Three Gorges

FEATURE: What price the Three Gorges project?

(September 18, 2008) By the end of this year China’s Three Gorges Corporation plans to raise its reservoir to a final height of 175 metres despite experts’ warnings that higher water levels are likely to accelerate sedimentation and render the port of Chongqing useless within the first 10 years of operation. At 175 metres, the company expects to generate an extra 600 million yuan ($US88 million) in hydropower revenue annually. In the following paper presented at a Beijing seminar earlier this year, Guo Yushan of the Beijing-based Transition Institute examines how China’s political leaders and Three Gorges officials have dismissed experts’ concerns about reservoir sedimentation and other environmental problems in their zeal to build the world’s largest hydro dam.

What Price the Three Gorges Project?

By Guo Yushan

Translation by Madeleine Ross and Fang Li

Long before the Three Gorges Project got underway, Chinese engineers and experts knew what it meant to build a dam that should never have been built. China’s pre-eminent water resources engineer, Professor Huang Wanli, predicted the Sanmenxia dam1on the Yellow River would be a disaster but was powerless to prevent its construction.

Huang Wanli cautioned against building Sanmenxia but unfortunately those in authority ignored him and the outcome was one disaster after another. After spending four billion yuan, (the original cost estimate was 1.3 billion yuan), the dam’s reservoir silted up less than two years after its completion. Sediment and mud backed up all the way to Xi’an, the fertile Weishui Plain, destroying thousands of people’s homes and ruining the farmland. Only later did it become apparent that the people’s sacrifice for this dam was absurd; all they got was a completely useless reservoir and destructive floods across the province of Shaanxi.

Unfortunately, not even a disaster like the Sanmenxia Reservoir aroused fear in the central government authorities. According to Li Peng’s Three Gorges Diary2 “the fate of the Three Gorges Project was decided on January 19th, 1985, a day which will forever be worthy of commemoration.” The reason being that on that day Deng Xiaoping had given his unequivocal support for the plan to build a medium height dam on the Yangtze River. Nowhere does Li Peng mention Huang Wanli’s concerns. Just as with Sanmenxia, policy decisions regarding the Three Gorges dam were not based on prudent hydrological and water resources engineering analysis.

 Read “A tale of two scientists” 

Even though Professor Wanli had accurately predicted the disastrous effects of the Sanmenxia dam, and had earned an excellent reputation as an authority on important engineering projects, he was not invited to join the Three Gorges Project evaluation group. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Huang Wanli wrote six times to central government officials, including Qian Zhengying and Jiang Zemin, explaining why the Three Gorges dam shouldn’t be built. He received no reply whatsoever. Right up until his death he worried about the consequences of damming the Three Gorges and even wrote down detailed methods for managing the Yangtze River in his will.

Read Dai Qing’s interview with Professor Wanli in Yangtze! Yangtze!

On the surface, opponents of the Three Gorges project appear to have won a great deal of respect from proponents. Government officials involved in the project, including Pan Jiazheng and Pu Haiqing, have repeatedly said that opposing opinions were beneficial and that opponents were making the biggest contribution to the project. But the reality is Huang Wanli and other senior experts such as Li Rui were shut out of the debate; other dissenters were silenced.

Li Peng’s diary entry for April 15th, 1996 reads: “Yesterday comrade Jiang Zemin spoke with me about a number of things on the phone; that they had banned Li Rui’s submission requesting for construction to be stopped on the Three Gorges Project, and also that Li Rui had been asked to think of the bigger picture.”

Then on April 25th, 1998, Li Peng writes that he went to visit Xiao Yang who had fallen ill (Xiao Yang was an important person in the political arena –- he was a former mayor of Chongqing and governor of Sichuan Province). Xiao Yang told Li Peng that when the Three Gorges Project was being deliberated in the People’s Congress, he used his status as former provincial head of Sichuan to “do a lot of work on” the delegation from Sichuan who at that time had a lot of objections to the project. We can only assume that this work meant urging dissenters to consider the bigger picture.

By considering the bigger picture, less attention was paid to science. Even though Li Peng’s diary indicates that he spoke publicly about scientific water management wherever he went, he didn’t appear to have much respect for scientists and engineers critical of his project. As Li Rui recalls, the early years of Three Gorges Project evaluations in the 1980s were managed in a very autocratic fashion by the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Electric Power. He writes: “Most of the experts who criticized the Three Gorges Project were kept out of the specialist evaluation groups, and there was a categorical refusal to invite experts who were the most critical.”

