It’s been nearly ten years since the world’s largest hydroelectric dam became fully operational in 2012. Reaching across breathtaking cliffs on the Yangtze River in central China, the Three Gorges Dam was a $24-billion project that government officials have long defended as a major source of renewable power for an energy-hungry nation and as a way to prevent floods downstream. The dam has been recorded to generate 18,000 megawatts of power—eight times that of the U.S.’s Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Yet with a rough history and potential to cause countless environmental nightmares, the dam puts the state’s eco-agenda legitimacy into question. A closer look at its history of failures reveals how the project has done more harm than good and provides some lessons for China’s future.
China’s control on the environment is authoritarian. An authoritarian regime utilizes strong political power to achieve its goals, and oftentimes, harmes the freedom of many individuals that are outside of the government. Authoritarian environmentalism describes a type of governance where the central government addresses ecological issues using its overbearing power, disregarding any thoughts or actions by non-governmental entities. For example, the People’s Republic of China enforces authoritarian environmentalism because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds full control over all environmental policies.
When China’s government prioritizes rapid economic development, if its monetary agenda does not line up with environmental activists, then conflicts emerge. Any attempt to criticize the government for climate inaction has become increasingly dangerous—the CCP will arrest anyone who attacks their policies. Li Genshan, a well-known environmental activist based in northwestern China, was sentenced to 54 months in prison last year after blowing the whistle on a major toxic waste dumping scheme. He was just one of the many arrested. 18-year-old Ou Hongyi, who has called for more action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, left the country and now lobbies from the outside. Journalists speculate that there is a low awareness of the climate crisis among the younger population in China, due to strict rules, muzzled activists, and censorship. Searches for “China global warming” on Chinese governmental news sites returned nothing. As a result, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that oppose the CCP’s policies are forced to work quietly in fear. A closer inspection of the Three Gorges Dam project through the eyes of silenced activists and organizations can show that this project was funded and executed for short term economic gains, instead of sustainability as the government promised.
The Three Gorges Dam is a massive project. Historically, every Chinese leader since Sun Yat-sen had dreamed of building a massive dam on the Yangtze River. Yet, when Deng Xiaoping brought up the idea in the late 1970s, it was strongly opposed by some leading hydrologists, intellectuals, and environmentalists, who pointed out its human and environmental costs: the mass relocation of residents, threats of geological hazards, environmental damage, and loss of archeological sites. A hydroelectric dam serves the political and economic needs of a self-sustaining elite while harming the people and environment where the dam is built. Among emerging public opinions, a journalist called Dai Qing published a collection of interviews, essays, and statements by Chinese intellectuals who opposed the building of the dam titled Yangtze! Yangtze! Some were delegates in the Nationals People’s Congress thelves, about one-third of whom actually refused to endorse the Three Gorges Dam project. Four months after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 when China eliminated any possibility of a liberal Chinese society, authorities banned Dai Qing’s book, which is highly critical of the project, and jailed her. She is one of the earliest environmentalists in China. Literary scholar Xiaoze Xie sources editions of banned titles from both inside and outside mainland China, and estimates that over 750 titles have been blacklisted to date.
One of the most controversial aspects of the mega-project is its enormous impact on the lives of the villagers of Fengjie in southwest China’s Chongqing Province, who had lived for centuries on the banks of the river. To make way for the dam’s massive reservoir, about 1.4 million people were uprooted, their ancestral homes were demolished, communities were broken up, and farmlands were flooded, sometimes as much as 150 km upstream from the site itself. Building the Three Gorges Dam displaced more people than the three largest Chinese dams before it combined. The reservoir submerged two cities, 114 towns and 1,680 villages along the river banks. Displaced residents have since complained about inadequate compensation and a lack of farmland and jobs after relocation. Many have accused local governments of embezzling resettlement funds and using excessive force to quell protests.
The dam also created serious geological impacts. Chinese officials and experts admitted at a forum in 2007 that the Three Gorges Dam had caused an array of ecological ills. China’s state news agency Xinhua reported more frequent landslides. “The huge weight of the water behind the Three Gorges Dam had started to erode the Yangtze’s banks in many places, which, together with frequent fluctuations in water levels, had triggered a series of landslides,” the Xinhua report said, citing officials and experts. In a 2011 paper published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, geologists confirmed that the water in the reservoir erodes the base of the cliffs and fluctuation in water levels changes the weight of the reservoir and the pressure on the slopes, destabilizing the shoreline.
Disaster struck shortly after the reservoir started to fill for the first time in 2003. As the water reached 135 meters (115 feet), landslides began to occur. A few weeks later, on a tributary of the Three Gorges, a large chunk of a mountain split off and slipped into the river, killing 24 people, destroying 346 houses, and capsizing over 20 boats.
The dam, which sits near two major fault lines, has also been blamed for a surge in earthquakes in the region. Scientists argue that the weight of the large reservoir and the permeation of water into the rocks underneath can trigger earthquakes in regions already under considerable tectonic stress. According to a study from the China Earthquake Administration, in the six years after the reservoir was filled in June 2003, 3,429 earthquakes were recorded along the reservoir; only 94 earthquakes were recorded from January 2000 to May 2003.
Another major concern is the blocking of sediments. By cutting the flow of the Yangtze River, the dam has retained huge amounts of silt, which not only dampens its flood control capacity by filling the reservoir, but also causes significant erosion downstream.
China has historically defended the project under the veil of a major source of renewable energy, yet in September of 2008, a government official in charge of the project admitted that Three Gorges held “hidden dangers” that could breed disaster. “We can’t lower our guard,” Wang Xiaofeng, who oversaw the project for China’s State Council, said during a meeting of Chinese scientists and government representatives in Chongqing (an independent municipality of around 31 million near the dam). Wang said, “we simply cannot sacrifice the environment in exchange for temporary economic gain.” The comments confirmed the sentiment of what many silenced activists and scientists had been warning about for years, but was it too late?
After a boom in dam building from the 1950s to the 1980s, western countries and organizations around the world, such as the United States and the Netherlands, started to become aware of environmental impacts like flooding, erosion, and irreversible ecosystem damage caused by the building of dams, but China pushed on. By 2019, the country had 23,841 large dams, accounting for 41% of the world total. Dams with hydropower facilities produce a lot of cheap and renewable energy, but they have an environmental price. With the climate crisis expected to bring about heavier and more frequent flooding, experts say China will be forced to find new solutions for other renewable energy sources.
After years of heavy industrialization, China’s environmental challenges are nearing a tipping point. In a bid to tackle these challenges, China’s government has declared a “war on pollution” and introduced a number of green initiatives, with similar projects that prompt us to recall the one on the Yangtze. Yet, if the Three Gorges Dam showed us its harms, would China continue to take shortcuts to make use of this economically beneficial project? If China wants to move towards a sustainable future, its government should take a moment to listen to different voices. A sustainable China will ultimately be one that focuses on implementing sustainable projects that yield long term environmental benefits, but not short term economic gains. Fundamentally, climate change is not just a national issue, but a global one. Perhaps in this way, the Three Gorges Dam should provide some lessons for both China and the world.
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