Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 10. A Lamentation for the Yellow River. The Three Gate Gorge Dam (Sanmenxia)

by Shang Wei

June 1, 1998

Chapter 10 of The River Dragon Has Come!, compiled by Dai Qing

The following is an excerpt from the book The River Dragon Has Come!

“A Clear Yellow River”

In August 1949, just before the establishment of the People’s Republic, a “Preliminary Report on Harnessing the Yellow River” (Zhili Huanghe chubu yijian) was delivered to Dong Biwu, chairman of the North China People’s Government of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One of the report’s authors, Wang Huayun, headed the Yellow River Research Group and would later serve as director of the Yellow River Commission (Huang weihui) which was charged with advising the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power on management of the river’s resources.1 Comrade Wang was known as the “leading expert” on harnessing the Yellow River, and he has also come to be known as one of the founders of the Three Gate Gorge dam (Sanmenxia) project located in Henan Province.

According to the 1949 preliminary report, controlling the perennial floods on the lower reaches of the Yellow River required that a number of dams and reservoirs be built. However, the question of where these dams and reservoirs would be built remained unanswered. In the report, Wang asserted that there were three possible sites between Shan County and Mengjin City – Three Gate Gorge, Balihutong, and Xiaolangdi. This proposal marked the beginning of serious planning for a dam at the Three Gate Gorge.

In spring 1950, the Yellow River Commission [now led by Wang] completed another study of prospective dams on the Yellow River. The commission report concluded that the benefits that would accrue from developing a dam at Balihutong or Xiaolangdi were not great, while a dam at the Three Gate Gorge would flood one million people from their homes, an issue that “deserves considerable attention,” according to the report.2

In summer 1950, Fu Zuoyi, then minister of water resources, headed a delegation to the Soviet Union to study water resource development. The delegation included Zhang Hanying, then vice minister of the Ministry of Water Resources, and Zhang Guang, who would later play a critical role in promoting the construction of the Three Gate Gorge dam. Upon the delegation’s return, Fu Zuoyi delivered a report on developing water resources to the State Council. In tone and in substance, Fu argued for a thorough and comprehensive approach to developing the Yellow River. He urged that the banks and dikes of the Yellow River be reinforced, that agriculture and forestry policies be integrated to improve soil conservation on both the mainstream and the tributaries, and that preparations be made for the construction of a reservoir between Tongguan pass in Shaanxi and Mengjin to block flood waters and sedimentation in the tributaries. The emphasis was clearly on damming the Yellow River’s tributaries, since, according to Fu, building a dam on the mainstream posed serious political, economic, and technical problems.3

Although Wang Huayun’s Yellow River Commission had, in its 1950 report, made note of the scale of resettlement required if the Three Gate Gorge site were chosen, it did not favor damming the tributaries as Fu suggested. The commission claimed that there were too many of them, that the flood control benefits were unreliable, and that the cost was prohibitive. Thus, yet another commission study was prepared for the project, this one more positive than its 1950 predecessor. The new study made sensational claims about the prospective flood control, electricity generation, and irrigation benefits of a dam at the Three Gate Gorge site and proposed the construction of a large dam with a normal pool level of 350 meters that would both store flood waters and block sedimentation behind the dam. At first glance, it seemed that this plan would put an end to flooding in the lower reaches caused by the river’s high sediment load.4 But where to put the sediment? The answer, of course, was in a reservoir large enough to store it.

In spring 1952, Wang Huayun accompanied a group of Soviet engineers to the Three Gate Gorge site. The Soviets, who had been building grandiose dam projects in Siberia for decades, made fast friends with the members of the Yellow River Commission.5 Out of this visit a high dam was once again proposed for the Three Gate Gorge area. But the problems related to resettlement and the inundation of farmland remained, and dam opponents drew attention to them, stalling the project.