Since the 1980s when the Three Gorges project got off the ground, experts repeatedly warned that the river’s gravel load could be fatal to the Three Gorges dam, but nearly all were ignored or dismissed by the authorities. Because there was so much controversy about the dam in the 1980s, the government organized two evaluation groups. The first in 1983, headed by the National Planning Commission, decided to adopt a plan to build a lower dam on the river with a normal pool level (NPL) of 150 metres. The second, led by the Ministry of Water Conservation and Electric Power, took more than two years to agree on a plan to build a higher dam with a NPL of 175 metres. Both engineering evaluation groups excluded Huang Wanli and other experts. In 1992, the People’s Congress finally adopted the 175-metre proposal.

Critical sedimentation studies were ignored. As Lu Qinkan and other experts have pointed out, the Sedimentation Research Centre at the Beijing-based China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research carried out a silt modeling experiment in July of 1988 based on the 1954 flood along the Yangtze: the Institute concluded that if this flood were to occur when the Three Gorges reservoir level is at 175 metres, there would be a very serious problem with sedimentation in Chongqing’s two largest ports, Jiulongpo port and Chaotianmen port. The Institute further stated that it would be impossible to flush the silt deposits away even if every effort was made to do so after filling the reservoir: the deep water section of the riverbed near the wharves would be silted up. Almost at the same time, another research group, the Yangtze River Scientific Research Institute at the Changjiang (Yangtze) Water Resources Commission carried out a similar experiment and came to the same conclusions. But neither of these experiments were recorded in the Three Gorges project feasibility study, nor reported to either the State Council or to the National People’s Congress, Lu Qinkan notes.

But natural laws do not disappear just because leaders dislike them. After predicting what would happen at Sanmenxia, Huang Wanli was even more vehement in his opposition to the Three Gorges dam, because a big dam built on the main channel of the Yangtze would have far more serious consequences than Sanmenxia. One of the big differences between the two projects was that in the Sanmenxia case, the siltation was caused by tiny granules of sediment suspended in water, which could be flushed through the dam with water. In the Yangtze River, it was not only sediment being washed along the riverbed, but also gravel and pebbles. Huang Wanli estimated that each year around 100 million tonnes of gravel was being moved along in this way in the Yangtze River upstream of Chongqing. He reckoned that after the dam was built and water storage began, it would be impossible to flush the gravel out, and that within ten years the Chongqing port area would be blocked up.

Engineers in the Three Gorges Corporation wouldn’t acknowledge this point. In 2003, when interviewed3 by Lu Yuegang, a well-known reporter working at the China Youth Daily at that time, Pan Jiazheng snorted with contempt on hearing Huang Wanli’s comments, and said that Huang Wanli had not published his opinion in any respected academic journals, nor had reliable observations or experiments as evidence. He spoke as if Huang Wanli, an opponent of the project and an academic with a great deal of standing, was just playing around. In fact, Huang Wanli’s opinions about the erosion of gravel and pebbles in the Yangtze River had been published in the Journal of Hydroelectric Engineering (Shuili fadian xuebao) in 1993 and 1995 respectively. During this period, Huang Wanli “walked 3000 kilometres during 6 inspections along the reaches of the Min, Wu, Fu and Jialing rivers (Yangtze tributaries upstream of the Three Gorges dam).” His specialized knowledge of the gravel problems in the Yangtze River are beyond dispute. By contrast, Pan Jiazheng’s arrogance and hypocrisy were completely exposed.

Now that the Three Gorges Corporation has publicly announced that the Three Gorges reservoir will be filled to 172 or 175 metres this year (2008), Huang Wanli’s predictions may finally be put to the test. If he and other experts are correct, when the normal pool level (NPL) reaches 175 metres, the reservoir’s backwater will reach Chongqing. If there is a large flood, the sediment carried by the Yangtze River could build up at Chongqing, creating a dead port. As well, heavy siltation along the Jialing River would raise its water level and put surrounding areas of Chongqing at risk of flooding.

In Huang Wanli’s 1993 essay, “Discussion on the quantities of gravel erosion in the Yangtze River,” Huang said that deciding on the feasibility of building a dam and blocking a river in the process, depended first on analyzing the physical environment and location where the engineering works were to be carried out. Only then should the feasibility of the actual engineering works be looked at and an analysis done of the economic, technological, social and military considerations. In regard to the specific feasibility questions of the Three Gorges dam, the way in which changes occurred in the river bed above Yichang on the Yangtze River should be analyzed first, and then the likelihood of gravel accumulating in the reservoir could be predicted. If there was no way of resolving the issue of gravel buildup, then the Three Gorges dam should simply not be built, and there would be no need to do further analysis of the economic, technological, social and military considerations. The amount of gravel erosion and the speed of sedimentation and gravel accumulation are the key issues which should determine whether the Three Gorges project should be built.

