The Three Gorges Dam

The idea for a great dam on the Yangtze River was first proposed by Sun Yat Sen in 1918. Under the Communists, Chairman Mao publicly supported the proposal, but construction would not actually begin until 1994. When it is completed in 2009, the Three Gorges project will be the largest concrete dam in the world, rising 600 feet above the valley floor (roughly as tall as a 50-story building) and creating a 1.24-mile span across the valley. Behind the dam will be a 350-mile-long reservoir, holding 1.39 trillion cubic feet of water (by comparison, Hoover Dam's reservoir holds 1.24 trillion cubic feet). Officials in China state that the dam will provide inexpensive electricity, which will help meet China's growing demand for energy. The dam is expected to generate 18,200 megawatts of electricity, as much as 18 nuclear power plants. In addition, the dam is anticipated to control flooding and improve shipping navigation, which will enhance trade and tourism.


The Three Gorges Dam has been controversial both inside and outside China because it poses risks to people, historical and cultural heritage sites, and the environment.

More than 1 million people who lived in the area flooded by the dam have been displaced. The government has made substantial attempts at resettlement, but there have been complaints of inadequate housing, unfair compensation for lost property, lack of economic opportunity for farmers resettled in urban areas and vulnerable pockets of poor people who have been left to fend for themselves. On the positive side, the dam is projected to create new economic opportunities that will help people escape from poverty.

Archaeologists, historians and international cultural organizations have criticized the dam project for its destruction of some of China's cultural heritage -- including the ruins of ancient settlements and historic shrines dating to the third century -- and an increased threat to as many as 1,000 archaeologically significant sites. The project has included some attempts at preservation, but there is little argument that some sites will be submerged under many feet of water, making study and access impossible.

Arguably the most contentious aspect of the dam is its impact on the environment. The government and other proponents argue that the dam will benefit the environment by allowing for flood control and by producing clean, sustainable hydroelectric power that will reduce China's reliance on high-polluting fossil fuels like coal.

Opponents argue that the dam will destroy important animal and plant habitats and that because it is so large, it will change regional weather patterns, increase erosion downriver, flood fertile agricultural land and change the ecosystem of the East China Sea, into which the river flows. The dam's power plant and the increased traffic on the reservoir could contaminate drinking water supplies, and the weight of the water in the reservoir, which sits atop two major faults, might contribute to earthquakes. In addition, the people displaced from the valley will have a significant environmental impact as they increase the population density in the areas where they now live.

» "Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for Their Human Costs," The New York Times (November 19, 2007)
» "China's Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?," Scientific American (March 25, 2008)
» "China's Three Gorges: Assessing the Impact," National Public Radio (January
2-4, 2008)
» "China's Three Gorges Dam Under Fire," Time Magazine (October 12, 2007)
» "Three Gorges Dam, China," Encyclopedia of Earth
» "Three Gorges Dam Wall Completed," British Broadcasting Corporation
(May 20, 2006)
» "History of the Three Gorges Project," by the China Three Gorges Project