The Sanxia (Three Gorges) Project in China: A Crisis in the Making

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The Sanxia (Three Gorges) Project in China: A Crisis in the Making ?

The Conflict

On the site of Sanxia (the Three Gorges) in western Hubei province China is in the process of building the largest and most powerful dam ever to be built. Proponents of the dam point out that it will bring a great deal of clean energy into many parts of China more cheaply than other means and that it will aid in preventing severe flood damage along the Chang (Yangtze) River. Opponents point out that the dam will eventually displace well over a million people, destroy majestic natural beauty that draws tourists to China, cost a great deal in time, money, and effort, and may not be effective in some of its primary functions. Since the project is already underway and probably will not now be stopped, opponents hope to convince the authorities to scale back on some of the dam's proportions and to use other technology along with the dam to achieve the best ends.


  • Within China the Sanxia Dam has been seen as another attempt to rapidly catch up with developed nations and solve problems with a single grand project.
  • It is almost impossible for public opinion in China to block a project if the leadership is in favor of it.
  • Today forced relocations are the most sensitive issue connected with this mega-project.


  • Government estimates suggest that electricity generated by the dam will be cheaper than what could be generated from coal-fired plants but the method of measuring efficiency and costs are very limited and ignore essential elements.
  • Although foreign media are able to publish the opposition's arguments, foreign governments are not trying to restrict investment in the project. With acid rain and global warming very much a concern of the developed nations, a hydroelectric dam begins to look more attractive.
  • Sanxia is scheduled to cost about US$24 billion and could create greater economic strain.

On August 27, 2001, hundreds of migrants displaced by the giant Sanxia Dam clashed with police during a two-hour protest in Yongzhou city, Hunan province, China. A batch of newly arrived migrants displaced from the dam's reservoir area took to the streets to protest resettlement subsidy payments. Scuffles broke out when police were brought in to control them. Several police officers were injured when a handful of protesters became violent, although no arrests were reported and train service was not disrupted. Thus, this was just a small event in the big picture of life in China and the huge problems surrounding the Sanxia Dam.

"Sanxia" is often directly translated as the Three Gorges. The name refers to three separate gorges that extend for 200 kilometers (124 miles) along the Chang (Yangtze) River in western Hubei province. The Three Gorges are internationally renowned for their scenic beauty and have been a major draw to tourists for many years. The Chang is China's longest river—the third longest in the world. At completion, the dam that is being built there will be the largest hydroelectric station in the world, capable of generating 17,680 megawatts of electricity (as compared to the current largest hydroelectric plant, the Brazilian Itaipu Dam, which can produce 12,600 megawatts of power). Construction of the Sanxia includes building a 400-mile-long (645 kilometers) reservoir that will submerge cities and villages and displace well over a million people. This project will take approximately 20 years and cost upwards ofUS$24 billion.

The scale of the dam is remarkable in size and effort. The Sanxia will become the world's largest dam in terms of volume of concrete work, which, at completion, will be 185 meters (607 feet) high and 1,983 meters (6,500 feet) wide, with a final reservoir surface area of 1,060 square kilometers (409 square miles), a capacity of 39,300 million cubic meters (51,365 cubic yards), and a maximum flow rate of 100,000 cubic meters per second. The work is already well along in progress. In autumn 1997 the walls rose to 90 meters high and severed the Chang River. The reservoir is scheduled to begin filling sometime in 2002; the first generator is to be in place in 2003; and the dam is to be completed in 2009, with reservoir water reaching its final level in 2010 and all debts repaid by 2012.

The protests and opposition to the dam, such as that in Hunan province, have become increasingly common as construction of the dam has proceeded since 1994. Today, forced relocations of people living in the vicinity of the construction are among the most sensitive issues connected with this mega-project. Although corruption cases related to the project remain a taboo in the mainland Chinese media, accounts still appear about protests by disgruntled migrants. They often focus on migrants finding themselves cheated after arriving at their new homes. Many have found the compensation far less than promised and they suspect the resettlement funds have been pocketed by local officials.

In China, public argument over the building of the Sanxia Dam has been limited by the lack of a free press and the possibility of censure. Thus most of the opposition has been centered overseas. Within China the Sanxia Dam can be seen as another attempt to rapidly catch up with developed nations and solve problems with a single grand project, as occurred during the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and early 1960s. That attempt to industrialize China overnight ended in failure, environmental degradation, and famine. Scholars have referred to China's mega-scheme drive as a "Great Wall mentality"—a Chinese and a communist fascination with making risky gambles in planning decisions out of desperation. Opponents argued that, with the possibilities for irreparable damage due to natural causes and/or mismanagement so great, it was dangerous to proceed with this huge project.

Along with the great issue of resettlement, opponents have many concerns about the technical feasibility of the project regarding flood control, energy supply, navigation, water supply, and environmental damage. The Chinese leadership of the early 1990s, however, proceeded with the long-debated project, preferring to appear to be doing something spectacular about flooding and energy shortages and in giving China something they felt would be a positive legacy than to err on the side of caution.

