The Three Gorges Dam | Yangtze River Basin, China (1994)

1682651-6405352 - Anderson Parker - May 4, 2016 1050 AM - Anderson_image

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China by Le Grand Portage, available under CC 2.0 at

By Parker Anderson

The Anthropocene has set itself apart from other geological epochs due to how the presence of human activity has significantly impacted the environmental systems of the planet. For example the manipulation of the environment by humans represents how humans desire to control nature making the world function under a system that is human driven. With the advent of different technological advances and inventions over the past hundred years, human domination of nature has become ever more present. This essay will focus on how humans have the potential to drastically alter their environment and create problems that are socially and environmentally detrimental due to the impacts of their involvement with certain systems of the planet. Dams will be presented as the key object in this analysis due to the fact that they are a tool for managing and developing water resources for human use. The Three Gorges Dam (TGD) in the Yangtze River Basin in China will be the dam under scrutiny in this essay because currently it is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world and is also a prime example for studying because it is a current double edged sword in terms of human development. This is because even though the dam produces a large quantity of electricity for China it still presents negative impacts for the area around the dam and its inhabitants.

In order to gain a grasp on the TGD’s particular impact as a dam, the broad definition and uses of a dam must be addressed. To begin, the concept of a dam has been around for nearly 3,000 years of human history going as far back as the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. Dams have played an important role in human development over the years by providing water, controlling floods, generating electricity and irrigating crops (Kaifeng, Zu, Wu, Huang, pg. 27-28, 2013). Large dams are still perceived todayas a symbol of progress in hydraulic engineering and economic development, but this image has deteriorated in the past several decades due to the increased recognition of their failure to provide the expected economic benefits, along with increased awareness of their detrimental effects on the environment. The list of problems associated with large dams mainly includeincreased incidences of landslides, modifying river flow, water quality decline, natural habitat fragmentation, impacts on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, as well as problems linked with forced human resettlement (Kaifeng, Zu, Wu, Huang, pg. 128- 129, 2013). The displacement of people due to dams subsequently creates a loss of cultural heritage and contributes to the spread of some diseases. As of 2016 there are more than 50, 000 dams with various sizes that have been constructed in the Yangtze River basin, with many other dams proposed to be constructed by 2020.

The TGD became the largest hydroelectric dam in the world after a decades-long construction plan by the Chinese government. The construction which officially began in 1994was expected to be fully operational by 2009, but additional projects related to the dam, such as an underground power plantand ship lift delayed the full completion to 2015. Situated in Central China, the TGD is 1.4 miles long and 604′ tall, over 5 times as large as the Hoover Dam. It is subsequently sustained and powered by the Yangtze River, which moves 26 turbines that provide 18,000 megawatts of power (Lerner and Lerner, pg. 365-368, 2016). In comparison a typical coal plant in China produces about 600 megawatts (Kennedy, 2016).  The dam had raised the water level in the reservoir to 172.5 m (566 ft.) above sea level by the end of 2008 and the designed maximum level of 175 m (574 ft.) by October 2010. In this regard it is a testament to human ingenuity and architectural prowess.

And while the Dam provides roughly 3 percent of the country’s energy needs, it has come at great costs both environmentally and socially. These costs, moreover, feed one another as social displacement puts further stress on the cities and towns that must now support the displaced and environmental degradation of the area surrounding the TGD and nearby stretches of the Yangtze Riverwhich contributes a loss of resources for China in general. These include arable land, biodiversity, medicinal flora, and valuable topsoil, among others (Lerner and Lerner pg. 367, 2016). These reasons and many others lead environmental officials of the Chinese government to believe that the TGD will become one of the largest ecological nightmares in the 21st century.

One of the most immediate environmental effects of the Three Gorges Dam has been an increase in landslide activity. This results primarily from erosion caused by drastic increases and decreases in reservoir water levels at the dam, which, when at their peak, deposit about 40 million tons of sediment into the Yangtze annually (Opening the Floodgates, 2016). Furthermore, landslides in the surrounding areas have been much worse than had been predicted, and dozens of people have already died as a result. Another major issue with the Dam is the ways in which it is affecting biodiversity in the area. Animal and plant life has been greatly threatened due to flooding in some habitats and water diversion in others. Furthermore, fragmentation of habitat may lead to heavy losses of biological diversity which create virtual islands in which species lose the ability to preserve their genetic diversity, thus creating a lack of a sustainable population for future generations. This fragmentation of habitats, moreover, is disturbing the reproduction patterns of many species, suggesting that if they have not disappeared yet, they soon might. An example of this is the critically endangered Siberian crane which 3,000 of the 4,000 in the world currently spend the winter in the wetlands that is occupied by the TGD (Lee, pg. 111, 2013). Because of the TGD’s presence in their natural winter location it is assumed that the population will continue to decrease due to this disturbance in their reproduction.

