Home Political Science & Law Journal Issue Article


2001/3 (No 102)

  • Pages : 170
  • ISBN : 9782707135438
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.102.0019
  • Publisher : La Découverte

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The construction of the Three Gorges dam in central China has sparked heated debate within the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party as well as among scientists, intellectuals, and journalists, in both China and abroad. Its scale, its ambitious aim of controlling the Yangtze River (the third river in the world based on flow and length), and the human and environmental consequences this will cause at the local and regional level are such that the construction of this dam represents a leap into the unknown for everyone—even for its advocates, despite their claims—like a bridge thrown up blindly between the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.


Many factors justify the construction of the dam. Its three objectives are a response to challenges that have been a cruel reality in recent years. First, the desire to control the flow of the river has arguably been fully justified by the 1998 floods around the middle reaches of the Yangtze. Second, there is a desire to increase the navigation capabilities upstream of the river through a project for a growth area in inland China centered on Chongqing. Third, there is a wish to create a powerful hydroelectric complex because of the increasing needs of economic development and of major Chinese cities in particular. It is also easy to acknowledge the symbolic support that such a project, however authoritarian in its decision-making and pharaonic in its realization, can bring to a communist regime whose economic liberalization reforms since 1978 and their radicalization after 1992 have blurred its ideological image and political legitimacy. In effect, those in power are demonstrating that they are still capable of undertaking major projects and of leading the country in a grandiose Promethean adventure.


Echoing the achievements of Maoist China, observers were too quick to believe what might have disappeared forever; will the dam be the latest of the regime’s great works? Will it in fact be the last? It is true that by its nature, the current project is different from those carried out during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961). Clearly, it is no longer a question of the mass mobilization of people but of a major technological project similar to achievements seen in industrialized countries, and because of its sheer size and exceptionally regional dimension, to those of major countries in the Third World. Is the Three Gorges dam, therefore, a spectacular showcase for an ideologically bankrupt regime, or a more prosaic indication of a developing country? Clearly, Chinese perspectives and ambitions are many and ambiguous, especially as seen at the site of the largest dam in the world.


As the Chinese, whether officials or ordinary people, spontaneously express it, the dam project must be placed in the context of the country’s history and civilization. A tradition of water development projects under the aegis of a strong State is being rediscovered. While current economic changes and greater openness toward other countries represent a gradual break with the roots of Marxist power, the Chinese leaders are in fact renewing the primary vocation of an imperial power that is over 2,000 years old, which is to encourage and arrange for the harmonious development of nature and to protect the link between natural elements and humans for their well-being and prosperity. Hence, Beijing plays the Chinese nationalistic card in order to motivate minds in favor of a project equivalent to the Great Wall, dating back to the very origins of the Empire (the third century BCE) and the only human work that can be seen, according to the Chinese, from the moon, or the Grand Canal (dating back to the seventh century CE), whose purpose was nothing less than to double the maritime presence inland between Hangzhou and Beijing under the Yuan dynasty (thirteenth–fourteenth century).


In this way, the communist regime, like each of the major dynasties of China, makes its mark on the history and territory of the country, a mark that will certainly be more indelible than any of the previous and more ideological achievements, for which it had nonetheless mobilized the Chinese population in very large numbers. Such a step, being taken by the last great communist power in the world, can only raise questions for geographers about its physical and technical justifications, its regional, economic, and human implications, and its cultural and economic consequences. This is why the Three Gorges dam is a major opportunity for an exercise in global geography motivated by fundamentally political reasons.

A Political Project Engendering Strong Opposition, which Paradoxically Fits in with the History of Chinese Water Management Projects

The Political Project


Undoubtedly, the Three Gorges dam will continue to be associated with the name of Li Peng, or at least, that is what he would like to believe. This former hydraulic engineer trained in Moscow in the 1950s is the Prime Minister. Moreover, he represents the hard-line tendency of the conservative wing of the Communist Party, as seen when he defended the dam project, which was officially approved by the fifth session of the 7th National People’s Congress in March–April 1992. Li Peng then oversaw the first concrete pour in December 1994. At the end of a period of ideological rigor between 1989 and 1992 in which the image of the former Prime Minister is strongly connected, this project signals the return of the State and its necessary predominance. In effect, the dam is a political project designed to recall the central power and leadership role reserved for the development of the country and the national mobilization needed for great achievements marked by solidarity such as, on other occasions, the battle against flooding. Whereas Beijing has largely lost this primacy in the economic field in face of rising collectively-owned, private, or Chinese-foreign enterprises, as well as the current renewal taking place in large cities.


However, the dam project was also the object of strong opposition among members of the National People’s Congress as well as the subject of an historic vote in which they publicly expressed political disagreement for the first time. On April 3, 1992, the project was adopted by an absolute majority, with 1,767 votes in favor, but with 664 abstentions and 177 “no” votes, or only 68% in favor. Nonetheless, all the Chinese representatives were convinced of the need to control the Yangtze River and protect populations and land from floods as the only means of fostering the development of the agricultural plains downstream of the Three Gorges. Moreover, the economic growth of the country clearly required an increase in electricity generation and better navigability along the largest river in China. In fact, the protests came from the wealthiest provincial officials. Apparently, their concern was that they might have to bear most of the cost of the project, running to 90 billion yuan, from which they would not make any significant profit. The Shanghai representatives voted en masse against the project as they were not willing to fund a project from which Chongqing and other large cities would benefit at their expense. However, both heads of State and former Shanghai mayors Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji later become fervent supporters.


Opponents of the dam were also guided by the opinions of scientists who emphasized the serious ecological consequences of the construction of the dam, in general, and on the river delta, in particular. Such opinions became part of a wider protest movement against the Three Gorges project, bringing together both Taoist traditions of giving free rein to nature and environmentalists from the West, in particular, from the United States. Dissident intellectuals vigorously denounced the project, the best known being journalist Dai Qing, who campaigned against the dam from the 1980s onward, and, along with the release of her book Yangtze! Yangtze! in the spring of 1989, brought together 40 scientists, economists, and journalists opposed to the project. This resulted in ten months imprisonment—including six months of solitary confinement—imposed after the June 4 crackdown. Finally, protests outside China were numerous, the most critical of which led to the World Bank refusing funding and the Export-Import Bank of the United States refusing to provide US companies with financial guarantees, resulting in the highly significant absence of these companies from the Three Gorges dam construction site, to the benefit of their European competitors.

A Topic of Debate throughout the Twentieth Century


Such a dam project is not new. Rather, it is the fruit of a long political and technical maturation in China. Chinese propaganda likes to justify its large projects—as it did with the Pudong New Area in Shanghai—on the basis of the moral authority of its great men. In addition, it often refers to the fact that in the industrial development plan presented in 1919 to the Chinese National Assembly, a priority objective for Sun Yat-sen was to make better use of the Yangtze River resources and to improve navigation by building a large dam on the river. This occurred again when the father of modern Communist China, Mao Zedong proposed the idea of a single dam at the Three Gorges in 1953. Such statements enabled the gradual development—although not without difficulties—of the project via a series of studies conducted throughout the twentieth century.


Starting in 1932, the Kuomintang government set up a construction committee whose remit was to study the feasibility of a dam in the Three Gorges area and which proposed the construction of a low dam on the site of Gezhouba, west of the city of Yichang, in Hubei Province. The project envisaged a dam 13m in height and producing 300,000 kW. In 1936, the Society for the Protection of Yangtze Water Resources asked an Austrian engineer to study water resources in the Three Gorges area. However, the engineer suggested postponing such an audacious project because of the war that was raging at the time.


In May 1944, the Chinese Government relaunched the project and invited an American expert on large dams, John L. Savage, who was also Chief Engineer at the US Bureau of Reclamation, to conduct a survey lasting several months. Savage suggested a new site 25 km upstream of Yichang, where a structure would raise the water level not by 13 but by 200m and produce almost 11 million kilowatts of electricity. This project was then approved, foreshadowing the current dam and promising both flood control and better navigability on the river. Savage was given the responsibility of training Chinese technicians. In 1946, Chinese authorities and the US Bureau of Reclamation signed a contract commissioning the Americans to design the dam. Over 50 Chinese technicians were sent to the United States to take part in the preparatory studies. Yet plagued once again by civil war and a severe economic crisis, China was forced to abandon the project.


After the Yangtze River basins was devastated by deadly floods in 1949, the all-new People’s Republic very quickly restarted the debate on the need to control the river and its floods in its middle and lower courses. In February 1950, the Yangtze River Water Conservancy Commission, renamed the Yangtze Valley Planning Office in 1956, was created in Wuhan, downstream of the Three Gorges area, under the authority of the Ministry of Water Resources. For five years, hydrological surveys were carried out along the banks of the river in order to establish a database for use with the preliminary studies on the design of the dam.


