem came when all the nearby land was on the slopes of mountains as was quite infertile. This meant that the farmable land that the government had given was more or less useless. The second issue was with settling migrants in urban areas was that the rural occupants were working industrial jobs. They had no experience with these jobs and therefore were soon fired for incompetence. Because of the failure for the first two plans the state came up with its last plan to send the migrants too far away places. This was the best plan in theory, however not surprisingly people don’t like to move to faraway places that they had never been to. They migrants who had moved away found it quite hard to rebuild their lives that they had before. If they were respected in their old communities, the new ones thought nothing of them[4].

Enviromental Hazards caused by the Dam

Pollution along the side of the dam

Next it is important to examine the environmental damage that the Three Gorges dam has caused. While it is important to recognize the positives of a dam, such as flood control, better navigation, power production and irrigating crops, it is also important to recognize the negatives. By the time of the 20th century about 65 percent of all water that flows to the seas has been through a dam before it has reached its destination. In past history dams were a way to show progress and power, in the past several decades the environmental impact of the dams has begun to be researched. Many of these ecological surveys began in the 1980s and while they have a hard time predicting the biodiversity in the area before the construction of the dam, they do a good job accessing the situation now and in the future. The region where the dam was constructed has a monsoon subtropical climate. Therefore, most of the species of flora and fauna are akin to others in China that share that climate. However, after the study was conducted it was found that 36 rare and ancient species have been found to inhabit the area. Because of long-term human habitation most of the vegetation below 1000 meters have been destroyed[5].

An example of what has happened to other places where damming has occurred can be seen through the formation of Lake Gatun after the building of the Panama Canal in Panama. In the 1920s 208 species of birds lived on islands in the lake and by 1970 48 of those species had disappeared. In Venezuela, the same thing happened on Lake Guri. In this case 75 percent of the vertebrate species in the area vanished[6].

The same is true for aquatic species that inhabit the region. This is because dams mess up the natural seasonal flow of the aquatic region. Many of these rare species have already been severely impacted by a dam that is 40 kilometers downstream on the Yangtze already. Some of these species that have been effected include the endangered Chinese Sturgeon, the River Sturgeon, and the Chinese Paddlefish. Dams have also been shown to increase the levels of toxic chemicals and reduce the efficiency of fishery production.[7] 


After looking at all the available resources and facts from the river it lies on to the actual construction of the dam, it is apparent that the Three Gorges Dam will forever filled with controversy. While the National government saw it as a way to improve the country, the people that lived in the area they saw a different side of things. They saw their homes being taken away and were either moved or left to fend for themselves. This brings up a interesting prospect about the power differential between the State and its people. For the central government, far away in Beijing it is hard to care about 1 million displaced people in a large country that has over 1 billion. The Three Gorges Dam was a success on being the largest installed power generating capacity in the world, yet with it the humanitarian issues and ecological issues to many outweigh the cost. If it were not for the governments struggle at displacing 1.2 million people, and all the pollutants and historical sites that were flooded, this could be a much different ending.


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Heming, Li. “Reservoir Resettlement in China: Past Experience and the Three Gorges Dam.” Royal Geography Society, 2001,

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