Coined by CNN’s Kennedy as “China’s biggest construction project since the Great Wall”, the Three Gorges Dam raises a lot of unanswered questions for generations of Chinese to come. Situated along The Yangtze River – one of the longest rivers in the world which flows 3900 miles from Tibetan plateau to the East China Sea (Chetham 2) – The Three Gorges Dam would be the largest and most powerful dam in the world. “It will stretch two kilometers across the Yangtze River, stand 185 meters high, and create a 600-kilometer lake behind it” (Kennedy). Yet, just as much as the massive construction began in 1994, destruction of large scales has as well been underway. Nineteen cities and more than 300 towns would be sunken, with over one million people needing to relocate and resettle in a new homeland by 2009 (Dai, et al 4-6), in the process destroying the natural scenery and numerous historical monuments that sheltered and nurtured the growth of Chinese in the Yangtze region. Having said that, The Three Gorges Dam is arguably the greatest menace for the people of China in the modern era, owing to three aspects: the environmental consequences it produces, the social unrest that it brings, and the cultural disaster that it necessitates.
Even though the dam would serve to solve the frequent heavy flooding problems which endanger millions of people in China, the environmental risks it puts upon those people raises genuine concerns. In his article Three Gorges Dam – A “Toxic Time Bomb”, Rennie reports that “officials in China are rushing the construction, leaving a time bomb of toxic waste in the Yangtze River”.
What Rennie points to is that, when residents leave their cities and towns for resettlements, the original infrastructures, along with the different wastes and chemicals that are being left behind, have to be cleared and dealt with before water drowns the places. This leaves a massive job for the environmental officials as they face a task of clearing-up which is as widespread as it is dispersed across the Yangtze River Basin. The wastes that will be left behind range from metals such as lead, mercury, and cyanide to other cancer-causing chemicals that have been used in heavy industrial sites along the river (Dai, et al 160-170). Jin, a journalist who shares the same view as Rennie, describes the hazards:
The Three Gorges Dam will exacerbate an already serious pollution problem in the Yangtze River. By severing the mighty river and slowing the flow of its water, the dam will cause pollution from industrial, residential, and township-level sources to concentrate in the river rather than be flushed out to the sea. The result, for 400 million Chinese who live in the Yangtze River Basin, will be a poisoned river. (Dai, et al 170)
That means there will be a risk that waste-water which currently reaches the sea will concentrate behind the dam. The effect of this could be deadly, as Rennie foresees “a cocktail of heavy metals in a reservoir designed to water some of China’s most fertile farmland.” If we consider the fact that the reservoir is also due to provide drinking water for millions, the potential risks would be incalculable (Rennie).
Besides bringing potential hazards to the residents in the region, building the dam will essentially bring an end to an ancient species of dolphin, called baiji or “white dolphin”, which along with pandas, tigers, golden pheasants and river sturgeon, is a “Protected Animal of the First Order” in China (Mraz). Apart from the pollution mentioned above, which exposes dolphins to an increasing level of toxic materials, building the dams would block baiji from entering lakes and tributaries where they once preyed and nurtured their offspring. The Three Gorges Dam will therefore pose “new and unpredictable dangers for any baiji still surviving in the river when it is finally completed” (Mraz). Add to the fact that many dolphins have been killed already by explosions from river dredging and construction works in bridge building, it is only a matter of time before baiji “becomes the first dolphin species in history that humans have driven to extinction” (Mraz).
Just as much as their extinction is irreversible, gone forever will be many of the beautiful landscapes and scenery that mark the Yangtze River Basin. These damages to the natural environment means that, our later generations would be inevitably left with no choice about it at all. To a certain extent, the present Chinese authorities will disadvantage our later generations because there will not be any chance for them to witness and experience the beauty of the natural scenery.
The social impacts that the dam brings to the people in the basin area are another aspect that mulls the construction. The building process, which will inundate more than 300 towns, will see over one million people resettling to new homelands at higher altitudes as assigned by the government. These “reservoir refugees” are the biggest losers in this governmental construction project as a report published by International Rivers Network has shown that the displaced residents are “frequently poor and powerless… generally worse off after the resettlement and often are left economically and emotionally devastated.”