Whether one agrees that this means a loss of spiritual and cultural wealth, it undoubtedly means a loss in resources that might otherwise have been tapped. Examples might include medical plants; among others. It should be no surprise that the river system downstream has also been affected. Decreases in freshwater flow have meant that more saltwater is creeping up the Yangtze, endangering fish populations already threatened by overfishing. This again signifies a loss of valuable resources. There has also been a 50% loss in sediment and nutrients downstream, a common issue with most dams, which will cause erosion to river systems, wetlands, and seacoast ecosystems, leading to adversely impacted fisheries and wetland watersheds (Lee, pg. 114-116, 2013). Lastly and frighteningly, the Dam may have been tied to major earthquakes, including the one in May of 2008 which killed 87,000 people (Opening the Floodgates, 2016). By placing tremendous pressure and fluctuation (by rapidly raising and dropping water volume) on the underlying geological plates, TGD arguably increases seismic activity. Proving that this leads to increased earthquakes, however, is more difficult. Still, there are already detectable increases in seismic activity. As the largest dam in the world, it is no surprise that it has had a major environmental impact on the surrounding area.

The most important effect that the construction of the Three Gorges Dam has had on Chinese society has been the displacement of millions of people from the Yangtze River region. In order to establish the reservoir, hundreds of towns and villages were evacuated and later submerged. Importantly, the area surrounding the Yangtze contains some of the densest clusters of human life in the world. Specifically the area around the Yangtze River Basin supports a population of 480 million people which totals to about 1/3 of China’s total population (Lee, pg. 120-121, 2013). This should give one a sense of the immense impact of flushing out this area of its inhabitants. Those forced to relocate were promised compensation for the value of their homes and land. In many cases this deal has been fulfilled without a problem. In what is likely the overwhelming majority of cases, however, relocated citizens have either been given far too little in compensation or their dues have been slimmed through corruption and embezzlement. Compensation in some instances has been as meager as the equivalent of $7 a month, and many claim they have received only half the land compensation they were promised (Lee, pg. 123, 2013). This has meant problems for many as the cities and towns they have had to move to are more expensive, driving many people deeper into poverty. Indeed, there is a major concern that the displaced will be made even poorer due to landlessness, joblessness, marginalization, and food insecurity (Lerner and Lerner, pg. 366, 2016). The displaced are more often than not farmers with little formal education, if any. This spells trouble for any attempts at social mobility within the major cities. Many have instead opted to return to the Yangtze region.

When utilizing water resources in rivers by dam constructionfor certain benefits including flood control, irrigation, navigation, energy supply, etc., some problems may be solved temporarily, but at the same time otherproblems are created, namely man-made problems. The negative impacts ofdams are complex, and the TGD is no exception. Even after a longand complicated evaluation process, there are still many uncertaintiesin evaluating the geological, ecological, and environmentalimpacts of the TGD. It’s understandable to assume that a good project would bring remarkable benefits for humans, and a poor one could mean endless controversy and negative impacts. It is still not possible to simply conclude the TGD as either a good or poor project. Although there are both favorable and unfavorable impacts of the TGD on the ecosystem and environment, different views and arguments still exist by scientists and villagers alike as to whether this technological advancement which has produced a large quantity of electricity for China has also become a double edged sword. In short do the positive impacts of the dam outweigh or overshadow the many negative impacts that are seen today. This highlights the complexities, difficulties, and unpredictability of the issues under consideration and also underlines a lack of knowledge. With the operation of the TGD and the changes to the regional environment in the Yangtze River basin, negative and positive effects will continue to be recognized by environmental officials of China. Qualifying negative impacts is a long-term challenge that simultaneously gives us good opportunities to investigate both the negative and positive effects of the TGD (Kennedy, 2016). Ultimately what can be concluded is that the TGD which is a human driven object that has created different altercations with the surrounding environment is a direct representation of how the relationship between humans and nature can bring about positive and negative changes to both parties. Thus this creates an uncertainty as to how humans are to solve their long-lasting problems by subsequently creating immediate problems.

Works Cited:

Li, Kaifeng, Cheng Zu, Li Wu, and Linyan Huang. “Problems caused by the Three Gorges Dam construction in the Yangtze River Basin: a review.” Environmental Reviews 21, no. 3 (September 2013): 127-35. EBSCOhost.

Lee, Yuen-Ching. “Global Capital, National Developmental and Transnational Environmental Activism: Conflict and the Three Gorges Dam.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 43, no. 1 (February 2013): 102-26. EBSCOhost.

Brenda Lerner and K Lerner. “The Dam’.” Environmental Issues: Essential Primary Sources. Ed. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 365-370. Global Reference on the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

“Opening the floodgates: the politics of dam building.” The Economist Newspaper, September 21, 2013. Accessed April 20, 2016.

Kennedy, Bruce. “China’s biggest construction project since the Great Wall generates controversy at home and abroad.” CNN. Accessed April 20, 2016.