One of the fastest and most dangerous rivers in the world, China’s Yangtze River is perhaps one of the most controversial as well. On this winding river, near an area known as Three Gorges, the world’s largest construction project is underway. Forty thousand people, living along-side the site with their families, work day and night on a dam that will be 1.3 miles long and 610 feet high. A construction that will be viewable from space, the project is being carefully watched by the world. The concept for this dam was first thought up by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1912 and reconsidered in the 1950s by Mao Zedong and again in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping. It wasn’t until 1989 that this project became more than a plan on paper, though. When supporters for a democratic China demonstrated at Tiananmen Square and the world turned its eyes to the violent reaction of soldiers, the country’s leaders decided it was time to reaffirm their power in the eyes of China’s citizens. They chose the Three Gorges project for the very scale of it. A project of such an immense size, something that the world would see on satellite photos, would leave a lasting impression. An impression they felt would demonstrate the strength and power of the Communist Party and quell protests and uprisings among their citizens. On the contrary, however, the proposed building of the dam did not silence their opponents.

During the 1989 demonstrations that pushed the project toward realization, the Three Gorges project already had resistance. The dam project was about clean energy and flood control; something people working in the project today contend is still the primary reasoning behind the structure. Dai Qing, an author and investigative journalist, edited a book of essays entitled, Yangtze! Yangtze! : Debate Over the Three Gorges Project that was published in 1989. For daring to publish these articles, which contested the value of the Communist Party’s plans for the dam, she was imprisoned for ten months at Qincheng prison, six of which she spent in solitary confinement. When she was finally released she turned down offers for political asylum in the United States and Germany, and instead chose to continue her efforts in China despite the danger. Her efforts gave courage to others who have added their voice to the protest of the construction. Despite the controversy that surrounds this project, construction began in 1994 and at this time is nearly completed.

To build the dam they needed to start with a dry surface. They dug a 300-yard channel to divert the flow of water around the main dam site. The channel would allow floodwaters to bypass construction and boats to continue their journey up and down the river. Next they had to block the river’s natural course by building a temporary barrier known as a cofferdam. To do this they dumped ruble in two places then pumped out water to provide a dry bed for construction. These cofferdams are very unstable because they are just piles of rubble; to insure safety they supply the rubble continuously from blasting during construction and create a cement mixture from river mud and bentonite that strengthens the temporary dams.

In 1998 the Yangtze River flooded its banks and nearby lands. The river floods about every ten years regularly, however in the last century flooding had killed over 300,000 people. The August 1998 flood was the worst seen in over 44 years, affecting 300 million people and covering an area the size of New Zealand. China’s leaders had to send in 2 million troops to aid in flood relief and its economy was threatened by the destruction of one tenth of its grain supply. Roughly $30 billion dollars were spent in recovery, causing organizers to take a more serious stance on dam construction. Safety and economic security were of vital importance. If the cofferdams had not held during these floods the damage and loss of life would have been even greater and everything downstream wiped out. Efforts to complete the dam on time were doubled. There is a mixture of support and opposition of the project by the Chinese people. Each side has a strong argument for why the dam should or should not be completed. As of today the dam is in the third phase of construction with water levels already rising in the planned reservoir, so stopping now would seem to be pointless. But is that the case? What are the pros and cons of completion of the Three Gorges Dam?

To begin examining the pros and cons we will first cast aside the political motives behind the construction and deal only with those that seem to benefit the people of China. At the top of this list is the issue of flood control. One of the primary motives behind construction of the dam is to provide safety to those living downriver, who suffer directly from the dangers of floods. Certainly the dam, which costs only $2 billion less than the damage created by the 1998 flood, will stop the surge of water to those living down river. By its very nature the waters that would have rushed downstream will now pool in a reservoir and special releases built into the dam wall will slowly discharge the water downstream at controlled rates. The slow release will allow floodwaters to flow down the river without inundating the communities that live there. So where do the cons of flood control come in?