Following a turnaround in 1952 favoring the construction of a number of dams in the upstream portion of the river and on its three major tributaries, the reports again concluded during the following year that there was a need for a single dam in the Three Gorges area, with that advice being sanctioned by Mao Zedong. The urgency of the project was underlined by the 1954 floods, which caused the deaths of 30,000 people, left 19 million homeless, and devastated 48 million mu of arable land, or 3.2 million hectares (one mu equals 1/15th of a hectare). Studies then resumed, this time with the help of Soviet experts. A dam 235m high and capable of producing 150 billion kilowatts per hour was under consideration in 1956. However, the sheer size of the new project caused waves of protest. The head of the Bureau for Hydroelectricity, Li Rui, published an article in which he advised against the construction of such a reservoir because “the consequences would be worse than the problem itself.” However, in June 1957, opponents of the project, who were members of the Yangtze Valley Planning Office, were labeled “right-wingers” and sidelined.


In 1958, Mao Zedong called for active preparations for the Three Gorges project, and Zhou Enlai underlined the urgency in a Chongqing speech. The new Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power was assigned the responsibility for these preparations. At a meeting held in Chengdu, China’s leaders announced that the study, design, and construction of the dam would take between 15 and 20 years to complete. The start of the work was set for 1962–1963, but on a dam the leaders voluntarily limited to under 200m in height. Meanwhile, 10,000 scientists and engineers were sent to study problems relating to the dam. Over 2,600 reports were written in 1958–1959, and, in May 1959, the Yangtze Valley Planning Office decided that construction would take place at Sandouping, upstream from the city of Yichang. Li Rui was then removed from the ruling echelons, which formally accused him of having supported Marshall Peng Dehuai at the Lushan party plenum in August 1959. Li Rui’s subordinates who had rallied behind his ideas were denounced as enemies of the revolution and quickly forced out.


This was the key moment, which clearly showed the ideological origins of the project in the context of the Great Leap Forward and the triumph of Maoist radicalism within the Chinese Communist Party. However, the scale of the Great Leap; other production-oriented priorities; the risks of war with the Soviet Union confirmed in 1960; and the lack of technological skills in a still more isolated China; forced leaders to once again delay construction. However, the idea was not abandoned, and it occasionally reappeared in 1970, when a severe power shortage disabled central China. This time, authorities limited their ambitions to the construction of the Gezhouba dam, while at the same time, prepared for the real battle over the Three Gorges project. The first phase of construction at Gezhouba was concluded at the end of the 1970s, and Beijing decided to put the Three Gorges project back on the agenda within the framework of the 6th five-year plan (1981–1985).


Although Li Rui, who had been recently rehabilitated, had again presented a series of projects to party leaders in July 1979, proposing to build smaller dams on the tributaries of the Yangtze River. Ministry of Water Resources officially renewed its approval in September of that year of the 1959 decision and confirmed Sandouping as the site for the future Three Gorges dam. Significantly, only the Party Secretary of Sichuan Province, Zhao Ziyang, opposed the plan. The new PRC leader, Deng Xiaoping, then endorsed the project during a visit to Sandouping. However, in March 1980, US experts expressed serious reservations. In addition, Chinese leaders soon came to prefer the Canadian promoters of the Earthscan project, to whom they entrusted the feasibility studies in 1982 and 1983 for a dam with a storage height of only 150m. The Ministry of Finance imitated a financial analysis of the project and in April 1984, the State Council approved the State Planning Commission’s proposal for the construction of a dam 175m high and retaining water up to 150 m. However, the following month, members of the policy advisory committee expressed their disagreement and followed this up in July 1985 with an overtly negative report. A debate on the topic ensued for a year against a background of mounting economic difficulties.


In 1986 Li Peng and the Council of State promised a new feasibility study, which the State Planning Commission and the Academy of Sciences were commissioned to coordinate. The Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power once again assumed responsibility for the project and mandated 14 teams of scientists—half of whom were independent of the Ministry—to examine the different aspects of the project (including geology, hydrology, and seismology) and provide an overall assessment. Two years later, in November 1988, the results surprised no one in that they were supportive of the dam and increased its height still further, up to 180m. Only a dozen experts, from five different teams, refused to add their signatures to the report and so officially revealed the opposition of some Chinese scientists. Despite this, in July 1990, a supervisory committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Zou Jiahua was finally set up, and in August of the following year, it approved the final feasibility report. Following the vote of the 1992 People’s Congress, a Construction Committee was set up in January 1993 under the direct supervision of the State Council and Li Peng, and the project entered its construction phase.

Beyond the Heritage of Water Management


A topic of discussion throughout the twentieth century and falling well short of obtaining unanimous approval during the political vote that finally decided the go ahead, the Three Gorges dam project also fits into a long tradition of management and development of their Chinese waterways, be they farmers, local communities, or government officials. Historically, imperial power was often able to take over smaller projects and give them coherence on a new level by encouraging major projects.


The first dams appeared in China in the eighth century, a period when numerous containment structures were been built across major streams and rivers in the country. The Chinese quickly acquired their own water-management techniques. Examples include the Shaopei dam on the Yellow River (Huanghe), which is mentioned as early as the sixth century, a rockfill dike some 30m high that existed in Gukou (Shanxi Province) in 240, and a wide-gauge canal built in Hangkou in 486. These were usually double-walled masonry structures, filled with earth or bricks. Although they could be related to military objectives, their main purpose was the development of powerful irrigation and drainage system for farmland in a context of sometimes exceptional flows and floods, the improvement of river navigability, and the internal movement of people and goods.


Under the Tang dynasty (seventh–ninth century), structures were built in order to make navigation around the Three Gorges less dangerous. However, the most famous imperial achievement is clearly the Grand Canal, which began with an initial network of canals and navigable rivers under the Sui dynasty (581–618). This waterway, for which the current layout dates from the Yuan dynasty, connected the Yangtze basin to that of the Yellow River, from Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province) to Beijing. Is purpose was essentially economic as it facilitated the movement of goods between North and South, parallel to a coastline that was traditionally suspect for Chinese authorities, and generating considerable State tax revenues.


If the current Three Gorges dam project is in some ways a logical extension of that historical and cultural background, it must also be emphasized that it differs fundamentally due to sheer scale, the extent of its regional implications, and the initial and direct involvement of the State, particularly because of the reliance on external technologies and funding. This is no longer a question of local projects taken over by the Chinese authorities and made into a much larger project but rather of a State project deriving from the proactive ideology that was current at the time of the Great Leap Forward. The dam exceeds even the many—though generally very local—achievements that took place toward the end of the 1950s. Above all, it is a matter of faith in modern technology imported and supported by the West, and in this respect, this jewel of China’s reforms, paradoxically, represents a break with Chinese culture. In fact, it could even be argued that rather than being a great new achievement of Chinese civilization, it is in fact, a symbolic westernization of China in the twentieth century. The technical counterweight of ideological westernization that post-imperial—and in particular communist—China has undergone.

A Project with Multiple Challenges


China’s leaders justify the Three Gorges dam—and the associated risks—on the basis of three main objectives and needs: to regulate the flow of the Yangtze River, increase national power generation, and improve navigability on the river. In addition, the country’s leaders use the dam as one of the best showcases of China’s openness to the outside world, as shown by the request for financing and technology transfers from abroad, particularly from the most developed European countries and Japan.

Three Main Objectives


The third river in the world by length (at 6,300 km), the Yangtze originates at an altitude of more than 5,400m on the Tibetan plateau. It then descends to the Pacific Ocean, crossing China in an easterly direction with an average flow rate of 22,000 m3/s. Its annual flow is approximately 980 billion cubic meters at its mouth. The Yangtze watershed gathers in more than 3,600 tributaries and extends over 1.8 million square kilometers. This includes some very densely populated areas along the middle course of the river and particularly at the delta. In total, the basin represents nearly one-fifth of China’s entire land area, one-third of the country’s entire population, and over 40% of agricultural production. Given the highly fertile land, agriculture, deforestation, and urbanization have profoundly modified the environmental conditions along the river. However, the Yangtze floods have remained the biggest scourge up to now.


During the twentieth century, several floods—in 1931, 1935, 1949, 1954, and 1998—specifically affected the Yangtze valley and devastated vast areas, both rural and urban. In July–August 1998, the floods went through eight peaks, including a maximum of 61,000 m3/s near Sandouping. In the space of 60 days, the river carried 255 billion cubic meters of water, corresponding to the total flow of floods expected only once every 100 years. According to authorities, 3 million mu were affected, 22,900 people suffered from flooding, and 1,562 lost their lives. The worst affected provinces were Jiangxi, Hunan, and Hubei and especially the lake areas in Anzao, Linuan, and Xiguan (Hunan) and Menxi (Hubei). Furthermore, the floods return at a local level every year and constitute a real obstacle to economic development of the regions concerned.


Yet the 1998 floods caused fewer deaths and less damage than those in 1931 and 1954, when 300 dams and 60 dikes respectively were breached. The embankments and the construction of 1,335 reservoirs with a total capacity of 53 million cubic meters carried out by the communist authorities bore fruit, and only one large dam, in Jiujiang (Jiangxi Province) failed in 1998. Yet for the Chinese leadership, the objective remains to reduce the risk of flooding and to permanently protect the land against 100-year flood events thanks to an extensive program designed to control the Yangtze River, based on further strengthening of dams and dikes and the development of large retention areas strategically located downstream, with the Three Gorges dam as the main upstream dam.