By the 1990s, the engineering works on the project had begun and everyone knew that it was impossible to put a stop to it, because what was done could not be undone. Realizing this, but anxious about siltation, a group of experts petitioned again and again for the lesser of two evils, the adoption of a low dam, or at the very least for a low NPL of 150 to 160 metres. Hydrologists Lu Qinkan, Xu Qiashi and other experts wrote to Jiang Zemin and Li Peng requesting that the water level be kept at 160 metres and for any money saved by doing so to be used on engineering works along the upper reaches of the river. The petition was ignored. By June of 2003, the water level in the reservoir had reached 135 metres; Lu Qinkan and others submitted another appeal: “When the water level reaches 156 metres, water storage should come to a stop. A number of problems could occur if the water level is brought up to 175 metres . . . including floods upstream of the dam and the silting up of Chongqing’s port.”

“Only after one or two large floods (upstream of the Three Gorges) will it be possible to determine precisely the severity of siltation caused by movement of gravel and stones along the river bed.”   Lu Jiaguo

By 2007, the official media began painting a much rosier picture. At a State Council news conference, Wang Xiaofeng, director of the TGPCC’s office (Three Gorges Project Construction Committee), stated that the amount of sedimentation in the reservoir had decreased, and that especially in 2003 and 2006 the dam had released more silt from the reservoir than had been estimated in the plans. He said that the original calculation was that 500 million tonnes would enter the reservoir annually, but measurements showed that it was only 200 million tonnes, that the siltation rate had declined, and that the capacity of the dam to release sediment was meeting expectations. Quoting Pan Jiazheng, the official media ran stories with headlines such as “The Three Gorges will not fill up with silt” and “The Three Gorges dam will never become a second Sanmenxia dam.” With this official confirmation that the siltation problem had been sorted out, the plan to fill the reservoir to 175 metres could now proceed well ahead of schedule.

Still experts were not persuaded:

  • In Feb of 2006, an expert in geology called Fan Xiao went on a tour of the Three Gorges, and discovered that the mouth of the Letianxi River, which is one of the Yangtze tributaries on the north bank, had already been silted up by a huge sand bar about 20 metres deep. As a result, the flow of the river was almost completely blocked. He also said that “The situation of the Jialing River which flows into the Yangtze River in the city of Chongqing is just a larger version of the Letianxi River.”4
  • Lu Jiaguo, a retired senior researcher at Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences analyzed the situation in this way: “2003 and 2006 were both abnormal years, there was a drought in Sichuan and Chongqing and water was being stored in the reservoir. So if data from those years were used to predict the amount of sediment entering the reservoir, one would be getting a completely false impression. Only after one or two large floods (upstream of the Three Gorges) will it be possible to determine precisely the severity of siltation caused by movement of gravel and stones along the river bed.”
  • Senior geographer Jin Shaochou argued that if flooding similar to the 1998 floods took place when water was already at a level of 175 metres, and there were several hundred million tonnes of sediment and gravel in the reservoir tail, China’s most important inland port at Chongqing would become useless.
  • Rong Tianfu, member of the State Council’s Three Gorges Project sedimentation expert group, said that when the water level rose to 175 metres, both the Jiulongpo port and Chaotianmen port in Chongqing might no longer be navigable.5

In fact, for years the Chongqing government has recognized that the port areas would silt up as the river level began rising. In 2003, the municipality began building the Cuntan Port downstream. In 2004, a year after filling the Three Gorges reservoir to 135 metres, Li Changjun, deputy chief of Chongqing’s Transport Planning Bureau, told reporters from South Weekend magazine that: “Chongqing’s ports are silting up slowly but surely and will definitely become totally blocked by sediment.”