The resettled are provided with little compensations. Many of these residents actually do not know how much they will get or will they even get the money at all as a result of widespread corruption within municipal officials. With most of the resettled residents being farmers who, more often than not, will lose their farmlands, the problem for them is even more worrying. With the most limited of skills, they will need to engage in industrial labor where they will earn next to nothing, at a time when the country is expecting a nationwide increase in unemployment rate (International Rivers Network). The anxieties are imaginable.
For all their economic mishaps however, nothing compares to the agonies and confusions facing these “relocatees”. As the resettlement program begins, each family will move to an assigned new piece of land, often far away from their original homes. In this process, many extended families, lovers, and friends will have to be separated because the resettlement is based essentially on families. Here, we are talking about separation for good. It is hence not difficult to envisage the mixed feelings of these relocatees. Apart from this, they will have to come to terms with the confusion of losing their livelihood – they are not only losing their lands or rights to find a living for themselves, nor just their neighborhoods or social circles – they are losing aspirations, plans, and their future. After the resettlement, all of them will have to rebuild their lives from scratch.
Many people living in the Yangtze region, especially farmers, wanted to voice their dissent over the project, but as the Chinese authorities banned any criticism on the project, their efforts are largely unfound (International Rivers Network). This means the fate of these people are not in their own hands, but rests on some Premier Li Peng who, in 1994, championed and “officially announced the start of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam” (Chetham XX).
The third and probably most destructive effect in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam is the inundation of more than 1,200 historical and archaeological sites, and antiquities in the Three Gorges area (Dai, et al 211-213). These include sites spanning from the Neolithic Periods to the Qing Dynasty, all of which will be inundated under more than 300 feet of water and never be recovered (Chetham 252). Of these 1,200 sites, more than 800 are still underground waiting to be excavated. A letter signed jointly in 1996 by more than 50 academics to bring the matter to the attention of President Jiang Zemin paints the bleak colors of the picture:
As construction on the project has already begun, along with the initial stages of resettlement, some ancient graves and cultural antiquities have already been destroyed by giant earth-moving equipment. […] The destruction of major relic epitomizes the dire situation confronting all cultural antiquities in the proposed reservoir area. We would especially like to note that due to the continued delay in funding the area all efforts at rescuing the cultural antiquities have come to a halt, which will result in even more losses (Qtd. in Dai, et al 215).
The actual and potential losses of these antiquities and sites are huge in terms of modern-day money values, however, what is at stake here is not only large volumes of economy but much more importantly, the cultural and historical heritage of over 4,000 years. It would be a crime for any civilization in any construction project to compromise such a huge volume of its relics, let alone in a country which hosts one of the longest histories in mankind. These losses will surely be remembered, in some if not all sectors, as a major catastrophe in the history of China.
To sum up, for all the good initiatives that the Three Gorges Dam promises, it remains to be seen how the environmental, social and cultural damages in the Yangtze region could be offset – it is highly disputable whether the economic and developmental benefits of the construction outweigh the costs it requires. The Three Gorges Dam is by any means a menace to China’s environment, societies, and cultures. To date, the Great Wall is one of only a few projects in the history of mass construction that has the effects and impacts as profound and lasting to a nation as the Three Gorges Dam. This evokes a skepticism that it is essential for this nation to stride forward, and for its leaders to learn their lessons, on the pains and sufferings of its people.
Chetham, Deidre. Before The Luge – The Vanishing World of the Yangtze’s Three
Gorges. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002: XX, 2, 251-254.
Dai, Qing, et al. The River Dragon Has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of
China’s Yangtze River and Its People. New York: East Gate, 1998. 4-6, 124-131, 160-170, 211-215.
International Rivers Network. “Major Problems Found in Three Gorges Dam
Resettlement Program – An International Rivers Network and Human Rights in China Joint Report.” International Rivers Network. 12 Mar. 1998. 14 May 2003 <http://iso.hrichina.org:8151/old_site/reports/3gorges.html>.
Kennedy, Bruce. “China’s Three Gorges Dam.” CNN Interactive. 1999. May 14, 2003
Mraz, Leslie, et al. “Baiji: The Yangzi River Dolphin.” Conservation in China. 3 Nov.
1999. 12 May. 2003 <http://irn.org/programs/threeg/991103.baiji.html>.
Rennie, David. “Three Gorges dam a ‘toxic time bomb’.” The Daily Telegraph (UK)
9 Mar. 2002. 14 May. 2003