The Three Gorges project involves the construction of a reservoir with a capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters and a normal water level of 175 m. Each year, the water level in the reservoir will be lowered to 145 m before June so that it can hold an additional 22.1 billion cubic meters in the rainy season. The volume of water collected between June and October will then be gradually released during the dry season in order to feed the river downstream and drive the turbine generators. If the flow is less than 56,700 m3/s, a level corresponding to five-year flood peaks, the hydraulic facilities downstream will bear the risk of flooding on their own. Chinese experts believe that if the dam had been built in 1998, the peaks would have been negated and the disastrous floods along the middle course avoided as the dam would simply have released the accumulated volume of water over a longer period.


The project is also part of a wider program of agricultural and environmental development that should allow for the irrigation of land downstream during the dry season. In October 1998, the authorities decided on several support measures. These included: putting an end to deforestation in the mountainous areas upstream; encouraging reforestation of the slopes rather than using them for cultivation; stopping the extension of farmland into lake areas; moving the most threatened populations; and developing new holding locations by managing and maintaining the lakes that act as natural reservoirs (Dongting and Poyang); and clearing river beds of vegetation and sediment deposits that hamper water flows.


Additionally, the dam should meet the energy needs of Chinese development. China has an exceptional hydroelectric potential estimated at 676 GW—including 378 GW of usable power—or the theoretical equivalent of 1,920 TWh, nearly half of which is concentrated in the Yangtze basin, most of it upstream from the Three Gorges. Yet the power generated by Chinese hydroelectric infrastructures in 1997 did not exceed 195 TWh, or 17% of total power generation and only 11% of the potential of the Yangtze River development.


With a capacity of 18,200 MW and an average annual yield of 84.7 TWh, the Three Gorges dam is therefore expected to provide a significant proportion of their power to central China and the coastal provinces. Ultimately, power generation at the dam should replace the equivalent annual burning of 50 million tons of coal in thermal power stations. The dam is also part of a construction program for 12 hydroelectric power stations, with a total capacity of 210 GW. As part of completing the Three Gorges project, five hydroelectric dams are planned upstream, with a total capacity of 122.4 GW and an expected production of more than 1,000 TWh per year. By the end of 1998, 20 large hydroelectric plants with a capacity of at least 1,000 MW each were built or under construction. Although the Three Gorges dam is the latest in a series of large hydraulic structures in China, it alone is expected to provide 10% of all Chinese consumption.


The third objective of the Three Gorges project is to improve the navigability of an important waterway for China, connecting Sichuan and Chongqing to the lakes region, Wuhan, then the Yangtze delta, Shanghai, and finally international shipping lanes. With over 7,000 km of navigable waterways, the Yangtze and its tributaries represent 80% of the potentially navigable waterways in inland China. This river artery is dotted with over 300 port installations, and it currently carries over one third of the annual river tonnage in China. However, despite the developments carried out since 1949 on the Yangtze’s navigation channels and ports, the navigation potential of the river still falls short of what is needed for economic development.


Locally, along the 663 kilometers of river that separate Chongqing from Yichang, a section known as Chuanjiang in Chinese, the Yangtze snakes through hills, mountains, and gorges, and water levels can vary by up to 120 m. The Chinese have identified 139 dangerous shoals and rapids as well as 46 sections where two boats cannot pass each other during periods of low water. Insufficient depth and width along several sections of this part of the river are a major hindrance to navigation and present a permanent danger to shipping safety. In addition, at Jingjiang, downstream of the Three Gorges, the course of the Yangtze is irregular and shallow and is hindered by numerous sand banks during periods of low water.


As a result, the current project aims to flood the shoals, increase the depth and width of the channels, and reduce the strength of the currents in order to facilitate river traffic between Shanghai and Chongqing. At project completion, 10,000-ton ships will be able to go up the river to Chongqing, whereas their size is at present limited to a maximum of 3,000 tons, and this for only six to nine months of the year. Moreover, the construction of new ports and the modernization of the fleet on the Yangtze will, according to the authorities, allow for an increase in the capacity of river traffic up to Chuanjiang from 10 to 50 million tons per year and will cut transportation costs by more than a third.


Large tonnage ships will therefore be able to directly connect Shanghai and the central provinces, facilitating the movement of passengers and goods without the need to stop in the ports of Wuhan or Yichang or to arrange transshipment to smaller boats, as at present. Four main transshipment points should therefore disappear along the river: Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, and Chongqing. Thanks to the dam, during periods of low water, river flows will be maintained at between 1,000 and 2,000 m3/s and will therefore guarantee sufficient depth at Jingjiang so that traffic can remain constant. Given that it will reach from the developing coastline into the interior, the Yangtze waterway should strongly favor the territorial redeployment of Chinese dynamism inland and to the west and southwest, areas to which the Center now wants to give priority.

Recourse to Other Countries


What the authorities like to present as the largest construction site in the century must also be one of the major demonstrations of how China is opening to other countries, and even more to the capacity for technical achievement of a China undergoing reform, a China that is not afraid to rely on investment and know-how from outside, but without abandoning its national independence. In this regard, China’s leaders have skillfully managed to manipulate rivalries between western countries and turn opposition to the dam by US financial and ecological organizations to their advantage in what Beijing portrays as a stand-off between two superpowers of the future, demonstrating renewed Chinese power.


The planned duration of the Three Gorges project is 17 years, from 1993 to 2009. On the basis of prices set in May 1993, the total cost of this project was initially estimated at 90 billion yuan, 50 billion of which for construction alone. The other 40 billion yuan will go toward relocating the populations living in the reservoir area. However, taking into account accrued interest during construction and inflation, the total investment could be as much as 204 billion yuan. In 1998, over one third of the annual investment was already allocated to loan repayments or resulted from inflation. By comparison, China’s GDP was estimated at 7,695 billion yuan in 1997 and, even though the flagship project of the Three Gorges only makes up part of the State budget allocated to Chinese investments in construction and the upgrading of infrastructure—or US $750 billion between 1997 and 2000—financing such a costly project has become a significant challenge for Chinese leaders.


Several solutions were, therefore, put in place in order to mobilize the necessary capital. The State introduced a special tax on electricity, ranging from 0.004 to 0.009 yuan per kWh and in place since 1992 on all sales of electricity in the mainland—with exemptions granted to the populations displaced by the Three Gorges project—and in Hong Kong and Macau following their handover. Revenues from the Gezhouba dam will also be used and will be added to by revenues from power generation from the first turbines at the Three Gorges dam when these are up and running. In total, electricity tax revenues and revenues from Gezhouba should reach 100 billion yuan over the 17 years of construction, or half of the final expected expenditure. The problem of loan repayments and interest for the project was, thus, partly resolved. Leaders now hope that when it is completed, production from the dam itself will generate annual profits of between 8 and 10 billion yuan, which would allow debts to be fully repaid by 2014–2015.


Many loans were simultaneously taken out. The China Development Bank promised annual credit lines of 3 billion yuan between 1990 and 2003. Many Chinese banks, which are often subsidiaries or partners of major national banks, have also been brought on board. The domestic banking system is, therefore, financing two thirds of the Three Gorges project, to the tune of over 140 billion yuan. An appeal to foreign banks also yielded results, with contributors including Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP), Société Générale, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), Dresdner Bank of Germany, and the Export Development Corporation of Canada. These five institutions, together, provided a total of US $1.1 billion. In 1995, the Bank of China put in place credit specifically intended for the project funded from the country’s growing international trade revenue.


National and international loans were also issued by China. In 1997, public borrowing in the form of warrants amounted to 1 billion yuan and was followed in 1999 by a second national loan of 2 billion yuan. These warrants issues were highly successful, particularly in large cities such as Shanghai. However, according to Beijing, foreign borrowing was widely underwritten by overseas Chinese, mainly from the United States and Taiwan. Finally, credits or commercial loans were contracted with several partners in developed countries, with Japan at the forefront.


Funding for the project is envisaged in three phases. Initially from 1993 to 2005, the funds raised must be sufficient for direct financing, and economists believe that it will be possible to achieve a balance between expenditure and revenue without incurring new debts in 2006. The second period (2006–2012) will be a phase of debt repayment. Finally, from 2012, the project should move into a profitability phase.


The Chinese authorities had to turn to foreign companies in order to obtain the technological expertise necessary for the implementation of the project. Moreover, the sheer size of the dam and the considerable economic issues linked to it allowed them to act as arbiters over calls for tenders. They were therefore able to set out four conditions foreign companies had to meet in order to win a contract and participate in this technological “El Dorado.”


For the Chinese leaders, the technologies and quality provided must be the best available in the market. As a showcase for Chinese renewal, the Three Gorges dam project must meet all the criteria of modernity and reliability. In addition, the objective is also to avoid substandard workmanship and the use of the inferior quality materials that have often been used in Chinese construction. For example, the infamous disaster of August 1975, when a dozen dams, using concrete rendered porous and flaky by an excess of silica, gave way under the force of a typhoon in Zhudamian prefecture, Henan Province. A breach of large dams at Banqiao and Shimantan resulted, with 17 million mu of arable land devastated and 85,600 deaths.