 “Chongqing’s ports are silting up slowly but surely and will definitely become totally blocked by sediment.”  Li Changjun

Nor was the Three Gorges Corporation unaware of the situation. In 2006,  Liu Jianqiang of South Weekend wrote: “As reported by Chinese media before, Lu Youmei, former general manager of the Three Gorges Corporation, told the Chongqing government that if things didn’t work out, the Corporation would spend several hundred million yuan to move the Jiulongpo port to Cuntan downstream, where the conditions were much better.” When interviewed by the South Weekend [for the same article], another Three Gorges official Cao Guangjing, the deputy manager of the Corporation, also conveyed the same message. However, the Three Gorges Corporation’s main plan was still to fill the reservoir with as much water as possible in order to generate as much electricity as possible and use the money from electricity generation to subsidize dredging and removal of the sediment. The faster the water reached 175 metres the sooner there would be a better income. It’s quite clear that this was just a simple financial calculation. For every 6 cubic metres of water stored, the dam can produce one more kilowatt hour of electricity, and when the water level is raised from 156 to 175 metres, the storage capacity of the reservoir will rise from 23.4 billion to 39.3 billion cubic metres of water, so 2.65 billion more kilowatt hours of electricity can be generated. If the selling price of each kilowatt hour is .25 yuan, the Corporation can increase its revenue by around 660 million yuan. According to Bi Yaxiong, vice manager of the Three Gorges Corporation, “The water in the dam is being continuously replaced in the process, and serving a double purpose. When the Three Gorges has used the water, the Gezhouba dam’s power plant can use it straight away. Therefore, the real amount of increase in energy generation is much higher than this figure.”

This is the reason why even though Lu Qinkan, Li Rui and other older experts continuously appealed for a low water level, what actually happened was the complete opposite of what they wished for. There had been a push for an accelerated speed of water retention all along. The original plan was to raise the water level to 135 metres in 2003 and four years later, namely in 2007, to raise the level to 156 metres. Then  determine the best time for raising it to 175 metres, depending on the results of sedimentation surveys in the reservoir tail and also on the relocation schedule of the affected migrants. At first this was tentatively planned over six years in order to monitor the dam, which would have meant raising the water level to 175 metres in 2013. But what actually happened was that in October 2006, the water level in the reservoir was raised to 156 metres, a year ahead of schedule. Soon after, at the beginning of 2008, the Three Gorges Corporation announced that the fourth period of relocations would be completed in 2008 and a water level of 172 or 175 metres would be achieved. This was five whole years ahead of the original plan!

Once the water level in the Three Gorges has reached 175 metres, the group of people who opposed it on the grounds of sedimentation concerns will have been totally defeated. It only remains for time to tell if their prediction of it being another Sanmenxia will unfortunately come true. If the same problem happens with the Three Gorges dam, Huang Wanli would already have been dead for many years and would not see the calamity with his own eyes, but it would be a huge disaster for the Chinese people. The shipping in the Yangtze would be interrupted, Chongqing would be covered by water and there would be more severe floods in Sichuan Province as a result.


Apart from the issue of siltation, there are also a whole range of other problems with the Three Gorges project. After the water level began rising, there were geological problems such as landslides, mud-rock flow and so forth. As the reporters of Caijing magazine discovered, “In the first eleven months of 2003, after the second period of water storage began, collapses and landslides occurred in 4688 places around the reservoir. In comparison with the 2001 figure of 2490 such incidents, it has quite evidently become worse in the short space of only two years.”

One of the recent incidents that was a real tragedy happened on July 13, 2003, just before dawn, when the large-scale Qianjiangping landslide took place and 20 million cubic metres of rock and soil came pouring down, burying 24 people. But the emergence of these sorts of geological disasters is not at all unexpected. In the 1980s, when the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Electric Power was in charge of the evaluations, some expert groups did measurements relating to landslides, earthquakes and so on, and came to the conclusion that only 260 possible slides with 100,000 cubic metres or larger were identified along the reservoir, which would not affect the Three Gorges project very much. But we can tell from the bank collapses and slides that occurred in 2003 alone just how misleading the ministry’s evaluations were in the 1980s! In addition, it was discovered through interviews that there were a range of other problems: pollution in the reservoir, the seriousness of which had not been foreseen; ecological degradation; blockage of the navigation routes by the dam; and financial problems for the relocated migrants. Before the dam was constructed, those in charge of the project boasted about how the reservoir would become a well-used water route and a beneficial development for the migrants who had been relocated. But now it is possible to demonstrate that the result is completely the opposite. The locks on the dam have become a bottleneck for shipping, to the extent that when reporters went to the Three Gorges dam, they discovered that “during the 197 days when navigation was possible in 2003, there were 119 days of shipping delays, and some boats were delayed for up to five days and nights.”