Less than a year later, the project began to gain momentum again. In October 1952, Mao took a tour of the Yellow River and uttered a line which resonated with both sides in the controversy over whether to build the Three Gate Gorge dam. He said: “Work on the Yellow River must be carried out well.” But what was to be carried out well? A large dam? Smaller dams on the tributaries? Both sides tried to claim Mao’s words as support for their views, but, in the end, the pro-dam side won the struggle. Shortly thereafter, the Yellow River Commission rejected, once and for all, the idea of building a series of smaller dams on the tributaries and insisted on the large-scale Three Gate Gorge dam. Wang Huayun personally submitted a report to Mao to this effect

The dam opponents were reduced to trying to block the project purely on financial terms. Deng Zihui, the head of the CCP’s Rural Work Department, did his part by authorizing a “miracle” budget of a mere ¥500 million, which would pay for the resettlement of only 50,000 of the 600,000 to one million relocatees who would be displaced by the dam. Dam critics then peppered supporters with questions about how they planned to properly resettle people with so little money. By forcing pro-dam officials to admit that the budget was woefully inadequate, the anti-dam forces hoped to kill the project. But the plan failed. When asked about resettlement, dam supporters would quickly shift gears and ask, “Well what about flood control?” As Zhou Enlai commented: “They seemed to believe that if the Three Gate Gorge dam was not built, the lower reaches of the Yellow River would be immediately devastated by flood.”6

Deng Zihui had no choice but to try to personally persuade Mao to oppose the project.7 He told Mao that he basically agreed with the measures for flood control. But rather than build the large dam at the Three Gate Gorge, he argued that during the First Five-Year Plan [1953-57],8 the government should build two reservoirs at Zhichuan and Mang hill near Luoyang. Then, after five or ten years, the country would have the resources and technical expertise to build large-scale reservoirs and deal with large numbers of relocatees. Although this was not exactly what Mao wanted to hear, he could not refute what Deng was saying. And so, once again, the project was postponed.

In January 1954, a contingent of Soviets known as the Yellow River Planning Soviet Experts Group came to Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese government. From February to June 1954, a 120-member investigation group composed of both Chinese and Soviet experts surveyed the area from Liujia Gorge to the mouth of the Yellow River. They concluded that Three Gate Gorge was a good site for a dam project. This opinion played a decisive role in the decision to launch the project, and Deng Zihui was powerless to oppose it.

During the survey, in April 1954, the central government decided to entrust the design of the dam and reservoir to the Soviet experts. Their design, delivered eight months later, recommended a 350-meter normal pool level and a reservoir with a 36 billion cubic meter storage capacity. The primary purposes of the dam would be to:

  • reduce the 37,000 cubic meters per second flow of a 1,000-year- frequency flood in the upper reaches of the river to 8,000 cubic meters per second so that the danger of floods would be dramatically reduced;
  • accumulate all sedimentation from the upper reaches and release only clear water to the lower reaches so as to realize the long-held goal of “a clear Yellow River,” and to prevent the riverbed of the lower reaches from continually rising because of accumulated sediment;9
  • adjust the quantity of water in the Yellow River and to irrigate initially 22,200,000 mu of farmland (to eventually be raised to 75,000,000 mu);
  • install an electrical generating capacity of 900,000 kilowatts and annual electricity generation of 460 million kilowatt-hours; and improve navigation on the lower reaches.

In its conclusion, the Soviet design report suggested that the project would bring about enormous benefits. However, two serious problems remained: First, the project would submerge 2.07 million mu of land and force 600,000 people from their homes. And, second, because of the accumulation of sediment in the reservoir, the dam would only last twenty-five to thirty years. Thus, debate over the project shifted from whether it should be built at all, to how to reduce the accumulation of sediment in the upper reaches.

The pro-dam forces called for extensive soil conservation in the watershed, a proposal that would ultimately play a decisive role in the final decision to launch the project. In a “technical task report” produced by the Chinese contingent of the joint Soviet and Chinese experts’ group, new data on sedimentation was released: By 1967, the Chinese claimed, the sediment delivery to the reservoir would be reduced by 50 percent, and after fifty years it would be reduced by 100 percent.10

The Soviet contingent of the group could not tolerate such bombast and urged caution in estimating the benefits of soil conservation measures. They concluded that “by 1967 the sediment would be reduced by 20 percent and in fifty years time by 50 percent.11 Despite the Soviet experts’ concerns, however, the project was now well on its way.