The second condition imposed upon future contractors related to prices, which must be the lowest in the market but of the highest quality in terms of services provided.


Technology transfer is also at the heart of the project. As is common practice in developing countries, the third condition imposed by the Chinese leaders is that foreign firm must agree to transfer part of its know-how to the Chinese partner. Production of hydroelectric equipment for the Three Gorges dam was, therefore, entrusted to two large European consortia headed by Germany’s Siemens and the Franco-British GEC-Alsthom consortium, with orders for 14 and 12 turbine generators respectively. However, these two groups are committed to selling not only the turbines but also the patents that go with them. The intention is for Chinese companies to assimilate the western principles of design and manufacturing and then gradually assume greater proportion of equipment production, the aim being that the final turbines equipping the dam will be entirely Chinese.


The fourth and final condition is financial. Contracting foreign contractor companies must guarantee the provision of long-term loans by financial institutions of their country of origin, even if the export of credit, commercial loans, and those made to international organizations are officially optional. Such a requirement therefore allows official recognition by the countries of the project partners. Once the financial institutions of the funding countries—and therefore the governments of the countries themselves—are involved, the project de facto acquires a further level of legitimacy on the international stage.


With its estimated budget of 90 billion yuan, the Three Gorges project has clearly been a highly coveted opportunity for foreign companies both in terms of the construction site itself but also the wider possibility of gaining a presence in mainland China. The market for 26 generators was unique in the world because of its size, and when it was launched in June 1996, it was the largest call to tender for the project. In 1997, the French company Potain, the German companies Krubb and Libehere, and the US company Rotec won the second round of calls to tender for construction equipment (cranes, various types of machinery, etc.). Several Japanese firms offered financial leases for the equipment, the provision of replacement components and of (mainly electrical) facilities, maintenance services, warehouses, wheel-mounted cranes, four-wheel drive construction equipment, and metal structures. Other foreign companies were also involved. These include the French company EDF, MBT and Sultzer of Switzerland, commercial and industrial companies from Australia, Poland, and Norway, the British West Merchants Bank, US legal consulting firms JP Morgan and American Brown Wood Lawyer Office, Nomura Securities of Japan, and finally the Italian engineering company Impregilo SPA for consultancy services.


In total, to all the countries known as “the North” listed above, must be added Russia, Brazil, the People’s Republic of Korea, Cameroon, and Kuwait, have joined the project. Only the United States was slow to take a favorable position. Several delegations from large US companies (such as Rotec, Caterpillar, etc.) traveled to Sandouping in October 1993 and were followed by President Bill Clinton, who visited China from June 26 to July 3, 1998 concluding with an “official” invitation for US companies to take part. However, by then, most contracts had already been signed and the US remains notable assent from the Three Gorges project. As a result, US public opinion and the anti-dam environmentalist views opposed the Chinese construction site all the more.

A Project on Multiple Levels


Clearly, a project on the scale of the Three Gorges dam has spatial impacts at multiple levels. If the reservoir behind the dam is the reason for radical change in land use for the immediate Chuanjiang area, resulting in a significant displacement of the population and a geographical relocation accompanied by economic support for the development, then the regulation of the river’s flow will also allow for a regional reorganization from Chongqing, as far downstream as Yichang. This will permit the integration of areas upstream with coastal China and especially a dynamism for the Yangtze delta and Shanghai. The challenge of the project is, therefore, no longer only concerned with water or power. Rather, it should be considered part of a wider plan for the territorial, economic, and political integration of inland provinces—from Sichuan to Hubei, Hunan, Anhui, and Jiangxi—in a China ever more weakened by growing regional disparities.

The Largest Dam in the World


The Chinese authorities and Chinese people take pleasure in pointing out the fact that the Three Gorges is the largest hydroelectric project in the world, taking into account the work undertaken and the benefits that should result from it. Even if it is not, in fact, the largest dam in the world by height or reservoir capacity, its hydroelectric capacity will be much higher than that of the Itaipu Dam, built by Brazil and Paraguay (12,600 MW). In addition, the quantity of earth and rock excavated is estimated at 103 million cubic meters, and the volume of earth and rock used for the embankments is estimated at 32 million cubic meters. The construction of the structure will need no less than 28 million cubic meters of concrete and 256,500 tons of metal framing.


The Three Gorges dam is a gravity-type dam. It withstand pressure the pressure of water thanks to its own weight and its triangular profile. The proportion of water used in the preparation of the concrete is limited to 50% for the external formwork, 55% for the foundations, and 60% for the internal section. The concrete has a low alkaline content, the maximum being 2.5 kg/m3. Finally, ash is added to the concrete to prevent water and air pockets. With a total length of 2,309.47 m, the dam will rise to a height of 185m, or some 5m above the maximum level of the reservoir. The project consists of several elements: the dam, two sets of generators, and equipment for navigation.


The spillway is located at the center of the structure, in the middle of the channel and at the level of the original Yangtze riverbed. It extends over 483 m in length. In its lower section, at a height of 90 m, 23 openings have been made (7 x 9 m), and in its upper section, at a height of 158 m, it includes 22 valves 8 m wide, allowing for the discharge of excess water. Along the section downstream from the spillway, openings have been carved in the shape of steps in order to curb the energy of the ejected water. The dam can discharge the volume of water held (with a maximum level of 180.4 m) at a rate of 102,500 m3/s to fully purge the reservoir in less than a week and bring down the water level to the river level in periods of low water. On either side of the spillway are two watertight barriers, behind which are installed the hydroelectric power stations. The left power stations will extend over 643.7 m in length, with 14 turbine generators, and the right power station over 584.2 m, with 12 turbine generators. Each of the turbines installed will develop an electrical output of 700 MW, or a total equivalent to 20 nuclear power plants. The dam will be able to provide the city of Chongqing with direct current power thanks to 15 very high voltage lines (500,000 V), and eastern China with alternating current.


Infrastructures for navigation will be located on the left side of the dam and allow for a relatively fast crossing, or two and a half hours for the locks and only forty minutes for the ship lift. To allow vessels to easily cross the expanse of water between the reservoir (between 135 and 175 m) and the river downstream of the dam (between 62 and 74 m), a system of two-way locks spread over five levels will be built. Each chamber will measure 208 m in length and 34 m in width, with a minimum depth of 5 m and with the capacity to accommodate 10,000-ton ships. This system, which will be more than 1.5 km long, will thus bypass the Yangtze River by carrying traffic on the convex bank, in the meander formed by the river at this location. To achieve this, a long corridor was dug into the granite. In addition, a ship lift was designed between the dam proper and the locks. This consists of a watertight compartment measuring 120 x 18 x 3.5 m and capable of loading 3,000-ton passenger or cargo ships. This will be the largest, heaviest, and most powerful ship lift in China and indeed the world, measuring 113m in height and weighing 11,800 tons.


To carry out this work, the schedule for the Three Gorges project was divided into three phases. The preparation period, which covered the requisition of the Sandouping site, river infrastructures and land required for construction, accommodation for the 35,000 people working on the dam, and the first phase of construction (construction of a cofferdam, diversion of part of the river, setting up a system of temporary locks, digging the five tiers for the final locks, and construction of the foundations for the first six turbine generators on the left side of the structure) lasted five years (1993–1997). The main course of the Yangtze was closed in 1997, and the first turbine generators should come into service in 2003.


The second phase is planned over a six-year period (1998–2003) and it consists of: the construction of the second series of cofferdams and the spillway; the completion of the left side of the dam; the installation of the first turbine generators; and the continuation of the construction of the locks and the ship lift. Before the period of high water in 2003, the course of the river will be restricted on more than half of its width, the water level will reach 135 m, and the locks will be ready to operate. Once the high water period is over, the turbine generator on the left side of the dam will come into service.


The third phase is also expected to take six years (2004–2009) and include the completion of the different sections of the work begun during previous phases, the construction of the right side of the dam, and the installation of the last turbines.


Although the mobilization of Chinese workers on the construction site occurs day and night, seven days a week, and is celebrated by official media, the project is not progressing without difficulty. Checks carried out in more than 70 locations on the site revealed problems with the quality of the work, including a dozen cracks at the level of the dam’s spillways. One of these cracks was 5.1 cm wide and more than 21 cm long as a result of sand content in the concrete being 15% above the normal standard. Neither does the quality of the steel reinforcing rods embedded in the concrete meet all the resistance criteria. In particular, 1,900 tons of steel out of approximately 8,000 tons were not of the required standard in 1998–1999 and were discarded. Moreover, the depth of the foundations did not meet the standards laid down in the plans for the dam, reaching only 40.5 m compared to the 42 m originally envisaged. Clearly, no large construction site in the world is without some defects or shortcomings when compared with the initial plans. In this case, however, the production defects coupled with the frantic construction pace have been accompanied by a disregard for safety rules, with 275 work accidents and 19 deaths recorded at the site in 1998.


These problems are related to the corruption of officials. The State Council sent 2,130 inspectors specialized in the various technical areas involved (water management, steel, electricity, etc.) to monitor the quality of the services supplied and materials used. In March 1999, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji denounced the “crimes committed against the State and the people” by officials overseeing the dam project. Twenty officials from seven government agencies were dismissed from their posts the following June and then prosecuted for embezzlement, quality-related scams, and misappropriation of funds.