The opponents to the dam say that although it is true that the dam may stop the flooding downriver it may start flooding upriver, or worse it may fail causing a larger disaster than the original floods would have. Silt that normally flows down the Yangtze River toward the delta will be blocked at the Three Gorges by the dam wall. Engineers say they can compensate for build up that will occur by flushing silt through special valves every now and then. However, with a reservoir of this size it is likely the silt will never make it to the dam releases at all. Silt consists of very fine particles that float in water when there is movement and drop out of water to rest upon the riverbed when the velocity of the river flow slows sufficiently. Since the dam will be so large, it is possible the silt will begin dropping from the flow of water as soon as it enters the reservoir coming to rest at the mouth or center. Eventually this silt will build up and cause flooding upriver. The other possibility is that the dam will break. China has a history when it comes to dam disasters. By the year 1980 China had seen 2,976 dams collapse, including two large-scale dams. A study done in 1985 showed that a quarter of the dams that remained were unsafe and badly in need of repair. When the Banqiao dam failed in 1975 an estimated two million citizens were trapped in trees and on floating wreckage for weeks and over 85,600 died. With so many failures in its past, it’s hard to argue with the concerns over a new dam – the largest dam in the world. The potential loss of life if it were to fail is immeasurable.

Another motive for the creation of the dam is the hydroelectricity provided by use of it as an energy plant. Despite the relative purity of its tributaries, the Yangtze River is very polluted. This pollution is almost entirely due to the use of coal as energy in China. With around 75% of China’s energy being provided through burning coal, and the heart of Industry being centered on the Three Gorges area, the Yangtze has become one of the most polluted waterways in the world. A high level of acid rain created from carbon emissions covers an area the size of Japan. Even the health of China’s citizens is at risk, with the leading cause of death, heart disease, being attributed partially to emissions from steel smelters and rolling mills. With the creation of hydroelectric generators powered by the river itself, with an estimated 18.2 million kilowatts being generated, it’s hoped that the clean energy will be able to reduce the number of deaths related to carbon emissions as well as providing power to a vastly larger region. Certainly providing healthier energy sources to a greater number of people is a very noble benefit of the dam. Is it realistic to believe that with the introduction of the hydroelectric plant the coal burning industries will go out of business? In an interview with Beijing Review the Vice President of the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corporation stated that he didn’t think it would be realistic that thermal power usage would be reduced by the introduction of hydroelectric power from the Three Gorges. “Power demand in China is increasing and there will still be a need for thermal power even as we expand hydroelectric power capacity.” (Tang and Murray, 2003, p 27) The benefits of clean energy are many, but only if China reduces its dependency on coal burning sources.

Other benefits claimed by those in favor of the dam include economic security with the protection of agricultural fields down stream and greater access to China’s interior by ships. The first is obvious, if you control the flooding you can save the grain that the country depends upon; the second, however, requires a little explanation. The flow of the Yangtze River is so strong that as recent as “a century ago human power was needed to drag passenger and cargo boats of very limited tonnage” upriver. If the reservoir is containing a good bit of the waters that normally rage downriver the current will not be as strong allowing boats of larger size to travel as far as the dam on their own. To further aid their trip up the Yangtze a ship elevator and a Locke are being constructed. The ship elevator will take smaller ships on a 42-minute ride in a cement encasement to the higher levels of the reservoir. Since only smaller ships will be able to fit the elevator, larger ships will have to use the five-level Locke next to it. A 10,000-ton freighter fleet will be able to sail into the interior of China for six months of the year, creating more opportunity for market in those regions. Generally speaking the Locke system will be “like moving the Titanic over the Statue of Liberty in three hours.” Shipping will increase and more money will flow into areas like Chongqing, certainly an economic boost. When will the country begin seeing this boost, though? The estimated cost of the entire construction project at Three Gorges is $28 billion, and critics say the costs will wreak havoc on the Chinese economy.