At the second plenum of the First National People’s Congress in summer 1955, Deng Zihui delivered a “Report on the Summary Plan for Controlling Yellow River Floods and Opening Yellow River Irrigation Projects” on behalf of the State Council.12 The report was passed unanimously, but Deng was soon ousted from his position. This prompted Zhou Enlai to say to Deng: “You gave such a bold and frank speech on the various problems posed by this plan that you’re now a household name.”13

Later, the CCP decided to entrust further design work for the dam to the Leningrad branch of the Soviet Power Stations Water and Electricity Design Institute, but stipulated certain points in the design. The Soviet designers were told to:

  • extend the lifespan of the reservoir;
  • set the normal pool level between 350 and 370 meters and design a separate plan for every five meters in between;
  • ensure flood control safety by making sure that the allowed water release amount can be reduced from 8,000 cubic meters per second to 6,000 cubic meters per second; and
  • consider the possibility of extending the amount of farmland to be irrigated.

In April 1956, the Soviets delivered their revised design which set the normal pool level at 360 meters and included an alternative 370-meter plan which would insure a 100-year lifespan for the reservoir. In July 1956, China’s State Capital Construction Commission approved the 360-meter design. The design did not, however, solve any of the major problems that had been identified earlier; the dam and reservoir would submerge 3.33 million mu of land and force the relocation of 900,000 people. Naturally, Shaanxi Province, where much of the reservoir and many of the relocatees were located, found this decision difficult to swallow. But the pro-dam forces were overjoyed; they established the “Three Gate Gorge Dam Project Bureau” (Sanmenxia gongchengju) even before the design was given final approved by Beijing.14

Amid all of the enthusiasm and chaos there appeared two intellectuals who would play key roles in the evolution of the project. One was a professor from a renowned university, and the other was a young college graduate. They disagreed with the plans to build a high dam at the Three Gate Gorge site and calmly explained their views to the top decision makers. But they were ignored. When I met with them in 1991, their lowly political and professional status had not changed for over thirty years. The professor was named Huang Wanli, and the young engineer, Wen Shanzhang.

The Specialists

The Three Gate Gorge project was officially launched on April 13, 1957. Despite the years of study, construction began without final designs for key elements of the project, including the normal pool level, the level of dead storage (si shuiwei), and the size of the gates for periodic release of flood waters. Moreover, basic decisions about whether the dam would be used primarily for flood control or for electricity generation, the amount of flood water it could store, and whether sediment should be blocked behind the dam had still not been made.15 But the project went ahead at full speed anyway.

Huang Wanli was the son of the CCP’s ally Huang Yanpei. At the time of this controversy, Huang Wanli was a professor in the Department of Hydrology at Qinghua University, China’s premier technical institution. Not yet fifty years old, he was a well-educated and experienced engineer. After graduating from Tangshan Communications University in 1932, Huang became a structural civil engineer. But after flooding of the Han River [a tributary of the Yellow River] in 1931 and the collapse of the Yellow River dam in 1933, many young people became interested in studying hydrology.16 In fact, a survey of Chinese engineers conducted after the Han River flood revealed that all of China’s hydro engineers were civil engineers. There was not a single hydrological engineer among them. This meant that the engineers could design dams, but knew nothing about river hydrology. Huang therefore decided to make hydrology his specialty.

In January 1934, he went to the United States. Assuming that floods occurred after rainstorms, he decided to major in meteorology. After completing a master’s degree at Cornell University, Huang shifted his focus to Geology for his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. After receiving his doctorate, Huang set out to visit every major hydro project in the United States, which he followed with a four-month internship at the Tennessee Valley Authority [now the United States’ largest public utility]. On his return to China, Huang was appointed a hydro supervisor for the Economic Committee of the Kuomintang government. Later, he became an engineer and survey director for the Bureau of Hydrology in Sichuan Province. During the War of Resistance against Japan [1937-45], he surveyed the Min, Wu, and Jialing rivers on foot. In 1947, he became director of the Gansu Province Hydrological Bureau, and, in 1949, was appointed as a consultant to the Northeast Hydro Bureau. According to Huang: “The study of geography and geology was an eye-opening experience that made me realize that the structural theories of civil engineering were inadequate for solving the problems of floods. Dam projects are built on rivers and they change the dynamics of water flow which, in turn, cause changes in the riverbed. When I first returned to China, the field of geology had yet to be established. Ten years later, I had walked 3,000 kilometers and collected rich data on various aspects of hydrology and information on the harnessing of rivers.”17

After hearing about the Soviets’ December 1954 Design Report, and the 1956 Revised Design which followed, Huang Wanli made a submission to the Yellow River Commission, in which he raised doubts about the entire planning procedure.