Historical Background

The idea of building a dam in the Sanxia first appeared in The International Development of China by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), one of the founders of the Republic of China. Since the 1930s the Sanxia area was surveyed by Chinese, Soviet, and American engineers, and arguments about whether or not to develop the dam have been continuous.

Intensified investigations into building the dam at Sanxia have often been triggered by major floods that occur in the area from time to time. This appeared to be the case when massive flooding in the Chang River valley in 1931 was responsible for the deaths of 140,000 people. The ensuing investigation resulted in a 1933 team finding Gezhouba and Huanglingmiao to be the best locations on the Chang River for hydroelectric projects because of steep gorges and their central location. Gezhouba is the site of the current Gezhouba Dam, 24 miles downstream from the Three Gorges, and Huanglingmiao is only a few kilometers to the east of the current Sanxia Dam site.

In 1944 Chief Design Engineer of the United States Bureau of Reclamation John Lucian Savage organized a Chinese and American joint research group that concluded that the Sanxia area would be ideal for the world's largest multipurpose dam. An American economic adviser, G.R. Passhal, also urged construction of a hydroelectric project at the site. After the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese unit that had been involved in the investigative work with Savage went on to become the Chang River Valley Planning Office. This office was the primary think tank for dam development along the river.

The New People's Republic of China and the Dam

After flooding on the Chang River in 1949 the central government ordered research to begin on a dam in 1951. In 1953 Communist Party Chairman and Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) stated: "After expending so much effort constructing reservoirs on tributaries and still not reaching our goal of stopping floods, why not concentrate all our efforts and block it at Sanxia?" After more floods in 1954 the pace of research accelerated, and the government decided to devise a comprehensive plan for the river. Between 1955 and 1957 a team surveyed the Chang River valley with Soviet help. The debate on whether the dam should be built had appeared in the press by 1956, with the vice minister of electric power, Li Rui, leading the opposition to the dam and the head of the Chang River Valley Planning Office taking the position of leading advocate.

The project was actually accepted as a long-term planning goal in the mid-1950s. In March 1958 the Communist Party, under the guidance of Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), decided to proceed with preliminary design work on a 190-to 200-meter dam. Instead of pushing ahead with Sanxia, Mao Zedong decided to proceed with the smaller Danjiangkou Dam on the Han River, a tributary.

Lengthy Delays in the Mega-Project

From 1960 onwards, efforts to begin construction of the Sanxia Dam were halted by China's economic collapse in the aftermath of Mao's Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-74). Sino-Soviet military tension in 1969-70 also affected plans for the dam because it was thought that the Soviets would make it a target should war break out. Reservoir siltation (a build-up of sediment that can block or clog or otherwise damage the dam or its proper functioning) of the Sanmenxia Dam on the Huang River, ecological problems caused by the Aswan Dam on the Nile River, and lower-than-planned power generation rates from both dams also discouraged the Chinese from taking up the Sanxia project.

The decision to build the Gezhouba Dam 24 miles downstream, however, did go forward in order to appease pro-Sanxia interests in Hubei. Because of the Cultural Revolution and problems with design, the Gezhouba Dam was not begun until 1970 and not finally completed until 1989. Coming in at a cost close to twice what was originally projected, the Gezhouba Dam did not set a good precedent.

Renewed Interest under Deng Xiaoping

With the return to emphasis on economic development after 1978, the Sanxia project again came to prominence after close to two decades of obscurity. In 1979 the site for the dam was recon-firmed as Sandouping, and proponents almost succeeded in launching the project, with work scheduled to begin within two or three years. Again, however, government leaders urged caution.

In the summer of 1980 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) visited the site and encouraged research on Sanxia. Various foreign groups, particularly the Americans, began to become involved in the project. Brazil tried to promote its skills from the Itaipu Dam and the Chinese government attempted to get both Japan and Canada actively involved. In 1986 the Canadian International Development Agency helped finance a feasibility study. The terms of reference for this study indicated that its main purpose was to secure foreign financial support. Delegations from Sweden, Belgium, Singapore, and Hong Kong also visited the site and held discussions on the project. Securing of loans was as important in these efforts to involve foreigners as was obtaining expertise.

In 1984 a meeting was called that concurred with a report written by the Chang River Valley Planning Office stating that a dam at Sanxia with a reservoir height of 150 meters (492 feet) was feasible. The State Council made Li Peng (1928-; later premier of China and chair of the National People's Congress) responsible for the Sanxia Dam. By 1985 a preliminary design report was completed. The project was to be included in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-90) with construction to begin in 1986. But an internal document from 1985 recommended that construction of the dam be excluded from the Seventh Five-Year Plan because it would not be cost effective and might cause natural or military disasters. Despite final exclusion from the plan, high-rise worker housing was built, along with a road linking the south bank of the Sandouping site to Gezhouba.

The urgency for construction was again felt in November 1986 after the State Council issued a directive for further discussion of the project and set up the Sanxia Construction Discussion Leading Group to write reports on aspects of the project. When these research reports were submitted to the State Council in 1988, 10 out of the 412 specialists involved in research for the Leading Group had refused to sign their reports largely for environmental reasons. The project was shelved in the spring of 1989 after heated debate in the National People's Congress.