Local Impact: The Three Gorges Dam as a Development Tool


At a local level, the construction of the dam will lead to the almost complete rearrangement of the narrow areas where people live and move, framed by steep land formations and connecting large areas of settlement. The Three Gorges consist of a passage formed by the Yangtze river, 193 km long, located between the plateaus overlooking the Sichuan basin (300,000 km3) to the west and the fertile plain of Jianghan to the East, following a 120 m drop in elevation that cuts into the thick anticline of the Wushan Mountains. The names of the three gorges in question are, from west to east: Qutang, Wu, and Xiling. At the Qutang Gorge, which is 33 km long, the Yangtze flows for 8 km through a canyon 100 to 150m wide between 700m-high cliffs. The second gorge, the Wu, is the most impressive, 44 km long, in some places less than 100 m wide and surrounded by 500 m- to 800 m-high cliffs. Here, the gorge is adorned by twelve peaks that, according to legend, represent a Princess surrounded by her eleven sisters, all of them full of compassion for sailors crossing these very dangerous waters. Finally, the Xiling Gorge, which is wider than the previous two, stretches 75 km through the cliffs. All along this stretch of river, the traveler will experience a beautiful landscape of rocky peaks, cliffs, sandbanks, and shoals as well as the meanderings of the river, mist, trees, and their reflections in the water.


More broadly, the Chuanjiang region, which today takes two to three days to travel through, or twenty hours in a special shuttle, lies administratively astride two entities with provincial rank: Chongqing municipality, and Hubei province. With 14.4 million residents according to the 1990 census, it hosts only sporadic small-scale industries located mostly near towns and cities along the river. The population of the Three Gorges region is quite poor, especially in the more remote valleys, where a farmer might earn between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan a year. Poverty is also evident in a pocket between Chongqing, with an average per capita GDP of 4,800 yuan per year in 1999, and Hubei, where the figure is 6,500 yuan. Moreover, wealth is not evenly distributed within the region. Being better connected to the transport networks and better integrated into the economy of their province, the districts of Hubei are more affluent than those of Chongqing. They specialize in growing vegetables and citrus fruit, and supply the major provincial markets of Yichang, Enshi, Jingsha, and especially Wuhan, the provincial capital. By contrast, the districts of Chongqing, including the more easterly ones, live in virtual self-sufficiency because of the topography of the gorges and the remoteness of the valleys. The city of Wanxian, with over 300,000 residents, and the principal towns of the regional administrative centers are the only ones that may be able to absorb a portion of the local production, although, there again, the remotest valleys are a day’s walking distance.


The construction of the dam, with the associated rise in the level of water in its reservoir, directly threatens part of these inhabited areas. The lake is expected to submerge 632 km2 of land. Some 20 cities and districts will be affected, including Yichang, Zigui, Xingshan, and Badong (Hubei Province). However, the eastern part of the new municipality of Chongqing will be by far the most affected, including Wushan, Wuxi, Fengjie, Yunyang, Wanxian, Kaixian, Zhongxian, Shizu, Fengdu, Wulong, Fuling, Changshou, Banxian, and Jiangbei. Studies conducted in 1992 officially predicted the displacement of 846,200 people, including 484,700 from urban areas. The total area of buildings to be flooded was estimated at 35 million m2, including 7.5 million m2 of industrial units. In a region where arable land is limited, 257,400 mu of arable land, half of which are rice paddies, 110,200 mu of vegetable farming land, 49,100 mu of forested land, and 4,700 mu of fish farms were to be inundated. The areas likely to suffer the most are the Wanxian municipality and Zigui district, which will lose between 5% and 7% of their total land area. In particular, the land to be flooded consists of areas with concentrated populations and activities connected to the river. Zigui, which is located just upstream of the Three Gorges dam, is likely to see 16% of its population displaced. Compounding these perspectives, statistical revisions now estimate the figure for the number of residents who will have to move not at 846,200 but at 1.2 to 1.4 million. By the end of 1999, 160,000 people had already been transferred, and it was expected that from 2001 to 2009, 60,000 additional people would be displaced each year, with these figures likely to be revised upward.


Chinese leaders and project managers decided to proceed with the transfer of inhabitants of the Three Gorges region using the principle of “controlled development.” Instead of focusing only on simple financial compensation, the State Council agency for the displacement of populations also intends to encourage local production through the introduction of new agricultural and industrial techniques. The intention is to integrate populations into economic development and the construction and exploitation of the reservoir (including minerals, such as phosphorus, natural gas, iron, coal, lime, but also water and salt), while ensuring a significant improvement in their environmental living conditions, with living space being increased by an average of 5 to 6 m2 per person, equipment, access to healthcare (clinics) and education (schools). The tourism and commercial agriculture sectors (including modern fruit farms, particularly citrus fruit, fish farms, and tea plantations) are expected to experience a boom.


Many pilot projects have therefore been launched in the agricultural sector, such as the Xiaoxita fisheries village (Yichang district), the new terraced farms at Shuitianba (Zigui district), and the Leijiaping lemon park (Badong district). Lastly, industrial programs have been established in the cities of Wanxian and Fuling, while an urban development plan is in place in Wuxi. However, efforts must be made to correct shortcomings in health facilities, water supply, and waste collection in the cities. Meanwhile, floods and landslides remain a permanent threat to these cities, wedged as they are between river and mountains.


The State Council agency for the displacement of populations, therefore, selected new sites where the residents will be relocated. The original sites of the cities will be maintained, and neighborhoods that will be swallowed up will simply be raised and rebuilt above the water level. Wuxi, Xiling, and Fuling have thus been partially rebuilt between 350–400 m above their current location. Four cities (Zigui, Xingshan, Yunyang, and Fengdu) will be entirely relocated on new sites where the geological base is more stable, close to their former locations, either upstream or downstream, or even on the opposite bank. For example, Yunyang was moved from the old landslide on which it was built and resettled 32 km upstream, within the municipality of Shuangjiang, with which it now forms a single urban entity. Furthermore, the old outdated and distorted communication network—where it exists—will be replaced by a modern and hierarchical road network. While the reservoir is likely to swallow up 1,000 km of roads, the cumulative length of the future network will reach between 2,000 and 2,500 km, with roads being wider and built to last, and to which will be added new port infrastructures for riverside towns and cities.


Meanwhile, rural people represent over 40% of the displaced. While for most of the villages, relocating comes down purely to the reconstruction of houses above the future water level, for a number of small villages and hamlets, local populations are being directly integrated into new neighborhoods in district capitals, particularly within Chongqing municipality. This forced exodus should lead to around 40% of the rural population being displaced moving to the secondary and tertiary sectors. A third option involves the allocation to displaced farmers and rural dwellers of land to be cleared in other Chinese provinces. For example, the provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, and Hunan are accepting rural dwellers who find themselves relocated more than 800 km from their native valleys and gorges. However, this method is by far the most contentious, and affects 8% of displaced rural people.


Whatever the arguments, tens of thousands of families have been forced to leave their homes, where they had often been living for many generations. Yet the construction of the dam and the facilities it provides also offer an opportunity to have access to a degree of modernity. Owning a new home with electricity, running water, and sanitation is now a reality within reach of those who previously lived at the foot of the mountain, in a single and unhealthy room in a wooden farmhouse with a dirt floor. For example, at Yinguotou, 40 km upstream of the dam, new homes consist of two levels. With their traditional roofs, perfect alignment, walls lined with white tiles, and red doors, they offer a stark contrast with the unsteady, gray, dirty old shacks of the former village. Understanding the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in the Three Gorges region also means taking into account this access to progress and modernity for a number of these families. It is not surprising, therefore, that in an official survey, 86% of displaced persons expressed positive views about the dam.


Finally, to avoid the breakup of families and social circles, villages relocated into cities are often relocated in the same neighborhood. When several towns or villages are grouped together to form a single urban unit, the original residents from the same location are relocated by neighborhood, and sometimes by building. Furthermore, leaders have had recourse to geomancers to locate lucky sites suitable for building houses and correctly orienting graves, thereby respecting the beliefs and superstitions of people from the most remote places.


A system of financial compensation has also been set up to compensate people and allow them to relocate more easily. However, there is no fixed rate of compensation, and authorities are bringing various elements into their calculations, including a number of people living in the family, type of dwelling, activity pursued, and extent of land cultivated. Tax and banking benefits are available. As part of the relocation process, banks offer loans at favorable rates, and the value of new houses are set lower than their true level.


Nonetheless, a great deal of discontent remains among the displaced populations. Farmers, who in practice, own more land than is recorded in the land registry, do not see all of their income being taken into account for compensation purposes. Of course, banned crops (such as cannabis and poppy), destined for underground markets of Chongqing and representing a significant source of income, are not considered. In the 1990s, some rice paddies were converted and new sections cleared in order to increase the production of oranges. However, orange trees need eight to ten years to reach maturity and produce fruit of optimum size. It was around this time that the Chinese authorities advised farmers that they would have to leave their land, and they refused to include in the compensation formula, either the period of loss of earnings caused by a relocation of the orchards or the question of topographical and soil conditions in the new sites, which are steeper and less fertile than the old ones since they are not as close to the river. Finally, inequitable treatment and discrepancies in compensation cause serious tensions within populations.