Although Huang believed that dams could effectively adjust the flow of water in a river, he felt they were bound to destroy the natural flow of sediment. He also felt that dire consequences would follow from the policy of keeping the lower reaches of the Yellow River “clear” and free of sediment. Huang argued that top soil on the banks of the river should remain where it was, while dirt or sediment in the riverbed must flow continuously. The idea of purposely accumulating sediment behind a dam was wrong, he argued. It was an attempt to fiddle around with the laws of nature.

Huang also argued that the accumulation of sediment would limit the reservoir’s lifespan and, furthermore, that no one had bothered to consider what would happen to the upper and lower reaches when the dam was no longer in use. As a result of these and other concerns, Huang categorically opposed building large-scale dams on the mainstreams of major rivers. If a dam had to be built on a mainstream, Huang insisted that sediment be flushed out of the reservoir as much as possible [the exact opposite of the plan to eventually create a “clear Yellow River” downstream of the Three Gate Gorge dam]. To achieve this, Huang felt that large sediment sluice gates should be installed at the base of the dam.

Huang Wanli is a courageous man. For over forty years he was virtually alone in his opposition to the Three Gate Gorge project, and to the planned Three Gorges project on the mainstream of the Yangtze River. He has been publicly attacked and isolated for his views, but he has never compromised.

Wen Shanzhang is a hydrologist who studied in the Soviet Union with the Soviet delegation but disagreed with their proposal for the Three Gate Gorge dam. Instead, he suggested a lower dam (with a 335-meter normal pool level) and a small reservoir that would release flood waters and flush sediment. This dam would generate less electricity, but it would also cause less inundation, require the resettlement of fewer people, and be much cheaper to build.18

In June 1957, two months before the launch of the project, over 70 experts took part in the “Symposium on the Three Gate Gorge Pivotal Hydro Project.”19 Wen Shanzhang was the first to speak. Rather than suggest a few simple modifications to the official plan, Wen advocated the construction of a smaller dam, as described above. Above all, Wen argued against adopting a “grandiose” approach to the dam’s construction.20 Wen opposed the Soviet design and argued that it was not necessary to build a large-scale project like the Three Gate Gorge dam for irrigation alone. Moreover, he felt that eastern and northern Henan should develop their own irrigation networks and that irrigation needs in other areas could be met by building a series of smaller dams. He also explained that a smaller dam could successfully control floods and lower the cost of the dam by ¥450 million. It would also lower the number of relocatees to fewer than 150,000 and reduce the amount of land to be submerged to only 500,000 mu.

But Wen Shanzhang faced a wall of opposition. The highly respected Li Eding, who was later appointed chief engineer of the Three Gate Gorge project, and the Soviet-trained Shen Chonggang adamantly supported the original official plan, as did Li Bindu.

Li Fudu was the nephew of the father of hydrology [Li Yizhi] in China, and deputy director of the Yellow River Hydro Development Commission (Huanghe shuili weiyuanhui) in Henan Province. Just a week before the symposium, Li Fudu had also advocated the idea of building small-scale dams and relying on them and well water for irrigation, but at the symposium he changed his mind and supported the official 360-meter design. Li’s speech was undoubtedly key to the final decision.

Huang Wanli responded by reiterating his claims that the extensive plans for soil conservation in the upper reaches would not effectively control sedimentation, and that the goal of a “clear” Yellow River in the lower reaches distorted the laws of nature. How is it, Huang asked, “that you object to the accumulation of sedimentation below the dam but allow accumulation above it?”21

Zhang Shouyin (an engineer in the Hydrology Bureau of Shaanxi Prov- ince) chimed in on the issue of resettlement, explaining Shaanxi Province’s opposition to the large-dam design. “When the water level is raised from 350 to 360 meters,” he noted, “the number of relocatees increases sharply from 437,000 to 735,000.”22 Zhang therefore suggested that the normal pool level not exceed 350 meters; otherwise, he warned, sediment accumulation would lead to floods that would threaten the city of Xi’an.