1991 Floods Prod Action

In July 1990 the State Council set up a special committee to study the issue. Then, in June 1991 devastating floods left 10 million people homeless along the Chang River and brought the issue to the fore. At the time of the floods an article appeared in the Communist Party ideological magazine by a former Minister of Water Conservancy praising the accomplishments of the party in water management. This article came under attack in the Taiwan and Hong Kong press, which placed the blame for the floods on the Communist Party. Party Secretary Jiang Zemin's statement made during his late June 1991 visits to the flood districts—"If we rely on the party's leadership, if we rely on the socialist system, then we certainly can defeat natural disasters"—also came under particular criticism.

Using the 1991 floods as a case in point, hydraulic engineers in mainland China were able to suggest that there was a need for investment in all sorts of water conservancy projects including large dams. Hard-line proponents strengthened their stance and those sitting on the fence came over to their side. In July 1991 the project was probably approved at a key meeting held in Beijing.

While there was considerable debate within the bureaucracy, in general Chinese leaders have been behind the dam, whereas much of the opposition has come from technical experts and intellectuals. The arrest of dissidents in the aftermath of the Tiananmen incident of the summer of 1989, in which the army brutally crushed a pro-democracy demonstration, helped to reduce open opposition to the project. Since that time the press favored articles promoting the dam whereas negative opinions appeared less often. Opposition to the dam from abroad virtually never appears in the Chinese press. By the late 1990s the opposition movement had cooled, although reports of problems with construction and resettlement continue to appear in the foreign press and groups have effectively worked to block foreign loans for construction.

A Controversial Approval of the Project

The formal beginning for the project was on April 3, 1992, when the Chinese National People's Congress passed the Sanxia Key Water Control Project. Although slightly over two-thirds of the delegates voted for the project, the record-breaking number voting against or abstaining represented far greater opposition than the ratio suggests, especially when one considers that the prior function of the congress had been to automatically approve all that was put before it. Thus even the approval of the project was controversial. Open opposition at the National People's Congress included the unprecedented walk-out by two delegates.

From the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 to the time the dam received approval, the Chang River Valley Planning Office, the Ministry of Water Conservancy, State Planning Commission, and downstream provinces have generally supported the Sanxia project. The Ministry of Electric Power, the Ministry of Communications, and Sichuan province have generally opposed it. Sichuan, which used to include Chongqing Municipality, was always cool towards the Sanxia project because it was to receive only 10 percent of the hydroelectric output, even though it was home to 85 percent of the people to be relocated, whereas downstream provinces will receive a considerable amount of the power and Hubei only has to move 15 percent of the reservoir population. Problems resolving these various bureaucratic differences helped make it difficult for the central government to come down firmly in favor of the project prior to the 1990s.

Some bureaucratic changes accompanied the construction efforts after 1992. In 1994 the State Council approved the establishment of a Sanxia Open Economic Zone with all the priorities given to special economic zones, which to that point had all been located on the east coast. Several cities along the river were designated as "open cities." Preliminary transport links into the area were completed in mid-1996 and China opened the Sanxia Airport, located about 30 miles, or 48 kilometers, from the dam, on December 29, 1996. In 1997 Chongqing City was split off from Sichuan province and turned into China's fourth national-level municipality. This was done to appease Chongqing, as well as to give the central government more leverage in local affairs.

In December 1998 Premier Zhu Rongji visited the dam site and made a speech in which he said: "We must adopt effective measures and use any and all means to ensure its engineering quality, and we must not relax our efforts in the slightest degree." Zhu also stated: "We may hire well-known, reputable, and experienced foreign supervision and inspection corporations to take part in supervising and inspecting certain important segments of the project." These statements were made in light of slip-shod construction on several projects, including a bridge in the Chongqing area that had collapsed due to corrupt building practices.

Most opponents of the project knew that the National People's Congress approval was an automatic affair. It has been suggested that the project had been approved in all but name before the congress met and that the decision was made solely by the Ministry of Water Conservancy. The former vice minister of electric power, many senior scientists, and some journalists spoke out against the project prior to approval. Despite this, the ambition to build a super dam on the Chang River is deeply rooted in the psyche of those wishing to rapidly develop China. This group includes many government officials, engineers, and scientists.

The arguments opposing construction of the dam concentrated on several key technical questions: flood control, energy supply, navigation, and water supply. Since construction began there has been much debate over the feasibility of re-settlement of population out of the area to be flooded and whether the reservoir height should be lowered.

Flood Protection

The Sanxia Dam will provide flood protection for people living downstream of it. On account of the serious flooding in 1991, this became the official main reason for launching the project. Flooding has been costly to China throughout the ages and it is suggested that the dam will be able to control all but the most serious of flood conditions below the dam. Prior to 1950 flooding in the Chang River valley was less frequent than in the Huang River (Yellow River) valley in northern China. Chang River flooding, however, became quite serious during the 1980s.

