Thursday, October 28, 2021

Is China’s Three Gorges Dam Worth It?

The recent floods in China have caused widespread devastation. One Chinese official noted that the economic losses alone cost at least US$29 billion. Around 70 million people across 28 provinces have been affected. Amid the carnage, experts are wondering whether the much-touted Three Gorges Dam, which was built across the Yangtze River at a cost of more than US$28 billion, is worth all the hype.

After all, more than 1.4 million people were displaced once the construction began. And when the reservoir reached its full capacity, 1,350 villages, 140 towns, and 13 cities had been submerged underwater. Chinese officials claimed that the dam would protect communities along the Yangtze River even against a “once in a century flood.” However, given the devastation that has occurred, many believe that the dam has failed to live up to expectations.

A flawed project

Even before construction of the Three Gorges Dam began in 1994, many experts were already criticizing the project. Foremost among them was hydrologist Huang Wangli, who was a target of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) because of his unwillingness to align with Party policies. Huang predicted numerous negative consequences should the Three Gorges Dam be built, including the collapse of downstream banks, silting problems, frequent earthquakes, the spread of a disease called schistosomiasis, which is caused by parasitic flatworms, decrease in water quality, upstream flooding, and voyage issues.

All these predictions eventually came true. Huang also warned that once the risks outweighed the dam’s benefits, it’ll be blown off. However, all his concerns were brushed aside by the CCP.

The claim that the dam can endure a 'once-in-a-100 year’ flood is largely bogus.
The claim that the dam can endure a ‘once-in-a-100 year’ flood is largely bogus. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Over time, the Party seems to have realized that the Three Gorges Dam is not the “savior” that it was trumpeted to be. This is very evident by how the state has downplayed the ability of the dam over the past two decades. In 2003, an article published in state-backed media boasted that the Three Gorges Dam was capable of withstanding a “once-in-a-10,000 year” flood. By 2007, this claim turned into a “once-in-a-1,000 year” flood.

A year later in 2008, the Party had lowered their expectations of the dam, saying that it could only withstand a “once-in-a-100 year” flood. And in 2010, the entity in charge of overseeing the Yangtze River Basin stated that people should not place all their hopes on the Three Gorges Dam, clearly indicating that the dam was not at all capable of creating any significant positive impact.

Even the “once-in-a-100 year” flood handling capacity currently being propagated by the state is bogus, according to experts. Such a flood will result in 244 billion cubic meters of water passing through the Three Gorges Dam in just 2 months, according to geologist Fan Xiao. However, the storage capacity of the dam’s reservoir is only capable of handling just 9 percent of that amount. Xiao notes that it is like using a small cup to deal with a big tub of water. He points out that the cost of the dam has definitely exceeded the gains when it comes to flood control.

The weight of water behind the dam might be causing earthquakes. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Last year, hydraulic engineer Wang Weiluo published an analysis of the dam after studying satellite images that showed a deformity in the structure. He predicted that the dam will not last more than 50 years. “Someday in the future, the Three Gorges Dam will break… The deformity will shorten the dam’s lifespan and weaken its safety,” Wang wrote, as reported by The Epoch Times.

Environmental impact

The environmental damage caused by the Three Gorges Dam has been immense. According to one report, almost 47 endangered species had lived in the region surrounding the structure. Due to the dam, many of them are now extinct, including the famed Chinese River Dolphin. Since the dam changed the migrating path of certain species of fish, their breeding activities have also been altered, which ended up affecting the animals that used to live off them.

Back in 2008, Chinese officials admitted that the dam was triggering environmental changes by fragmenting ecosystems and speeding up landslides. The humongous weight of the water in the reservoir behind the dam is believed to be responsible for earthquakes. 

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Max Lu
Max Lu is an author who specializes in Asian geopolitics.
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