The symposium ended on June 24, and a “comprehensive proposal” was approved. The official publication of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power claimed that the proposal was approved by a great majority of the participants. But a memorandum issued by the symposium itself paints a different picture: Twelve people, or one-fifth of the symposium’s participants, openly opposed the proposal.23 The symposium’s final design was approved by the State Council.24

Forced Reconstruction

One year after the project was launched, six million square meters of earth had been moved, and 30,000 cubic meters of reinforced concrete had been poured.25 But Shaanxi Province still opposed the dam proposal and continued to request changes to it. In late 1958, after the disastrous Chengdu Conference [where rapid development of water resources was approved along with an initial proposal to construct a dam at the Three Gorges on the Yangtze], Zhou Enlai, Peng Dehuai, and Xi Zhongxun visited the Three Gate Gorge construction site. Both Peng and Xi had considerable political clout with the Northwest Bureau of the CCP, and it was understood that once they approved the project Shaanxi Province would have no say.

Although Zhou Enlai made no public statements about the project during this site visit, his doubts and skepticism were evident. One day, as charts and diagrams were being set up in a meeting room, Zhou walked in and asked why none of the charts included a dam design based on the 335-meter normal pool level [the design proposed by Wen Shanzhang]. The engineer in charge responded that the 335-meter proposal would create a reservoir insufficiently large, to which Zhou, in turn, responded: “The only thing you people understand is large-scale this and big that.”26

At a subsequent meeting held at the site, debate was heated. The Shaanxi delegation gave impassioned speeches requesting a lower normal pool level, and Zhou tried to support them. Xi Zhongxun proposed a compromise – a 360-meter design, an actual height of 350 meters, and effective water storage at 340 meters. The compromise was accepted, meaning that the pro-dam group’s desire for a 360-meter dam was not completely rejected but that the normal pool level would, in reality, be only 340 meters.

By the end of 1958, the Yellow River had been blocked, and by 1960 the dam was 340 meters high, tall enough to hold back floods. In September of that year, water storage and sediment accumulation began.

But the dam supporters and Soviet experts had made a serious mistake. At the June 1957 symposium (discussed above), Huang Wanli had cautioned that the designers must include sediment sluice gates at the bottom of the dam and silt discharging tubes so that accumulated sediment could be flushed through the dam. The majority of those attending the symposium had agreed, and the initial design approved by the State Council had included the outlets and tubes. But under the leadership of Professor Zhang Guangdou, and based on suggestions from the Soviet experts, the 12 tubes specified by the initial design were blocked by reinforced concrete during construction. By 1967, each and every one had to be reopened at a cost of ¥10 million each.

In February 1962, the first 150,000 kilowatt turbine began operation. The project was completed on schedule, but there was little to celebrate. The reservoir caused farmland to become waterlogged and the agricultural output of nearby peasants dropped sharply because of increased salinization and alkalinization. Moreover, sediment began accumulating in the reservoir and upstream river channel immediately, and was soon inching its way upstream toward the industrial center of the city of Xi’an.27 As a result, in March 1962, the project had to be extensively rebuilt and altered to release flood water and flush out sediment, thereby resulting in a drop in the normal pool level. With the drop in the reservoir level, the 150,000 kilowatt turbines quickly became useless and were moved to the Danjiangkou power station – a very costly operation and one that effectively removed all of the dam’s electricity generating capacity for the time being.

Despite the reconstruction, however, sediment continued to move toward the upper reaches. At the April 1962 third session of the Second National People’s Congress, delegates from Shaanxi Province proposed lowering the normal pool level to below 315 meters and opening all of the locks to release flood waters and flush out sediment. In other words, they were proposing that the Yellow River flow freely, and that the dam become a run-of-the-river design.

By the third year of operation, the reservoir had accumulated so much sediment – approximately five billion tons – that the sediment tail was only 30 kilometers from Xi’an.28 Shaanxi Province appealed directly to Mao Zedong. When faced with the reality of the situation, Mao became very upset and told Zhou: “If nothing works, then just blow up the dam.”29

But destroying the dam was a difficult proposition at best, so Zhou Enlai convened a series of meetings to come up with an alternative plan. Between 1965 and 1968, the project was rebuilt again. The normal pool level was reduced to 315 meters, almost doubling the amount of water (and, hopefully, sediment) that the dam could release per second. But above Tongguan pass, the sediment continued to build up. The Yelluw River simply would not behave itself.