The State, acting through the State Council Agency for the Displacement of Populations, mandated the redistribution of the 40 billion yuan originally envisaged for the project to local agencies and local officials, with the intention of implementing a proximity policy. However, such a policy leaves the door open to embezzlement of funds as some local leaders do not hesitate to take advantage of the situation to the detriment of the wider interest. For example, according to an official investigation conducted in 1997, between 250 and 300 million yuan initially intended for the relocation of populations disappeared. Where the central authorities have authorized local officials to triple the area of the villages to be rebuilt, the area of some villages has been increased by a factor of seven. The mismanagement of loans regularly exceeds the budget originally envisaged. Priority is not always given to the necessary equipment, and it is not uncommon to see four-star hotels with luxury facilities (swimming pool, tennis, bowling alleys, etc.) having been financed using funds intended for the relocation of populations. In fact, the excessive autonomy given to local authorities and the less than rigorous controls put in place have sometimes resulted in critical situations, where important matters have been botched and superfluous aims have benefited. Many communities are then left without credit to finance all their reconstruction and are still waiting for hypothetical additional budgetary allocations.


Fengdu is a sad example of this. As the site of the city was condemned to disappear beneath the waters, its leaders started building a new city a few kilometers from the original location, starting in 1992. Unfortunately, the work had to be stopped when only half had been completed as the architects realized that the preliminary studies for the choice of the new site were erroneous and that the geological structure would not support the weight of the future city. The city where, according to Chinese popular tradition, the entrance to Hell is located has now become a genuine ghost town. Overnight, the new city was deserted, and the site remains dotted with new buildings that will never be used. Although a new site has since been found for the reconstruction of Fengdu, there have been delays in starting the work because of a lack of additional funds, which the managers of the Three Gorges project are reluctant to disburse, making it difficult to complete the new city by 2009, when the water level in the reservoir will begin to rise.


Finally, some villages sometimes ask for additional funding in order to complete their reconstruction work. However, once on-site, investigators realize that only the local elite have new homes consisting of brand new and comfortably equipped buildings, with all of the available funds having been spent. Meanwhile, the other residents must wait for new loans before they can hope to move to higher ground, safe from the future flooding. For now, they have to remain in villages that are quickly deteriorating because, since 1992, buildings and roads condemned to disappear are no longer maintained.

Closer Integration of Yichang and Chongqing into an Urban Corridor Dominated by Shanghai


By contrast, some cities along the Yangtze will see real economic and financial benefits from the construction of the Three Gorges dam. Of the relocated cities and towns likely to gain in modernity and comfort, two major urban centers at either end of the reservoir should, in fact, be able to make the most of the situation, namely Yichang and Chongqing. These cities, which are connected to Wuhan and in particular to Shanghai, will be part of an improved economic, urban, and river arterial network, though not without having a regional hierarchy imposed on them, most likely to the benefit of the metropolis to the east.


Yichang is a city of 400,000 people, out of a total of 4 million people in the entire municipality, which has very quickly benefited from the advantages of its location at the mouth of the Three Gorges. As a cargo transfer point and the last port where ships traveling up the river to Chongqing and Sichuan could refuel, Yichang became a checkpoint for river traffic and the opium trade conducted by Europeans in the nineteenth century. In the 1970s, it experienced a second economic and industrial boom, when the Gezhouba dam was built. Numerous industries became established around the hydroelectric dam (including phosphorus, construction, and textiles). The port of Yichang, downstream from the dam and protected from minor floods from the Yangtze River, was also extended. Lastly the opening of China allowed Yichang to play a special role in welcoming foreign tourists as well as an increasing number of Chinese visitors. Although the city has no particular touristic interest in itself, it is essential as the point of disembarkation and embarkation before crossing the gorges. There is now a modern hotel infrastructure in the city center, which provides many jobs for the local population.


Even if they declined to have the management of the Three Gorges project based in Yichang, which was then located at a site 40 km upstream, the city authorities seem convinced that they are holding the keys to a promising economic boom, and in the mid-1990s, they started an extensive program of modernization and construction in order to accommodate the companies attracted by the dynamics of the dam project. As Yichang is wedged between the river and the mountain, the new development zone of Dongshan is under construction behind the mountain. It can be accessed by a tunnel from the city center, and a highway connects it directly to Wuhan. In addition to housing for the relocated populations, this zone includes many industrial sites, and the necessary accompanying infrastructure (hotels, offices, etc.) is currently being developed. Moreover, Yichang is connected by a second highway to Sandouping, served by a railroad, and the Three Gorges highway is located 30 minutes from the city center.


The aim of the Yichang authorities is to make their city a new economic hub in central China, located just two hours by air from the major coastal cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong), four hours by road from Wuhan (or 25 minutes by air), and half a day by river from Chongqing. The city will also offer a new industrial zone in Hubei, specializing in chemistry, pharmaceuticals, food, paper, and textiles. However, to date, very few companies have set up in Dongshan, and apart from a few businesses in the research and the pharmaceutical sectors, it is more a question of pre-existing local businesses having found conditions here that are more favorable for their development. However, it is true that the dam will only be completed in 2009.


Upstream from the reservoir, Chongqing is the largest city in the Three Gorges region. To compensate for the forthcoming loss of part of its territory soon to be submerged by the waters and other consequences of the dam project, and to ensure a local agreement to which Sichuan Province refused, the central government elevated the city and surrounding districts of Chongqing in 1996 to the status of provincial municipality, like Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. However, this new municipality is much larger than its counterparts, covering an area of 82,000 km2 taken from Sichuan and with no fewer than 31 million inhabitants. Officially the city proper has 8 million inhabitants, spread over the hilly central strip of land formed by the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jialing and the northerly and southerly shores flanking it.


The capital of China during the second Sino-Japanese war, Chongqing took advantage of the downturn in Wuhan’s steel mills in 1939. It was then at the heart of e Maoist policy of industrialization of inland areas corresponding to the “third line of defense,” and its steel plants today produce track and other railroad equipment. The city also manufactures boats, motorbikes in partnership with the Japanese company Yamaha, synthetic rubber tires, chemical products, plastic materials, and artificial textiles. The construction of the dam, improvements to navigation on the Yangtze River, and the benefits provided by the central government on the model of the coastal special economic zones should enable Chongqing to diversify its economic functions and to assert itself as one of the major development centers in inland China, even if it can never compete with the “Head of the Dragon,” to use the graphic phrase favored by official propaganda, that is, Shanghai. To make up for this limitation, the Chongqing authorities like to say that for the dragon to move its head, it will henceforth have to wag its tail.


From a technical point of view, after 2009, the city of Chongqing is not expected to experience any flooding of its infrastructure. The water level should rise by only 3m, and only part of the river port had to be raised and consolidated. The official response to the danger of a possible future silting of the harbor areas and navigation channels is that in periods of low water, the port will be dredged, while 13 reservoirs upstream, with a total capacity of 46 billion m3 are to be built by 2020, which will retain most of the sediment carried by the river.


Shanghai, meanwhile, will benefit from the electricity supply produced by the Three Gorges dam. The metropolis also hopes to establish its primacy in mainland China through the growth of the cities located upstream on the Yangtze. Since the mid-1990s, banks and businesses in Shanghai have directed substantial investment programs toward those cities. The reconstruction of the towns and cities in the Three Gorges area has been good news for Shanghai investors, especially in the building and equipment sectors. To expand into new markets, Shanghai companies have also tended to relocate part of their production to Chongqing, where wages are lower and set-up incentives are now higher than on the coast.

Projects Already in Place: Water Supplies for Northern China from the Yangtze River


The construction of the Three Gorges dam is on a relatively small scale when seen as part of the larger picture. It is part of a larger project, long concealed but now officially declared, namely to divert part of the Yangtze River to the provinces of northern China. These provinces suffer from an uneven distribution of rainfall during the year and a high rate of annual variation. High summer temperatures and the high rate of evaporation they cause mean that rainfall is insufficient and, with the exception of the Yellow River, surface runoff is rare. As a result, northern China is frequently faced with droughts. Spring droughts, occurring right in the middle of the growing season, are also very common. Yet, despite the exploitation of groundwater that has been strongly encouraged since 1949 to promote and modernize irrigation, water supplies remain inadequate even as the needs of large cities (including Beijing, Tianjin, and Xi’an) are growing. The authorities have therefore decided to draw on the water reserves of the Yangtze to remedy this water shortage in key regions of mainland China.


The project dates back to the 1970s, and three solutions, each following a different route, were envisaged. The Western Route involves diverting some of the headwaters of the Yangtze River into the headwaters of the Yellow River on the borders of Qinghai Province and Sichuan Province. However, the topography of these regions makes the project difficult. The Eastern Route aims to divert at least 600 m3/s from the Yangtze River to Tianjin and Beijing, using the route followed by the Grand Canal over 1,200 km. Meanwhile, the Central Route aims to draw 1,300 m3/s from the middle course of the Yangtze and divert it along canals to the Yellow River. However, having met with general disapproval from western experts, the project disappeared from the official agenda in the early 1980s and made way for discussions of the Three Gorges project.