Flood control in the valley is not easy. When waters rush through tributary catchments they transport large amounts of eroded granite rubble, which is deposited on the streambeds that become prone to flooding. As a result the lower Chang River bed has risen, and lakes throughout the valley saw their navigable area shrink due to siltation from their tributary rivers and from misguided policy which forced peasants to fill in lakes and create crop land during the Maoist period (1950-76). This reduced the river system's flood control capacity.

Moreover, the level of flooding during the summer of 1991 was made more severe by the acceleration of human-induced deforestation, soil erosion, silt deposition, and lack of investment in agricultural infrastructure and flood control in the 1980s. In 1991 the Minister of Water Conservancy and Electric Power said that one-third of the large and medium-sized reservoirs in China had problems caused by siltation and lack of proper management.

From late June to mid-July 1991, heavy rains fell in the central Chang River valley on three occasions. Flooding in central portions of the valley got worse as water seemed to be backing right up the river. Tributaries burst their banks while reservoirs and lakes overflowed. The official death toll reached 3,074 by mid-September. Direct loss estimates from the flooding by mid-September totaled a figure equal to about one-quarter of the total Chinese budget for 1991. The situation on the Chang River has continued to be serious, with major flooding in 1995, 1996, and 1998.

While opponents to the Sanxia Dam do not often argue against the dam's having flood control potential, they note that flood control would only be relevant to the area directly below the dam because there are a considerable number of tributaries that enter the Chang River in the middle and lower reaches. Therefore, what occurred downstream in the summer of 1991 would repeat itself even with the dam. In addition, major rainstorms upstream could fill the reservoir and lead to a flooding of Chongqing.

It has been noted that clear water releases from the dam could lead to undercutting of dikes downstream, in turn leading to an increased burden of dike maintenance. Thus it has been suggested that raised dikes on lower portions of the river combined with several dams on tributaries would be a far more effective means of flood control.

Opponents of the Sanxia project continue to point out that there is a degree of mutual exclusion between a flood-prevention dam and a power-generating dam. A dam used for hydropower generation should have its reservoir largely full of water, whereas one used mostly for flood control should be kept close to empty. Flood prevention capabilities could be sacrificed for hydroelectric power despite statements that over half the reservoir capacity is earmarked for flood prevention.

Hydroelectric Power Generation

The Sanxia Dam is expected to have a 17,680 megawatt generating capacity, making it the world's largest hydroelectric generating plant. Two turbines are slated to begin generating electricity in 2003. When completed, 26 turbines would generate 84,000 million kilowatt hours, the equivalent of fourteen 1,200 megawatt thermal power plants. Estimates of the government suggest that electricity generated by the dam will be cheaper than what could be generated from coal-fired plants.

While the coal reserves of China are significant, supporters stressed that China would find it virtually impossible to meet its future planned energy needs simply by expanding coal production or nuclear power. It was thought that other plans for hydropower generation would not provide enough electricity to meet targets without the Sanxia Dam. The dam site in Hubei is seen as a good one for distribution of electricity up and down the valley as well as north to Beijing and south to Guangzhou and has been part and parcel of China's plans to develop the interior by expansion westward along the Chang River valley.

Most supporters favored building a dam at Sanxia first and then building a series of dams on the tributaries. Supporters believed that building a large dam at Sanxia was more cost effective than building a series of small dams on tributaries upstream. Efficiency was measured solely in terms of cost per kilowatt hour of power versus excavation and concrete costs. The projections that suggest that one large dam will generate electricity more economically, ignore many positive aspects of building smaller dams, particularly in terms of ecological and aesthetic losses. Furthermore, as the construction time for smaller dams is much shorter than for the Sanxia Dam, China could recoup costs more quickly.

Opponents of the Sanxia Dam have doubts about its cost effectiveness in terms of electricity potential. Power will be transmitted over great distances to reach the energy-deficient east coast. Considerable amounts of power will be lost in transmission. For the electricity to be used locally or upstream, the upper valley must quickly develop to the same economic level as the lower valley, which seems highly unlikely despite preferential policies.

Navigation and Siltation

The Chang River contains many rapids from its central reaches upstream, so it is possible only for small cargo boats to reach Chongqing. Between 1950 and 1985 work was done on over 110 shoals and rapids to increase the water depth in the Chongqing area to allow larger boats access, but it remains quite limited. With the Sanxia Dam reservoir pool's normal level at a 175-meter (574-foot) elevation, the large tows will be able to travel the 400 miles (644 kilometers) upstream to just beyond the city of Chongqing for more than half of the year and many other tows carrying significant loads will be able to get there year-round. In addition, ships will need to use less fuel going to Chongqing in the reservoir rather than fighting their way up a river.

Downstream of the Sanxia Dam there will be navigation benefits, as boats will be able to go upstream to the dam site in the dry season. The navigation factor came into play in late June 1992 when it was announced that all administrative units along the Chang River, including those in Sichuan, would be opened to foreign trade for the first time since 1949. Thus, the potential for additional domestic traffic upstream to Chongqing is also great.