Eventually, the dam, which was now full of holes, was able to release enough water and flush out enough sediment to balance further deposition, at least temporarily. In 1978, five turbines, with an installed capacity of 250,000 kilowatts, were installed at the dam. (The original design called for 1,160,000 kilowatts.)

Despite all of the problems with electricity generation and sedimentation, many felt that the effects of inundation and resettlement were even more serious. Based on the 360-meter design, 3,330,000 mu of land was to be submerged and 900,000 people were to be resettled. When Zhou Enlai had the normal pool level essentially reduced to 335 meters, the effects were reduced significantly – only 856,000 mu was submerged and 318,900 people resettled.30 But many were resettled for naught – the project was such a failure that some relocatees’ land was never submerged.31 Moreover, the mass of accumulated sediment created vast swaths of new land.

However, the new land was not given to the relocatees but was occupied by soldiers. When the relocatees learned of these facts they were shocked and immediately petitioned that they be allowed to return to the land and that the soldiers be vacated. In May 1985 (according to Central Document No. 29), 300,000 mu of land that had been occupied by soldiers and run as state farms was returned to its rightful owners, the relocatees.32

In the late 1980s, thirty years after the dam was built, sedimentation once again became a problem. This time the favored solution was the construction of another dam – the Xiaolangdi – in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. The new reservoir would have a total capacity of 12 billion cubic meters of water, would control floods, and would help reduce sedimentation in the lower reaches of the river for up to twenty years. After that new measures would have to be adopted.

During the thirtieth anniversary of the Three Gate Gorge dam the following refrain was repeated over and over:

      Thirty years is merely a small wave in the long river of history, but in the history of harnessing the Yellow River in the new China this has been a major achievement. These were thirty years of developing and exploring the river, thirty years of providing benefits and eliminating disasters, and thirty years of harnessing the Yellow River in which one victory after another has been won. On this world-renowned river with its massive amounts of sediment, there was built a great dam of over 300 meters in height and over 700 meters in width that was unprecedented in history. Like a great wall of water, the dam cut off the roaring Yellow River and like a steel chain, it bound the neck of the river and turned it from a dragon that brought perpetual disasters to the people to one that now provides them with benefits and aids the task of socialist construction.


The Three Gate Gorge and Three Gorges Dams

In November 1994, the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River was officially launched – thirty-seven years after the Three Gate Gorge dam had been started. What are the similarities between the two dams?

Both structures are on the mainstreams of the most important rivers in China. Both are record-breaking, large-scale projects designed to control floods downstream. Both are said to provide “huge economic benefits” through electricity generation: Originally, it was claimed that the Three Gate Gorge dam would fulfill one-third of the country’s electricity needs, and now it is said that the Three Gorges dam will provide one-tenth of the national supply. Both dams are supposed to facilitate navigation on their rivers. Both projects require submerging vast tracts of farmland and relocating large numbers of people: 410,000 in the case of the Three Gate Gorge and 1,200,000 in the case of the Three Gorges. The Three Gate Gorge dam destroyed 1,000-year-old cultural relics and antiquities from the civilization of central China. The Three Gorges dam will destroy relics from an even earlier period, the Ba culture.

In both cases, provinces in the upper reaches of the two rivers suffered: Shaanxi in the Three Gate Gorge and Sichuan for the Three Gorges. Representatives from Sichuan pleaded to the government just like their counterparts in Shaanxi, but in both cases their opinions were systematically ignored. Both projects faced similar sediment problems. In the case of the Three Gate Gorge, sediment threatened the city of Xi’an while sediment trapped in the Three Gorges reservoir will threaten Chongqing. Both cities are provincial capitals and important industrial cities. Catchy slogans have been created to help deal with the dams’ respective sediment problems – “soil conservation” was the clarion call of the Three Gate Gorge, just as “store clean water and flush out sediment” is the proposed solution for the Three Gorges.

Both projects chose to gradually increase the normal pool level and resettle people at different stages. The failures that beset the Three Gate Gorge in this regard will undoubtedly afflict the Three Gorges.

Both dams provoked intense debate, and in both cases minority opinions were censored and slandered. Both dams became the “concern” (guanxin) of the top leadership – Mao Zedong for the Three Gate Gorge and Deng Xiaoping for the Three Gorges. In each case, it was this “concern” that served as the primary force pushing the project forward.