In some cases intermingled, the displacement of millions living along the Yangtze River and the loss of national heritage are at the heart of arguments against the construction of the dam. Some of the villages being forced to move have been in place for more than 2000 years. A few of them have a self-sustainable life ways that do not include technological advantages. Having never been further outside their villages than their fields, these people are now being told to pick up and move to designated cities; for many this will be a culture shock. Where their communities once stood will be a vast reservoir 400 miles long containing over 500 feet of water. Small fishing and agricultural villages are not the only communities being swept away, however. Thirteen modern cities will be flooded and their citizens relocated, as well. These cities may contain more people per area, but those whose lives will change the most are the small villages along the river. In a like-for-like program those being resettled are being compensated in several ways. New towns and cities are being built to house the resettled, so for the property they will leave behind they will be given new property. There is also monetary compensation for items lost or for those who do not wish to move into the provided settlement. For many the new conditions do not meet the standards they require. A village of farmers has returned to the Yangtze region and begun rebuilding their own town at higher levels. Without the aide of construction vehicles they cut the stone from the mountainside and haul it up using ropes and human strength, it is a slow process. Their complaint about their new homes was simply that the land they were given wasn’t nearly as fertile as what they were being forced to leave behind. For a people who have always lived off the land these details are very important.

The great loss of sites of national heritage is the second argument against the reservoir. Archaeological and religious sites are plentiful in the Three Gorges area. Along one mountainside a wooden pathway hanging from the side has been unchanged for hundreds of years, yet soon it will be submerged in the reservoir. A pagoda near Wanxian will be partially flooded, White Crane Ridge and its low water calligraphy carvings dating to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) will be submerged, and Shiboazhai stonehouse temple will be inundated. And these are only to name a very few. Many archaeological sites that have not yet been completely excavated will be forever lost under the water. Ancient structures and towns will not simply be covered by water, but will have to be destroyed to prevent decaying building materials from polluting the reservoir waters. Once submerged these sites of national pride will be forever lost. For a country whose culture is so closely linked with its history it is hard to understand how the loss of so much of their heritage could be so easily accepted.

Other arguments against the construction of the reservoir are more centered on the effects of such a large construction on the environment. Running through the Three Gorges area is a fault line, and it has been suggested that a construction the size of this dam could potentially exert so much weight on the Earth’s crust that it causes an earthquake or possibly a tidal wave. No body really knows for sure what will happen but the possibility alone is alarming. Another result of the construction, one they are already seeing in effect, is the increase in landslides in the Three Gorges area. The construction and dynamite activity has created very unstable areas as well as affecting the fault line. Large amounts of rubble have been dumped not just into the river but on roads and bridges and dangerously close to populated towns. Although landslides had always been an issue, the degree of their size and the frequency of them have increased since construction began on Three Gorges Dam. More arguments could be made for the habitats of animals and the effects on plant life the introduction of so much water will have in the area. From the creation of islands to the destruction of habitat the potential damage of an artificial lake on the Three Gorges ecology is massive. Still another argument is centered on the damage that will incur to the very agricultural lands they want to save, the grain fields. While some of the richest lands in the region will be submerged the rest will slowly become nutrient deficient. When a river floods an area it spreads not only water but nutrient rich silts that are left behind when the water retreats. The flooding process keeps the lands fertile and without it China’s grain fields in the Yangtze region might very well be ruined in the end.

When you see these pros and cons side by side it’s hard to understand why the construction continues. The potential benefits of hydroelectricity and flood control hardly out-weigh the costs to environment, people and heritage. The loss of scenery would be sad, but the loss of human life and cultural pathways is more alarming than the scarcity of photogenic environments. The construction is due to end in 2009, a few four years from now. The dam is already partially filled and many have been forced from homes their families have lived in for more than 12 generations. We can only hope that the dam holds, the earthquake never happens and the people of China give up coal for cleaner energy.

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