But there are major concerns about the siltification—the building up of sediments that will change water levels, causing flooding and severe damage. Supporters of the project know that worries about the dam's reservoir silting up are justified. This is especially true in the location between the dam and Chongqing, where the water level changes often, the river meanders, and movement of the silt is complex. The official view, however, is that siltation will not be a problem with the Sanxia reservoir because the water level in the reservoir can be altered to flush out much of the silt buildup by keeping the water level at 145 meters (476 feet) during high-water and silt-depositing season (June-September).

Once the high waters have passed, the reservoir can begin to be filled for the coming dry season. In the following April, towards the end of the dry season, the water level can attain at least 155 meters (509 feet) and then be dropped ten meters (33 feet) in order to flush the silt that has built up over the winter. After a century or so, when the silt load reaches its dead storage volume, the depth of water at the tail-end of the reservoir should still be three meters, which will allow shipping to continue to reach Chongqing as planned. This solution is subject to the incoming silt load remaining more or less stable.

Opponents of the dam suggest that if the silt loads in the Chang River continue to increase, a reservoir on the order of 175 meters will not keep bed load sediments low in the Chongqing area, even with the flushing techniques proposed. The buildup of silt upstream would lead to increased flooding above the dam. There are also worries of silt building up where tributaries flow into the reservoir, which increases flood problems along the tributaries, and of fine silt piling up in the locks. If silt piles up at the base of the dam, opponents claim that the accumulated pressure could cause the dam to burst. Aside from siltation worries upstream in the reservoir and at the dam site, there is also the potential of siltation downstream. Even if much of the silt is deposited upstream, the slower flow of the river might lead to silt being deposited in places downstream where it previously wasn't deposited or in being lifted in places where it used to be deposited.

Again, the siltation arguments are largely conjecture which depend on various factors not directly connected with the dam construction at Sanxia, such as the conservation and deforestation rate upstream and construction of smaller dams on tributaries. While supporters place confidence in the models of siltation done for Sanxia and point out that models for some other major dams built in China were roughly accurate, one must doubt the ability of such models to predict siltation levels, given all the unknown factors involved.

Also, the project has built five sets of locks for ships to be get past the Sanxia Dam. With five sets of locks, the chances of a lock failure are significantly increased. There is no existing dam in the world with such a complex set of locks.

Water Supply

Those arguing for the dam also note the 16,500 million cubic meters of water storage capacity of the reservoir will facilitate plans for further south-north water transfers from the middle Chang River valley to the North China Plain and thus allow for irrigation of an additional 10 million acres of farm land. The 175-meter reservoir height will allow water to flow northeast under the central China water diversion plan, which has been approved. In addition, downstream pumping of water along the Grand Canal to the North China Plain along the eastern China diversion route, which has also been approved, will be steadier in the dry season as the dam releases stored water. Opponents of the Sanxia Dam tend to be equally opposed to any long distance water transfers on ecological and cost efficiency grounds.

Population Transfers

Resettlement of the reservoir population will be the key to the political success or failure of the Sanxia project. It is estimated that 1.13 million people will have to be relocated by 2008 (although, as of 2001, the project is far short of this goal). A total of 19 county-level units including 140 market towns, 11 county seats, and the county-level municipalities of Wan Xian and Fuling, hundreds of factory and mining sites and power stations as well as 600 miles (966 kilometers)of roads are to end up under water. Proponents had argued that the Sanxia area was the most ideal site for a dam along the river from the point of view of population transfers. Since the future reservoir is in a deep gorge, they say, this site involves minimal movement of people. It is said by opponents, on the other hand, that the choice of the reservoir was not good, as this area is the most densely populated portion of China's hilly area.

Opposition to the dam today concentrates on trying to get the reservoir height reduced, since the project as a whole is already underway. The smallest sized dam considered just prior to approval was 140 meters (459 feet). Such a dam would have only required displacement of about 200,000 people, but the idea was abandoned because it would have a far lower hydroelectric generating potential, an increased unit cost of production, and a lowered flood control capacity.

As rural incomes rise, so have compensation costs. Opponents point out that of the ten million people who have been relocated due to dam construction in China since 1950, approximately one-third are still extremely poor and short of food—dam construction has not helped them at all. The addition of another million-plus relocated people from the Sanxia reservoir area could add as many problems as it solves.

Population transfer experiments began in 1985 before the dam was approved. Traditionally Chinese peasants resist moving and identify with place. Such attachment has made movement of large numbers of ever more vociferous peasants very difficult.

Landslides and Earthquakes

One contention connected with the project is that it could induce landslides and earthquakes in the reservoir area. Landslides or earthquakes induced by the large reservoir could threaten the dam directly or through wave surges. Some pro-Sanxia scientists have stated that even multiple landslides into the reservoir could not cause a serious enough wave surge to damage the dam. They also claim that areas where landslides are likely to occur are far away from the dam. Supporters had gone so far as to say that, without the wide Sanxia reservoir, the threat of landslides blocking the river were greater. One can find papers stating that the geological conditions at Sanxia are very good.