Authorities claimed that both projects were “demanded by the people” because they were approved by the National People’s Congress. And both were funded by the state as part of the planned economy. As a result, no matter how large the disaster, no one will have to take personal responsibility for their failures.

The potential social and political impacts of both projects were ignored. In each case, the head engineers (Wang Huayun for the Three Gate Gorge project and Lin Yishan for the Three Gorges) were the Party’s “red specialists.” Because of their red backgrounds, they feared nothing. Both were blindly confident and pursued the vanity of dictatorship.

In both cases, the dam’s opponents – Wen Shanzhang in the case of the Three Gate Gorge and Huang Wanli in both cases – proposed smaller dams as the most rational alternative to large-scale dams and giant reservoirs. Huang’s predictions for the Three Gate Gorge dam all came true. For the Three Gorges project he cautioned that it is absurd to build a dam on the mainstream of such a sediment-laden river. He also warned the authorities not to ignore local interests. Let’s not forget that it was the Railroad Protection Movement in Sichuan Province that triggered the 1912 Republican revolution.

The Three Gate Gorge dam now has to be operated according to Wen Shanzhang’s original instructions from 1957. What will happen in the case of the Three Gorges?

Huang Wanli, who has now passed away, will never see the Yangtze River blocked up. But what about Wen Shanzhang? Will he one day be forced to write the book on what went wrong with the Three Gorges dam project?


1 Such commissions exist for all the major rivers in China and are charged with advising the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power on management of river resources. But since they have no authority to issue orders that fall within their jurisdictions, it is virtually impossible to implement integrated plans for river-basin development. See, Lieberthal, Governing China (New York: Norton, 1995); p. 286.

2 Huanghe zhi (Records of the Yellow River), Henan People’s Publishing House.

3 “Sanmenxia shuili shuniu yunyong yanjiu wenji” (Compilation of Research Documents on the Operations of the Pivotal Three Gate Gorge Hydro Project) (Henan, Peoples’ Publishing House, 1994).

4 In the early 1950s, the Yellow River carried about 1.3 billion tons of silt through the Three Gate Gorge annually. See Smil, The Bad Earth, p. 44.

5 Wang Tingji, “1956 Account of a Visit to the Soviet Union of the Engineering Bureau of the Three Gate Gorge Hydro Project,” in Zhongguo shuili fazhan shiliao (Data on the Historical Development of Hydrology in China) (March 1989).

6 Cao Yingwang, Zhou Enlai yu zhishui (Zhou Enlai and the Harnessing of Rivers) (Department of Research on Party Literature, Central Committee of the CCP, 1991).

7 Mao Zedong’s critical role in playing off factions and arbitrating all such disputes in the “court politics” of the 1950s is discussed in Frederick C. Teiwes, Politics at Mao’s Court: Gao Gang and Party Factionalism in the Early 1950s (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1990).

8 The major slogan of the First Five-Year Plan was “Let’s be modern and Soviet.” See Riskin, China’s Political Economy, p. 53.

9 In Henan and Shandong provinces where it is confined by dikes, the Yellow River flows three to five meters, and in some places up to ten meters above the surrounding countryside. See Smil, The Bad Earth, p. 47.

10 1954 Report by Chinese Contingent, “Huanghe Sanmenxia shuili shuniu sheji jishu renwushu” (Technical Task Report on the Yellow River Three Gate Gorge Pivotal Hydro Project) (n.p., n.d.). While soil conservation measures such as reforestation can significantly reduce the suspended sediment conveyed by the river into the reservoir, it is a practical impossibility to reduce the amount by 100 percent. All rivers, even in the best protected watersheds, convey appreciable amounts of sediment during natural floods.

11 1954 Report by Soviet Contingent, “Key Points of the Initial Design of the Three Gate Gorge Project” (n.p., n.d.).

12 This grandiose plan for the utilization of the Yellow River had as its centerpiece the construction of 46 separate dams on the river to impound water for the generation of electricity, expansion of the irrigated areas in the river basin, and increased navigation. The dam at the Three Gate Gorge was to be the largest of the 46. See Smil, The Bad Earth, p. 45.

13 Cao Yingwang, Zhou Enlai yu zhishui, 1991.

14 Dui Zhengzhou Huanghe weiyuanhui gongcheng de caifang (Interviews Concerning the Zhengzhou Yellow River Commission Project) (n.p., 1992).