Today the Middle Route project is back on the agenda, and the authorities want to take advantage of the management of the Yangtze River resulting from the Three Gorges dam and of an area rich in natural channels and where the Yangtze and the Yellow River flow close together. The Danjiangkou reservoir, with a surface area of 33 km3, would provide an adequate linkage area with the Yellow River and Beijing. It is a central element in flood control, irrigation, and electricity generation on the Han River. Completed in 1973 and with a height of 175 m, it has an installed capacity of 900 MW. With a water catchment area of 95,000 km2, Chinese experts estimate that with a height of 170m, the Danjiangkou reservoir offers the possibility of diverting over 1,000 m3/s to the northern plains.


Thus, the two projects are linked, and the Chinese authorities are proceeding step by step toward the completion of a program the scale of which exceeds even that of the construction of the largest dam in the world. In 1992, the opposition of the Shanghai authorities to the Three Gorges dam was highlighted once again, especially since they were also against a project that will deprive the Yangtze basin of some of its water to the benefit of remote provinces and that could eventually affect the natural balance of the Yangtze delta and of large central-eastern cities such as Shanghai. The dual project would then be at the heart of the rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai. Above all, the scale and consequences for the environment of such water management projects are clearly reminiscent of the proactive Soviet approach to diverting large Russian rivers, and they raise not only technical issues for Chinese or western experts but also more specific philosophical questions since the human populations are now faced with a large number of environmental unknowns.

Unknown Factors in a Promethean Project

Sedimentary Accumulation and Seismic Risks


The first challenge affecting the Three Gorges project relates to the risk of accumulation of sediment upstream of the dam, even if this risk has to be kept in perspective. Indeed, of the 526 million tons of sediment that will be carried through the future reservoir, with an average diameter of 0.033mm, about 8.6 million tons are deposited on the bed of the Yangtze River, including 0.76 million tons of pebbles. In fact, silt and stones on the riverbed represent only a small fraction of the deposits. Moreover, the process of sedimentation in the Yangtze is irregular and has tended to decrease since the mid-1980s. The total annual flow of the Yangtze at Sandouping is around 451 billion m3, with an average concentration level of alluvial deposits of only 1.2 kg/m3, far lower than that of the Sanmen Gorge on the Yellow River (37 kg/m3), as a result of which the dam had serious sedimentation problems in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet if most of the silt and sludge in the Yangtze is not properly treated, it will not only reduce the energy output of the dam, but the life of the biosphere will also be undermined. Moreover, sediment deposits in the reservoir will be a real threat to traffic.


In addition, the project management has set up a program known as “Storing Clear Water and Discharging Turbid Water,” which relies on 23 low-level openings at the level of the spillway and on the narrowness of the reservoir. Chinese experts estimate that after 80 to 100 years of operation, the total capacity of the reservoir will still be 86–92% of its original capacity. The State Council has also approved a program for the construction of a series of large reservoirs along the Yangtze and its tributaries upstream from the dam. Consequently, in the next 20 years, reservoirs are expected to be completed on the Yangtze River (Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba), the Min River (Zipingpu and Pubogou), the Jialing River (Tingzikou and Hechuan), and the Wu River (Goupitan and Pengshui). However, not all scientists are convinced that these actions alone will be sufficient to limit sedimentation in the reservoir as the intense deforestation of hills by farmers looking for new land to cultivate has made the soil more vulnerable to erosion.


A second concern is the ability of the dam to withstand earthquakes of great magnitude. As the Three Gorges reservoir is crossed by many active faults, the threat of an earthquake is even more real given that the many karst caves carved into the limestone along the river hillsides sometimes lead to landslides and rockfalls, as evidenced by the large boulders that clog the riverbed. The risk, even if very low, that the reservoir itself could be the cause of an earthquake also exists.


The Center for Seismic Studies in Wuhan has therefore analyzed three different sections along the Three Gorges reservoir in order to assess the earthquake risk. The construction site of the dam and the Miao River constitute the first section. It is a zone of crystalline rock, mostly of magmatic origin. There is no fault running through this part of the Three Gorges, and no significant earthquake has ever occurred there. Once the flooding of the reservoir has been completed, the magnitude of any earthquake should not exceed level 4 on the Richter scale. The second area is between the Miao River and Baidicheng, where karst carbonates predominate. This section includes several active faults: Jiuwanxi, Xiannushan, Shuitianba, Zhoujiashan, and Gaoqiao. Only the Jiuwanxi fault crosses the reservoir, while the others run along its banks. The fault systems, allied to the characteristics of karst erosion, can cause seismic movements of a magnitude of less than 4 and mainly located in the small adjacent gorges along the course of the Yangtze (including Bingshubaojian, Fengxian, and the Three Gorges at Daning). However, risks associated with most active faults in the area of the reservoir are located in the region of the Jiuwan and Xiangxi rivers, respectively 20 and 55 km upstream of the dam, and they can cause earthquakes up to level 6. The third section borders on the outskirts of Baidicheng, at the entrance to the Three Gorges. The area consists mainly of red sandstone, which is impermeable and has very few faults. As a result, the threat of seismic activity in this area is almost nil.


In summary, if they exist, the risks of an earthquake affecting the reservoir area are relatively low, and its strength should not exceed level 6. The Chinese experts therefore calculated the construction of the dam according to the length of the reservoir, which will allow the effects of tectonic plate movements to dissipate before reaching the dam, while allowing for seismic intensity up to level 7 on the Richter scale. The Three Gorges Dam, therefore, has a wide margin of safety. Nonetheless, questions remain about catastrophic scenarios relating to the resilience of the dam itself if confronted by the onslaught of a huge wave of seismic origin, especially in periods of high water, when the pressure exerted on the structure is at its highest.

The Scale of Environmental Consequences


The major unknown in the construction of the Three Gorges dam relates to environmental consequences, despite the many studies that have been carried out on the project by both Chinese and foreign scientists. In fact, the Yangtze Valley Water Resources Protection Bureau was created by the Ministry of Water Resources as early as 1976, and two organizations quickly complemented it: the Research Institute for the Protection of the Yangtze River Valley, and the Center for the Monitoring and Study of the Yangtze Valley. Since 1979, over 40 Chinese universities have taken part in research programs on the project and in July 1987, over 700 scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences participated in an extensive research program in the context of the 7th five-year plan. Finally, around 100 agencies have carried out exploratory work in the Three Gorges area and prepared forecasts on the environmental consequences of the building of the dam over the next 40 years.


Clearly, the creation of the reservoir will have many consequences for land and water habitats. Endemic rare and endangered species will be the first victims of changes in the ecosystems. The impacts on land flora will be primarily due to the flooding of plant habitats and the displacement of populations, and land animals will suffer as a result of the disappearance of their food sources. The rising waters will result in more complex consequences for aquatic ecosystems, which will change not only the habitat but also, and in particular, fish migration and reproduction areas. In brief, the project will affect or destroy aquatic ecosystems both upstream and downstream of the dam.


The Three Gorges region is located at the junction of the Sino-Japanese forest and the Sino-Himalayan forest. It is home to 182 families, 885 genera, and 2,859 species of plants, and includes numerous endemic species as well as plants from various tropical, Mediterranean and temperate zones. Among the rare and endangered plants, 47 species, including 36 endemic plants, are officially protected in China. According to studies, the flooding of the reservoir is expected to affect 550 species, 358 genera, and 120 families of plants. While the herb, grasses, and rose families are the most threatened, they exist in abundance throughout the Yangtze River gorges and are, therefore, unlikely to compleletly disappear. On the other hand, plants such as the adiantum reniforme sinense will be seriously affected by the rising waters and the transfer of populations moving into their habitats. Some species, such as the Chinese lychee, will be completely submerged.


However, the consequences of the construction of the dam will be far more serious for fish as ecosystems and aquatic life will be irrevocably changed. The Yangtze and its tributaries are home to over 1,000 aquatic species, ranging from phytoplankton to mammals. Chinese scientists have identified 160 species of zooplankton and 370 species of fish, of which 70 and 140 respectively are to be found in the Three Gorges. Nearly a third of these fish are endemic species, found exclusively in this region. Two very rare aquatic mammals have also made their home in the Yangtze: the Yangtze River Dolphin, and the Chinese porpoise. Lastly, many amphibians and reptiles, such as the Chinese giant salamander and the Chinese soft-shell turtle, live in the river.


Once the reservoir has been flooded the river current will be much slower, causing the disappearance of some species and the appearance of new ones. As a result, food chains will be changed, and biologists believe that the fish population in the reservoir will decrease by between 20 and 25%. The scientists are particularly concerned about the destruction of spawning grounds as a result of silting upstream and erosion downstream of the dam, which will probably be fatal for the Chinese sturgeon. As a result, many research centers are currently working to protect this fish and to create artificial breeding sites. Furthermore, the increase in traffic on the Yangtze will also increase the risk of fatal accidents for large animals such as the Yangtze River dolphin and the Chinese alligator.


