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China completes "mammoth" Three Gorges Dam hydro-electricity project

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Three Gorges Dam, receiving, water high-level side, 26 July, 2004
Three Gorges Dam, ship locks for river traffic to bypass the dam, May 2004

The People's Republic of China has announced the completion of an enormous dam across the Yangtze River, an important milestone for the world's largest hydroelectric project. The official Xinhua News Agency reports the event as a "landmark in the construction of the project."

Launched in 1993, the Three Gorges Project, including the 2,300 metre long, 185 metre high dam with 26 power generators, is being built in three phases on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River - China's longest river. Built with over 16 million m3 of concrete, the Three Gorges Dam is considered the biggest reinforced concrete dam in the world.

The Three Gorges Reservoir is capable of holding nearly 40 billion m3 of water, including a space of 22.15 billion m3 for extra flooded water. With a length of more than 6,300 km and a natural fall of 5,400 metres from the west to the east, the flood-prone Yangtze River is the third largest in the world.

The gigantic project is expected to generate around 15 million megawatts of electricity, 84.7 billion kWh annually when the entire project is completed in 2008. But whilst proponents of the world's largest hydropower project laud the increased electricity generation and improved flood control as benefits to China, opponents claim destruction of the environment, ruin to China's cultural heritage - disaffecting millions of local residents.

"In my view, building the Three Gorges dam is a ridiculous and evil farce," says dam opponent Dai Qing. "Many people have known something is wrong with the project, but few have dared to speak up," she said. After it becomes operational, the 660km reservoir created by the dam will drown 13 towns, 4500 villages and 162 archaeological sites.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) are also strident vocal critics. "The dam is having a titanic social and environment impact," the group said this week. "Sometimes people are being moved out by truncheon and bulldozer because they refuse to leave their home for fear of not being rehoused. Human rights violations are massive and brutal," it said. FoE pointed to evidence that the dam was already having a serious environment impact.

FoE points to a scientific study by the East China Normal University in Shanghai, published in March in Geophysical Research, which said that in 2004, the Three Gorges dam has reduced the supply of sediment to the Yangtze delta to just 35 per cent of the norm.

Three Gorges Dam from space

Millions of tonnes of silt are drawn along the Yangtze river every year, and critics argue the dam will intercept much of it - with potentially disastrous consequences. They say the lack of sediment further downstream would lead to soil erosion, and the accumulation of sediment in the reservoir could raise the dam level, submerging even more land.

Opponents say the reservoir could fill with the accumulated garbage from tens of millions of households. The China Yangtze River Three Gorges Project Development Corp. has spent $2.5 million on a vessel to collect as much as 7 million cubic feet of garbage that accumulates at the dam each year, according to Xinhua. Some argue that the impact of the dam project will contribute to the extinction of the rare Yangtze river dolphin.

The dam project will force the relocation of a total of 1.13 million people, and communities that have lived in the area for millennia will disappear. Researchers warn sedimentation and rising water levels in the reservoir will lead to the evacuation of tens of thousands more people.

But as the waters rise, that which can not be saved will disappear along with some world famous natural scenery. Critics say the dam is under threat from earthquakes, with two geological fault lines nearby. Officials working on the project counter this by saying the worst that can happen is a tremor measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, while the dam is built to withstand force 7.0.

"Although the dam is now complete, we still have a long way to go and cannot become self-satisfied or relax our efforts in the least," Li Yongan, general manager of the Three Gorges Project Development Corp, said. The official China Daily in an editorial called for people to remember the more than 100 workers whom died during the dam's construction. "The best possible way to repay such a debt of gratitude is to make sure the highest safety and quality standards are observed up till the very end of the entire building process," the editorial said.

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