15 Dam designers optimistically asserted that “‘difficulties that may arise in power generation, irrigation, and navigation as a result of the silting up of the reservoir … will be comparatively easy to deal with.'” Quoted in Smil, The Bad Earth, p. 45.

16 Huang Wanli, Zhishui yincao (Harnessing the Water and Musings About Nature) (n.p., n.d.).

17 Huang Wanli, Duiyu Sanmenxia shuiku nanxing guihua fangfa de yijian (Views Concerning the Current Operational Plans of the Three Gate Gorge Dam Project) (n.p., n.d.). See also, “Huacong xiaoyu” (Small Discourses from a Flower Thicket), Renmin ribao (People’s Daily), June 19, 1957.

18 Wen Shanzhang, Dui Sanmenxia dianzhan de yijian (Reflections on the Three Gate Gorge Power Station) (n.p., n.d.).

19 “Sanmenxia shuniu taolunhui” (Symposium on the Three Gate Gorge Pivotal Hydro Project), Zhongguo shuili (Chinese Hydrology), (1957-58).

20 “Grandiose” plans still have considerable currency in China as is indicated by the Three Gorges dam and plans to irrigate China’s deserts in the northwest by using nuclear explosions to cut canals through rugged mountains in order to bring water from Tibet.

21 Huang Wanli, Duiyu Sanmenxia shuiku xianxiang guihua fangfa de yijian.

22 “Sanmenxia shuniu taolunhui.”

23 Opponents included: Wen Shanzhang, Huang Wanli, Ye Yongyi, Mei Changhua, Fang Zongdai, Zhang Shouyin, Wang Qianguang, Wang Tun, Yang Hongrun, Li Wenzhi, and others.

24 At about this time, a United States delegation had opposed construction of the dam at the Three Gate Gorge and had suggested Balihutong as an alternate site. Many Chinese hydrologists agreed with this suggestion but no one dared say anything in support of the American views. The Three Gate Gorge power station would be the largest in Asia and many comrades, out of patriotism, were anxious to launch this project. Also, no one dared disagree with the Soviet experts and support the Americans even if the issue was a purely technical one.

25 Wen Shanzhang, Huanghe Sanmenxia gongcheng huigu yu pingjia (Recollections and Evaluation of the Three Gate Gorge Dam Project on the Yellow River).

26 Wang Tingji, “Jin Zhou zongli zai Sanmenxia chaokaide yici huiyi,” (Memories of Zhou Enlai at the Three Gate Gorge Conference), in Zhongguo shuili fazhan shiliao (Materials on the Development of Chinese Hydropower), No.3, 1991.

27 Between September 1960 and March 1962, 1.645 billion cubic meters of sediment entered the reservoir, 93 percent of which was “deposited” behind the dam. At this rate, the reservoir’s life would be just a few years. See Smil, The Bad Earth, p. 46.

28 As water enters the reservoir it slows, depositing sediment in the river channel. Over time, the “sediment tail” or area of backwater effect moves progressively upstream from the reservoir.

29 Cao Yingwang, Zhou Enlai yu zhishui.

30 An additional 84,900 people had to be resettled as a result of a landslide in the area, bringing the total to 403,800.

31 Sanmenxia yimin shuiku nongcun yimin buchang biaozhun diaocha baogao (Investigative Report on the Criteria for Reimbursement to Rural Refugees from the Three Gate Gorge Dam) (Internal Reference), Zhongguo shuili fadian gongcheng xuehui shuiku jingji zhuanye weiyuanhui (Reservoir Special Economic Committee of the Association of the China Hydropower Development Projects), 1990.

32 The virtual war that broke out over control of these lands is vividly described in Leng Meng, “Huanghe dayimin” (The Massive Population Resettlement on the Yellow River), Zhongguo zuojia (Chinese Writers), (n.p., 1996), pp. 60-92. Zhang Yue, the central government inspector who helped ease the confrontation in Xi’an, is the head of the Three Gorges resettlement feasibility group in Beijing.

33 Ma Fuhai, “Zai jinian Sanmenxia shuili shuniu gongcheng jianshe sanshinian dahui shangde jianghua” (Speech at the meeting in commemoration of the construction of the Three Gate Gorge Project).

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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