This unavoidable impoverishment of flora and fauna in the Three Gorges region as a result of flooding the reservoir is likely to be aggravated by worsening river pollution. In effect, the Yangtze is a huge collector of sewage and waste water from cities and factories on its shores or on those of its tributaries. Mains drainage and water treatment facilities do not exist in the region, and the river acts as an outlet drain. The Yangtze receives more than 1 billion tons of waste water every year from over 3,000 industries and mining companies. Some 50 pollutants have been identified in the waters of the river, including many poisons such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, cyanide, and phenol as well as polluting products from the chemical industry, paper mills, and agriculture (including nitrates, phosphates, and cellulose). Abundant urban waste was also part of the 16.6 billion tons of waste carried by the river since 1988.


Without significant efforts aimed at environmental protection, the reservoir therefore runs the risk of becoming a huge cesspool. In particular a concentration of pollution where waste discharges are highest, namely in Chongqing and Wanxian, is a concern. When the water level in the reservoir rises, and houses and factories are flooded, numerous waste dumps and landfills will be covered and their content dispersed into the waters, risking the pollution of places not yet affected, including the small transverse valleys that have been spared up until now. However, despite this serious environmental degradation around the reservoir, experts believe that the risk of eutrophication will be reduced as the current should limit the spread of algae. The waters of the Yangtze River also have high pH levels and are rich in Ca-exposant-2+-/exposant- and Mg-exposant-2+-/exposant- ions, which will allow the phosphorus to be dissolved. Once dissolved, it will bond with the finest particles, which will then be easily released downstream from the spillway.


The Chinese authorities, who are concerned about the need to reduce pollution in the river, have, therefore, developed information and prevention programs. New regulations have been imposed on cities and industries in relation to the discharge of waste water. Water treatment equipment waters have been installed, particularly in the new areas earmarked for reconstruction. Polluting industries and mines must now acquire filtering and settling basins. The State is even committed to closing down the most polluting factories, particularly the paper mills. In 1996, the municipality of Chongqing introduced taxes on polluting companies, which it uses to fund the construction of sewage and water reprocessing plants. Since 1997, the city has invested over 5 million yuan, yet many factories still prefer to pay the taxes and fines—or quietly bribe officials in return for their silence—rather than equip their premises.

Partial Flooding of One of the Birthplaces of Chinese Culture


Finally, although the last of the major consequences of the construction of the dam admittedly does not have the same disastrous effects on the region and its environment, it strikes even more deeply at the Chinese psyche. This relates to the inundation of one of the birthplaces of Chinese culture, a place of legends and foundational historical events in the constitution of a national identity and a place of landscapes that for many centuries have been celebrated and represented by the masters of Chinese art. The present-day landscapes of the Three Gorges, which Chinese tourists appreciate all the more because they recall the famous stories of the Three Kingdoms (third century BCE) and because they naturally evoke memories of the poet QuYuan, the concubine Wang Zhaozhun, and General Liu Bei will be lost forever. For this reason, the dam, a project that is claimed as evidence of the renewed splendor of mainland China, may be seen as a grave mistake since it will be located at a site representing the cultural identity of an entire civilization.


The Three Gorges region is a site of ancient settlement, holding a great variety of historical remnants accumulated over nearly 5,000 years. Chinese archaeologists estimate that over 2,000 monuments or archaeological sites are threatened by the rising waters, of which over 800 are underground. Dozens of stone age caves, which would have been occupied by the Ba peoples nearly 4,000 years ago, tombs dating from the Han dynasty (from the second century BCE to the second century CE), and Ming temples (dating back to the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries) will be submerged. Some specialists estimate that up to 15,000 prehistoric and historic sites will be flooded. In fact, the full extent of the rich heritage at risk is unknown since no census of this heritage was taken into account. Among the experts who participated in the development of the Three Gorges project, there were no sociologists, anthropologists, or archaeologists, and current assessments depend on an older survey, which dates back to 1988.


It was only in 1994 that the Commission for the Construction of the Three Gorges dam and the National Bureau of Antiquities dispatched two teams of researchers to explore ways of safeguarding and protecting the heritage of the region. These teams presented their reports in 1995, detailing the extent of the archaeological losses resulting from the dam. However, the central authorities showed no inclination to respond. A letter addressed to President Jiang Zemin, drafted by around 60 scientists, scholars, and Chinese intellectuals requesting that he take action had no more effect. Officially, 16 sites containing historical remains from different periods will disappear, and a list of these was published in 1997.


Among the historic sites and artifacts that will be totally submerged, experts include tombs and funeral monuments ranging from the Xia dynasty (second millennium BCE) to the Song dynasty (tenth–thirteenth centuries) as well as buildings and towers built under the Han, such as the stone towers at Zhongxian. The towpaths carved into the cliffs along the Yangtze River and in the three small gorges of the Daning River are also condemned to disappear. The disappearance of the “whooping crane beam,” a bank over 1,600m long and 15m wide that emerges in the middle of the Yangtze River at low water and that the Chinese have used to record river levels since the tenth century, causes the liveliest debates because it is a national treasure. Other sites will only be partially flooded, such as the tombs dating from the Warring States period (fifth–third century BCE), the wooden Shibaozai pagoda in Zhongxian, whose sunken base will be protected by a wall, and the Qu Yuan memorial in Zigui. In the historic city of Fengdu, only the Mountain of Hell will remain above the level of the reservoir. Other monuments will be moved, including the Zhang Fei temple near Yunyang, which is being relocated to a new site a few kilometers downstream from its original location. In total, Chinese archaeologists have claimed 3 billion yuan for the purposes of saving around 10% of the sites. However, barely one-fifth of the sum was granted by the Chinese government, and nothing has been forthcoming from international organizations such as UNESCO.


Thankfully, not all of the heritage sites in the Three Gorges area will be submerged, and the Chinese authorities even hope that the project will increase tourism at protected monuments and sites. However, it is regrettable that many unknown sites, in a region with a particularly rich heritage, are disappearing forever. As an example, in 1996, a Sino-Japanese team discovered a castle 35 km southwest of Chengdu, suggesting that a great civilization could have developed along the Yangtze River 4,000 years ago. However, few excavations have been conducted so far on zones further downstream that are destined to be flooded due to a lack of funding but also, perhaps, because of a desire not to pursue the discovery of historic relics further because this might call into question the official linear account of Chinese history as developing from a single population settlement situated in the great plains of the north.



It is no longer news to oppose the construction of the Three Gorges dam. Work is already well advanced and the project has been punctuated by many preliminary assessments. In any case, there are legitimate justifications for this project. It will help meet the needs of a developing country in which economic and spatial inequalities continue to worsen while helping to open up the interior of China and regulating a river that has been the source of disastrous floods for farmers and rural populations. Moreover, it will also produce the additional power that is essential for a fast-growing economy. Nonetheless, blind opposition to the dam also has its counterpart in the fundamental political belief of Chinese leaders in technical vastness, a belief that continues to be deaf to scientific arguments warning that the environmental implications could be dangerously in excess of official forecasts. Moreover, the project will sacrifice one of the most prestigious commemorative sites in Chinese civilization.


Indeed, the inland setting, fueled by a re-emergence of Chinese power on the world economic stage and by a supercilious nationalism, is clearly determining the choice for the Three Gorges. In effect, the aim is first and foremost to build the largest dam in the world. If they are the destroyers of many local traces of the past, the Chinese leaders also see themselves as architects of a powerful symbol for the China of the twenty-first century, proving once again, following the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, the capacity of the Chinese to be masters of the natural world and thus renew the connection between men and Heaven, a connection severed by the disappearance of the Empire a century ago, even if this means jeopardizing the environmental balance of the Yangtze Valley. Although official statements manipulate these themes to justify a Promethean project, given their ideological bankruptcy, what else is open to Chinese leaders today but to try and make the people believe that, through their mastery of the Yangtze, they can still retain the Mandate of Heaven?


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  1. A Political Project Engendering Strong Opposition, which Paradoxically Fits in with the History of Chinese Water Management Projects
    1. The Political Project
    2. A Topic of Debate throughout the Twentieth Century
    3. Beyond the Heritage of Water Management
  2. A Project with Multiple Challenges
    1. Three Main Objectives
    2. Recourse to Other Countries
  3. A Project on Multiple Levels
    1. The Largest Dam in the World
    2. Local Impact: The Three Gorges Dam as a Development Tool
    3. Closer Integration of Yichang and Chongqing into an Urban Corridor Dominated by Shanghai
    4. Projects Already in Place: Water Supplies for Northern China from the Yangtze River
  4. Unknown Factors in a Promethean Project
    1. Sedimentary Accumulation and Seismic Risks
    2. The Scale of Environmental Consequences
    3. Partial Flooding of One of the Birthplaces of Chinese Culture
  5. Conclusion

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Thierry Sanjuan, Rémi Béreau, “ Le barrage des Trois Gorges ”, Hérodote 3/2001 (N°102) , p. 19-56
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2001-3-page-19.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.102.0019.

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