Three Gorges Probe

Ship lift problems at Yangtze tributary dam threaten Three Gorges project

by Dr. Wang Weiluo
June 19, 2000

Navigational difficulties on the Yangtze River heighten concerns over dam building projects.

Dr. Wang Weiluo is a Chinese engineer who participated in the Three Gorges project feasibility study in the 1980s. He also has a PhD in land use planning and currently works for an engineering firm in Germany. In his book, Fortune and Misfortune, Wang criticized many aspects of the mega-project’s flood control, navigation and power functions. Dr. Weiluo contributed the following article to Three Gorges Probe.

Ship lift problems at the Qingjiang River’s Geheyan dam have disrupted shipping on the river, boding ill for navigation on the Yangtze where the much larger Three Gorges dam is now under construction.

China’s Qingjiang River has already been dammed twice by the Geheyan (1200 MW) and Gaobazhou (250 MW) dams, and, soon, by a third: Chinese dam builders approved plans for the Shuibuya dam (1600 MW) last December. But difficulties installing ship lift structures at dams along the Qingjiang might jeopardize plans to improve the waterway channel for 300-ton ships – as it is, smaller ships blocked by hydrodams have had to be replaced by highway transportation.

The seriousness of the situation is enough to heighten concerns about shipping prospects along the Yangtze River – a major east-west artery of trade and commerce – after the Three Gorges dam is completed.

Dam proponents argue that the 660-kilometre treacherous stretch of river would be transformed by the Three Gorges dam into a deep, gently-flowing waterway, and would allow 10,000-ton ships access to the river port at Chongqing, southwestern China’s largest inland port.

At present, passage between the Yangtze’s Yichang and Chongqing ports is hazardous for large vessels, and the cost of shipping through this stretch has traditionally been more than double the cost downstream of Three Gorges. But Chinese critics are doubtful the proposed Three Gorges’ ship lift – the world’s largest – will work properly and have recommended testing the ship lift design at hydro stations on less important waterways, to avoid disrupting navigation on the Yangtze.

Problems with the ship lift design at the Geheyan dam has delayed the installation of the ship lift at Three Gorges dam and led to the cancellation of a ship lift for the Shibuya dam.

Yangtze Tributary Dams

The Geheyan dam is the Qingjiang River’s first large dam. The 423-kilometre river, situated at the southwestern end of the Hubei Province, is the Yangtze River’s second largest tributary and an important transportation waterway for Hubei province. Chinese dam builders have long argued that one of the benefits of building dams with ship lift structures on this river, is that it will allow 300-ton cargo ships to go directly from Wuhan to Shien port.

Built by the Gezhouba Corporation – currently embroiled in dam-related corruption scandals – and partly financed by the Canadian government, the Geheyan dam took 11 years and $500-million to construct.

Geheyan dam was completed in 1994 but according to the 1999 Water Project Yearbook, published by the Ministry of Water Resources, the Geheyan’s ship lift didn’t become operational until 1998.

The original plans called for two vertical ship-lifters (one with a lifting height of 50 metres and the other 82 metres, each with a ship weight capacity of 300 tons), but project builders ran into some technical problems that have been a key factor causing the prolonged delay of ship lift installation at the Three Gorges dam.

Approved by the State Planning Committee on Dec.17, 1999, the Shuibuya project was planned and designed by the Yangtze Valley Planning Office, which has also been responsible for the planning and design of the Three Gorges dam since the 1950s. Financed by central, provincial and municipal levels of government, the province-owned Qingjiang Hydroelectric Development Company is Shuibuya’s project developer.

According to official documents, the Qingjiang company has “temporarily” suspended installation of a ship passage at Shuibuya despite objections from Hubei province’s navigation department.

The rationale given by the Ministry of Water Resources in the 1996 Yangtze River Yearbook states: “Based on the consideration that the ship lifters require a too-heavy load of investment but with a limited prospect of payment capacity, and the fact that this section of the river has not been a shipping channel in natural conditions, a decision has been made to postpone the building of ship lifters, yet maintain the location as originally planned for future construction.”

Apart from Shien and Zhicheng, there are no major cities along the Qingjian River so dam builders decided not to include a ship lift for navigation.

Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River

According to the original plan approved by the National People’s Congress in 1992, the Three Gorges project included a ship lift with a carrying capacity of 11,500 tonnes and an elevation of 113 metres, more than twice the height of any existing ship lift. The world’s largest ship lift is located in Belgium and has a carrying capacity of 8,800 tonnes, and an elevation of 23 metres. China’s largest ship lift belongs to the Danjiangkou dam in Hubei province, at the mouth of the Danjiang river, which has an elevation of 50 metres and can lift 450 tonnes.

Although the Three Gorges ship lift was scheduled to start operating before the end of 2009, plans have already been postponed several times and there are doubts that the dam’s ship lifters will be operational by then – the ship lift was originally slated for completion in 1999.

Contradictory reports on the status of the Three Gorges’ ship lift have appeared in the Chinese media. According to a Dec. 9, 1999, story in the China Three Gorges Project journal (published by the Three Gorges Project Corporation, a state-owned enterprise responsible for project supervision and construction), the original ship lift design approved by the central government in 1992 has been changed. An earlier story in the same journal, dated Nov. 23, 1999, reported that the Three Gorges ship lift would be delivered by a German company in June 2000.

German engineers interviewed by this author report that the technology involved in the Three Gorges ship lift is complicated and difficult to implement and operate. Even if it can be built, there is no guarantee that it will operate properly, they say.

The Editorial Committee of the Yangtze River Yearbooks. General Introduction of Geheyan Project, Yangtze River Yearbook 1993.
All documents quoted were in the Yangtze River Yearbook 1996, including:

  • * The Ministry of Electric Power’s response on the Site selection report contained in the feasibility study of the Shuibuya Hydroelectric Plant in Qingjiang River, Hubei Province, Sept. 29, 1995
  • * Appendix: Review of the Site selection report of the Feasibility Study of the Shuibuya Hydroelectric Plant in Qingjiang River, Hubei Province, p. 12-14.
  • * The People’s Government of Hubei on the Site selection report of the Feasibility Study of the Shuibuya Hydroelectric Plant in Qingjiang River, Hubei Province, Dec 4, 1995, p. 21.
  • * Survey and Design of the Shuibuya Hydro Project in Qingjiang, p. 248-249.

“Fortune or disaster: The Three Gorges Project” (in Chinese), Wentong Publishing House, Taiwan, 1993.
“A major problem in the Three Gorges Project” (in Chinese), Qu Wuxi, Zheng Ming magazine, August 1994.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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