Opponents note that landslides have been common in the reservoir area. It has been postulated that a rise in the water table caused by the reservoir could trigger landslides. Some say there is remote sensing data to suggest that further rock-slides are likely. Contrary to what some supporters say, opponents point out that there are three geological fault belts near the reservoir area and that earthquakes greater than 4.75 on the Richter scale have been recorded in the reservoir area 21 times, with the greatest reaching 6.5. It is said that increased pressure upon the bottom of the new reservoir could cause stronger earthquakes and there is evidence to suggest that more than 80 large and medium reservoirs around the world have induced this type of earthquake.

Ecological, Agricultural, Historical, and Tourism Issues

Supporters and opponents of the dam make only modest attempts to base their case around ecological issues, in part because the facts are not known and hard to quantify. However, supporters confidently note that environmental research on the project began in the 1950s with further studies conducted down to today. They point out that the amount of water being stored in the reservoir is only 4.5 percent of the total river flow through the Sanxia area, thus suggesting the environmental impact will not be that great. Air pollution along with water pollution from slag that would have been generated by coal-fired power plants will be avoided. Proper management of water releases should eliminate any worries about salinization (the water becoming full of salt) at the river's mouth. Although ecological damage will occur, according to the official government view, other ecological benefits will outweigh that damage.

In addition, supporters say that as only four percent of the land to be flooded is plains, the loss of good agricultural land will not be as serious as it could be elsewhere. Losses to downstream agriculture due to reduction of nutrient-rich silt loads would be minimal as most irrigation water downstream comes from tributaries. From the public health point of view there is little evidence to suggest that the reservoir will create many new shallow bays that could serve as breeding grounds of snails or mosquitoes so that worries of increased parasitic diseases are unfounded.

Both supporters and tour guides today state that the new landscape formed by the reservoir will be just as beautiful as the current one. The reservoir would have great commercial fish-raising potential and might increase the aquatic wildlife variety. The increased size of the water body will also have a positive effect on microclimate. Some of the peaks within the reservoir area will become islands with possibilities for tourism. Many historical artifacts, which are now located underneath the new water level, can be moved to such higher locations adding to the tourism potential of the remaining area.

In contrast, opponents of the project feel it will have an overall negative effect on local agriculture and fishing. It is estimated that nearly 59,000 acres of cropland and over 12,000 acres of orange groves will be under water. Opponents point out that losses from rich alluvial fields to be flooded cannot easily be compensated for by the new, less fertile lands proposed for settlement. Resettled peasants are farming on steeper slopes higher up the hillsides where there is considerable potential for increase of soil erosion. If the water level in the Chang River is raised during the winter and spring, soils, especially in central Hubei, could become swamp-like and gleyed (forming a sticky clay-like soil under the waterlogged surface), leading to reduced agricultural production in waterlogged fields. Irrigation with colder water from the reservoir could affect crop growth. Fish-breeding grounds will also change along the river, probably for the worse.

Much of the negative impact cannot be measured in economic terms. Unique scenery, habitats of animals, and historic sites are being destroyed. Economically speaking, opponents feel the reservoir will destroy more tourist attractions than it will create. There are also worries about the effect of the dam on climate, the creation of disease-favorable habitats, especially for malaria and schistosomiasis, pollution from submerged mines, industrialization, and slowed flow in the reservoir area, and other impacts on ecosystems along the river's course and in the East China Sea.

In particular there are worries about the future of some forms of wildlife—including 18 special types of upstream fish as well as the Yangzi sturgeon (Acipensel sinensis), the Yangzi dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), the Chinese sucker (Myxocyprinus asiaticus), the grenadier or samli fish (Macrura reevesii) and the Siberian crane (Grus leucogeranus). The colder water temperatures in the reservoir are sure to affect fish breeding. An increase in boats brought on by improved navigation, blockage of migration routes for fish upon which they feed, or changes in the riverbed could further reduce their small numbers. Some marine life that prefer the current semi-saline environment at the mouth of the river could be harmed by the flow rate and nearby fishing banks could be affected.

No one knows for sure how serious environmental damage will be. For example, a slowed flow rate should also reduce natural oxidation of the river water and the ability of the Chang River to flush out pollutants. It could also result in land being lost through coastal erosion, although the counter argument suggests that considerable silt from downstream tributaries will still reach the river's mouth. As experiments cannot predict exactly what will happen there is no way the supporters can assure the opposition that such negative ecological consequences will not occur.

Strategic Concerns

At the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, a famous Chinese scientist, Qian Weichang, stated that the Sanxia Dam should not proceed until the international world order was stable enough to insure that no foreign power would try to blow it up. Although Geneva protocols prohibit destruction of dams, they still remain a common military target. Opponents feel such issues have been generally neglected in favor of direct economic benefits such as power generation and irrigation water storage.

Supporters say the dam is safe from attack provided necessary precautions are taken. The Chinese government has conducted tests on models of the dam at their Lop Nur nuclear testing site since the 1950s. In official sources it was stated that the reinforced concrete used for the dam will have properties that help it to resist damage in an attack, and all that will be necessary is to lower the reservoir level to 145 meters at times of military tension and channel a certain amount of the waters into flood diversion paths. In such a scenario, the government predicts flooding will be restricted to areas above the city of Shashi in Hubei with the lower courses of the river protected. They contend that the narrowness of the gorges will reduce the level of damage expected from a burst.

