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The Three Gorges Reservoir: A Series Overview

Rain clouds shroud Wuxia, the second of the Three Gorges, just upstream from the Three Gorges Dam.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Rain clouds shroud Wuxia, the second of the Three Gorges, just upstream from the Three Gorges Dam.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Next year, the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River will be filled to capacity and the project will be declared complete. Just at this critical moment, controversy has resurfaced, following official admissions that the dam could cause major ecological disasters unless preventive measures are taken.

Officials later snapped back to the party line that the dam is both safe and necessary. But the issue remains a litmus test of how China will balance priorities of economic development and environmental protection.

The Yangtze is China's longest waterway and the world's third-largest river. The dam on the river's middle reaches has created a 372-mile reservoir spanning the provinces of Chongqing and Hubei in the country's southwest and central regions. Next year, the water level will be raised from its current height of 511 feet above sea level to 574 feet. The level in the reservoir will be lower in the winter and higher in the summer rainy season.


The dam was envisioned by revolutionaries Sun Yat-sen and Mao Tse-tung in the early and mid-20th century, respectively. It taps into an age-old Chinese obsession with massive government waterworks projects designed to tame China's rivers and prevent flooding. The dam's construction began in the early 1990s, under the guidance of technocratic leaders who promoted infrastructure mega-projects as an expression of state power, scientific prowess and modernity.

For this three-part series, I traveled the length of the reservoir, talking to people about the changes the dam has brought.

Project Sparks Environmental Concerns

The first part in the series deals with the project's environmental consequences. The government claims that the dam has so far generated more than 200 billion kilowatts of electricity, which would otherwise need to be produced by burning coal — a far more polluting energy source. It claims that shipping tonnage on the river has been greatly increased and summer flooding has been effectively controlled.

But critics have been concerned that the millions of tons of silt that wash into the Yangtze could clog up the reservoir and dam, rendering them useless and hindering river navigation. The government responds that it has minimized soil erosion on the river's upper reaches and that the dam is capable of discharging the silt downstream.


Experts have also expressed concern that because the dam has slowed the river's flow to a crawl, huge amounts of industrial and human waste will stagnate in the reservoir. The government counters that it is building more wastewater treatment plants and working to shut down polluting factories.

But residents say factories continue to pollute, particularly on tributaries that feed into the Yangtze. They add that in some places, the pollution has caused major algae blooms, and killed off fish and plant species. One of the most noted casualties is the Yangtze River dolphin, which is on the verge of extinction, if not already extinct.

Other concerns include the possibility that the reservoir has contributed to recent heat waves and droughts in the region. And officials recently admitted that the reservoir's shoreline has collapsed in 91 separate places and that it is causing landslides in the hills above the water. Some geologists pointed out that the reservoir sits atop tectonic fault lines and the weight of the water could trigger devastating earthquakes. Officials counter that seismic activity is a feature of the region and will not threaten the project's safety.

Resettling Residents

The second part of the series examines the massive effort to resettle more than a million people whose homes, fields and factories have been or will be inundated by the reservoir. The resettlement is a daunting exercise in urbanization and job creation. Eighty-five percent of the residents being resettled are in Chongqing. The reservoir has forced the closure of most industry in the region. Unemployment stands at 12 percent, according to official figures, and many resettled residents say they are getting by on welfare. More than half of the 20 counties in the gorges area are the targets of official poverty-eradication campaigns.

Most of the residents are being resettled uphill, in new towns farther from the water, while others are being resettled in other provinces in the country's east and southeast.

The government says that relocation is voluntary. Residents say that several problems have emerged. One is that the resettled residents are not finding jobs or are facing discrimination in their new homes and as a result have returned to the gorges, but now without jobs or housing. Other residents say they have not received the relocation subsidies promised by the government, sometimes because local officials have embezzled the money.

Another problem cited is that the government has counted the residents as resettled after simply moving their household registrations from one town to another, whether or not the residents themselves have actually moved. Residents say that this can result in them losing their household registrations, which makes it difficult to obtain schooling, housing and various welfare benefits.

Some of the destitute residents have resorted to protesting or petitioning the government, and complain of being arrested, jailed or abused by local officials.

Scramble to Save Historic Sites

The final segment explores the rich cultural heritage of the Three Gorges region, and the efforts to save it before it is inundated. Experts say the Yangtze River is as much a cradle of Chinese civilization as the Yellow River in northern China. The discovery of 2-million-year-old human bone fossils and stone tools in Wushan County are the earliest traces of man yet found in China. From China's early Shang and Zhou dynasties, the region was known as the kingdom of Ba. Later, during the third-century Three Kingdoms period, it was the site of the independent kingdom of Shu Han.

Since the early 1990s, experts have worked to catalogue the region's historic sites and then to see what could be saved. But far less time and money has been put into preserving the region's culture than protecting its environment and resettling its residents. Experts say that they have enough resources to save only a small portion of the region's historic sites.

Various attempts at preserving the sites include the Stone Treasure Fortress in Zhongxian County, which is being surrounded by a high wall to keep the river's waters out. Other sites, such as the Zhang Fei temple in Yunyang County, are being disassembled, moved and then reconstructed.

The problem, experts note, is that while a few structures are being saved, the indigenous culture and way of life is disappearing. Architectural expert Tang Yuyang, of the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture, says that Three Gorges residents were masterful in creating flat living spaces that adapted to the mountainous terrain. By contrast, builders today simply flatten the mountain before building on it. Some of the region's ancient villages have been relocated and rebuilt. But these are often reduced to theme parks, devoid of actual residents.

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