Recent History and the Future

Although the Sanxia Dam would be the largest dam ever constructed in the world, proponents see the technological aspects as within China's grasp and have been attempting to assure people that the dam will be safe with no possibility of mishap.

Opponents point out that results from the Gezhouba Dam, as well as other dams in China, do not necessarily inspire confidence in the Sanxia project. After Gezhouba had been under construction for two years, the project was stopped and replanned. Instead of taking five years to complete as originally planned, Gezhouba took 18 years to finish at a cost close to four times the original estimate. Opponents suggest that the high cost of the Gezhouba project put a strain on the Chinese economy and led to inflation. The Sanxia project will create an even greater economic strain. New technical problems could make the Sanxia project far more difficult, although so far this does not appear to have been the case.

The political situation in the People's Republic of China is such that it is almost impossible for public opinion to block a project if the leadership is in favor of it. As is often the case, political decisions rather than a careful look at the evidence determine a project's future. The Sanxia Dam went ahead on the basis of a political decision. With so many technical matters unclear and in light of the difficulties of costing the project, ultimately the politicians are using the Sanxia Dam to fulfill political goals they feel are important.

The project's future could still be thrown into question if the current government is toppled or there is a massive leadership shake-up resulting in the removal of Li Peng and other pro-Sanxia leaders. More likely is the possibility of funding constraints stalling the project or resulting in a lower reservoir level.

As the dam is going ahead, foreign governments are listening to their business constituents and not trying to restrict investment in the project to a rigorous degree. With acid rain and global warming very much a concern of the developed nations, a hydroelectric dam begins to look more attractive. Opposition groups now are trying to get the height of the reservoir reduced since it is virtually impossible to stop construction of the dam as a whole.

Within the comprehensive plans for the Sanxia project, however, there are many subsidiary measures that actually are more suitable for sustainable river management than construction of the dam itself. These tried and tested, less spectacular measures include: soil conservation and afforestation, reservoir construction on tributaries, improvement of the central and lower course dykes, expansion of flood water retention districts, dredging of the river and adjoining lake beds, improving flood warning systems, and educating the local populace. If faithfully carried out, these efforts will go a long way towards amplifying and helping China to fulfill the stated goals of the Sanxia project.


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Richard Louis Edmonds


1911 The Republic of China is founded.

1921 The idea of building a dam in the Sanxia appears in The International Development of China by Sun Yat-sen.

1933 Huanglingmiao near Sandouping is selected as an ideal location for a hydroelectric project.

1944 The chief design engineer of the United StatesBureau of Reclamation, John L. Savage, organizes a Chinese and American joint research group, which concludes that the Sanxia area would be ideal for a multipurpose dam.

1949 The People's Republic of China is founded when the communists win their war against the nationalists.

1953 Chairman Mao Zedong states: "After expending so much effort constructing reservoirs on tributaries and still not reaching our goal of stopping floods, why not concentrate all our efforts and block it at Sanxia?"

1954 Major floods occur on the Chang River.

1955-57 A Chinese-Soviet joint survey of the ChangRiver valley takes place.

1958-60 Mao Zedong and his administration initiate the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to spur the economic and technical development of the country at a rapid pace, which results in mass starvation and the collapse of the economy.

1966-74 Mao initiates the Cultural Revolution, his mass movement to cleanse Chinese communism, eliminate bourgeois values, punish those who have criticized his policy, and fortify his own power base in China. Half a million people are estimated killed.

1979 The site for the Sanxia Dam is reconfirmed asSandouping.

1985 A preliminary design report for the dam is completed and the project is scheduled to begin in 1986.

1988 Controversial research reports are submitted to the State Council.

1989 The Sanxia Dam project is shelved after heated debate in the National People's Congress.

1991 Major floods on the Chang River kill thousands and displace millions.

1992 The Sanxia project is formally approved.

1996 The Sanxia Airport and major transport links are opened.

1997 Chongqing City is split off from Sichuan province and the Chang River is cut for construction.

August 27, 2001 Hundreds of migrants displaced by the dam clash with police during a two-hour protest in Yongzhou city, Hunan province, just one of many such protests by the displaced.

2002 The reservoir is scheduled to begin filling.

2003 The first generator is to be in place.

2009 The dam is to be completed.

Li Peng

1928- Probably more than any other modern-day figure, Li Peng, the Chinese premier from 1987 to 1998 and then leader of the National People's Congress, has been the Sanxia Dam's primary advocate. Either success or failure of the dam will probably be credited more to him than anyone else, and this association has added to the politicization of the construction of the dam.

Li was born in 1928 in Sichuan province. Three years after Li's birth, his father was executed by Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist government for participating in a communist uprising. Li was then adopted by communist leader Zhou Enlai (1898-1976; later premier, foreign minister, and leading statesman in the People's Republic of China). Li joined the Communist Party in his late teens. In 1948, just before the communists drove the nationalists out of mainland China, Li was sent to Russia (then the Soviet Union) to study at the Moscow Power Institute, where he specialized in hydroelectric engineering. When he returned to China in 1955, he went to work as the deputy director of a hydroelectric plant. He went on to other managerial positions in power projects throughout China.

In 1976 Zhou Enlai, Li's adoptive father, died, but Zhou's widow maintained influence in the party and used it to help promote Li. In 1979 he became deputy minister of the power industry and two years later he became its minister. In 1982 Li joined the Communist Party Central Committee. He was elected to the Politburo and became the Party Secretariat in 1985. In 1988 Chinese President Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) chose Li as prime minister of China, to take the place of Zhao Ziyang, who resigned from the post to become party general secretary. By this time, Li was already known for taking the orthodox communist hard line on most issues, supporting a strong centralized government and economy. He also supported Deng's desire to see the mammoth dam at Sanxia underway.

As Li took his position as premier, student protests had begun to erupt throughout the country. In May 1989, more than a million people gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in a student-led demonstration seeking political reform. China's leaders debated about taking action for three weeks, with the party secretary Zhao Ziyang sympathizing with the students. Li, on the other hand, called for martial law on May 20. When the demonstrators continued, he advocated a military strike to clear Tiananmen Square. President Deng went along with Li. The Chinese army's brutal massacre of demonstrators took place on June 4, with thousands of casualties. Zhao Ziyang was dismissed from his position as party secretary and arrested.

On the heels of Tiananmen, the decision whether or not to move forward on the dam at Sanxia arose again. Public debate on this issue had been banned after the Tiananmen incident, but there was a great deal of disagreement among Communist Party leaders. In spite of strong opposition, Li Peng pushed the decision through. When it finally came to a vote in 1992 in the National People's Congress, one-third either abstained from voting or voted against building the dam.

Li served two five-year terms as premier. In 1998 Zhu Rongji, a reform-oriented leader, replaced him in that position and became responsible for the Three Gorges Dam. Li became the leader of the National People's Congress, the number two position under President Jiang Zemin. Although Li Peng is viewed with distrust by many Chinese people, he remains a powerful leader representing the hard-line communists who oppose the globalization and Westernization taking place under Zhu.

In 1998, flooding once again beset the Yangtze River, and Zhu, either as a political attack on his predecessor or out of real concern about the potential for disaster, publicly raised his concerns about the dam. Zhu fired 100 officials for alleged corruption and called in foreign experts to monitor the dam. Since then, more criticism of the project has arisen in public forums, but the work continues. President Jiang Zemin allows the two factions, the hard-liners under Li and the reformers under Zhu, to play against each other in this as in many other Chinese issues.

Dai Qing: Outspoken Opponent of the Sanxia Dam Project

In 1986 a group of Chinese scientists traveled to the Three Gorges to examine the site for dam construction. After their inspection, all of these scientists opposed the building of the dam. They organized a meeting in Beijing to voice their findings, but the Chinese government told the media not to cover it. By chance, journalist Dai Qing with the Communist Party-operated Guangming Daily was the only reporter there. At that time she knew nothing about the project at Sanxia and had not been assigned to cover the meeting, but the words of the scientists were deeply compelling to her. Later she traveled to Hong Kong and learned much more about the Three Gorges Dam project and from that time she began to receive all articles written about the dam in the Hong Kong papers. As the Chinese government convened to decide whether or not to begin construction on the dam, Dai was greatly concerned that almost no one in China had ever heard about the potential disadvantages of the dam that were well known in other countries.

Dai felt that the public should have all sides before a decision was made on Sanxia. She and several other respected journalists interviewed the opposing scientists and then tried to publish the 22 resulting essays and interviews in Chinese magazines. None would touch the interviews. After much difficulty, the interviews she had compiled were published as the book Yangtze! Yangtze! in March 1989. The book immediately made a very big splash. Even though the press had been instructed not to report on it, more than a dozen Chinese newspapers, including People's Daily, Guangming Daily, and the World Economic Herald, did so. The book, quickly running through several printings, played a large hand in influencing the decision then made by government ministers to delay the project at Sanxia. Despite its huge readership, Yangtze! Yangtze! was banned by the government that same year.

At that time, pro-democracy sentiments were simmering throughout China. Student protests had been going on for several years. In June 1989 came the infamous military assault by the Chinese government on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Dai resigned from the Communist Party and shortly afterward was arrested and spent 10 months in prison. She believes this was because of her book. After Tiananmen Square, the government allowed no public debate on the dam.

After her release from prison in 1990, Dai studied at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the Australian National University. She then returned to China, where she continues to write. A second work on Sanxia, The River Dragon Has Come, was published in 1998. She has been blacklisted by the Chinese government and lives under police surveillance, but has committed herself to a relentless campaign to stop—or at least to reduce the scale of—the ongoing construction of the dam at Sanxia. In her second book she calls the dam "the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world." Although the cause she has taken up is an environmental one, Dai did not start out with that orientation. In an interview with the Environmental News Service, she said: "I always thought of myself as a human rights activist, particularly a free speech activist. Had there been free press, the opinions of the scientists who were opposed to the Three Gorges Dam would have been made public without my involvement."

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The Sanxia (Three Gorges) Project in China: A Crisis in the Making

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