The problems for relocated migrants were even more serious. When reporters from the Caijing Digest (Caijing wenzhai) travelled to the affected area to find out what was going on there, they recorded the following statement, which expresses the heartfelt emotions of so many people who had to move. “If geological disasters occurred, the officials from above would come and have a check, and then tell us to move again. But one of the biggest issues for us is how to making a living after our resettlement. Our livelihoods are gone because of building the big dam, so now we have no way of making a living. Under such a circumstance, we have no choice but to keep seeking help from the higher authorities, either individually or in groups. This is why the incidents are taking place almost everywhere and over again and again. The relocated people have been trying to get help, but they are simply suppressed by the authorities again and again.” From the experience the relocated people have had, it has become clear that they are not better off as a result of resettlement, but quite the contrary, they have become worse off.

It’s true that from the very beginning the proponents of the big project such as former Premier Li Peng and Qian Zhengying, former head of the Ministry of Water Resources,  had been putting emphasis on relocation and resettlement, but unfortunately, the government has not done a good job in resettling the affected people. As Li Rui once pointed out, resettling the locals displaced by the Three Gorges dam was one of the biggest challenges facing the project, even more difficult than dealing with the geological disasters. For example, the migrants who were relocated by the Xin’anjiang Reservoir (in Zhejiang Province) are still having problems, nearly fifty years after the construction of the dam. At the 2008 National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, Tan Qiwei, deputy mayor of Chongqing spoke to reporters: “In March of 2006, when I assumed office as the deputy mayor of Chongqing, I remember that my superiors told me that the key factor in the Three Gorges project was the resettlement of affected groups – more than 80 percent of the people to be moved are in Chongqing – and doing a good job resettling the relocated residents is associated with the future development of Chongqing. Quite frankly, I was under a lot of pressure.” In fact the main reason why Chongqing was made a municipality directly under the central government in 1997 was because it took responsibility for dealing with the relocation of migrants. Li Peng’s diary is proof of this, as on August 1, 1996 he wrote, “The best way of transferring the burden of resettlement from Sichuan Province to Chongqing is to speed up the process of designating Chongqing as a municipality directly under the central government.”

The task of dealing with the resettlement was long term, very complex and full of variables. For example, the number of migrants greatly exceeded the estimated figures. Lu Jiaguo calculated that, “According to the original plan, a population of 950,000 people would be required to move in Chongging alone by the end of 2006, including 636,000 residents in cities and towns and 315,000 locals living in villages. But it turned out that as many as 1,023,000 were moved by that time, including 678,800 residents from cities and towns and 344,700 from villages, in which 200,000 people are not included [those who are identified as production resettlement.6 ]The total number should be 1.37 million in Chongqing alone if that category is included and when 150,000 people who were relocated after 2007 are added, the real number of the relocated is 420,000 more than the original plan had estimated.”

Related article

“Cao Guangjing, deputy general manager of CTGPC, said the plan to raise the water level of the Three Gorges reservoir to 175 metres wouldn’t cause massive silting, or lead to serious natural disasters in nearby areas.” read full story

Expert Bios

Huang Wanli was a professor at Qinghua University’s Department of Water Conservancy. He earned a master’s degree in hydrology at Cornell University and a PhD in engineering at the Engineering Institute of Illinois. He was China’s pre-eminent water resources engineering expert and a longtime opponent of China’s Three Gorges dam project. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 90.  “Longtime dam opponent dies at 90

Deng Xiaoping (1904 –1997) was a prominent Chinese politician, reformer and leader of the CPC (Communist Party of China). He launched economic reforms in the late 1970s and played a key role in the decision to build the Three Gorges dam.

Qian Zhengying was the vice chairman of the CPPCC (1993-2003), academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering, and minister of the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Power (1952-1988).

Jiang Zemin was a former mayor and Party boss in Shanghai. Jiang came to power in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, serving as general secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1989 to 2002, as president of the PRC from 1993 to 2003, and as chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1989 to 2004.

Pan Jiazheng is a civil engineering scientist who graduated from Zhejiang University in 1950. He is the academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, honorary president of the Chinese National Committee on Large Dams and technical chief for the Three Gorges dam.

Pu Haiqing was the mayor of Chongqing from 1996-1999 and director of the TGPCC (Three Gorges Project Construction Committee) office in 2001.

Li Rui served as vice minister of electric power from 1955 to 1958, and in 1955 was appointed director of the General Bureau for Hydropower Construction in the Ministry of Electric Power. In 1958 and 1959, he was a vice minister of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. He was purged for his support of Peng Dehuai’s opposition to the Great Leap Forward. Read “An Interview with Li Rui” by Dai Qing.

Lu Qinkan is a leading hydrologist who worked on the dam’s original feasibility study and one of nine specialists who refused to sign on to the final assessment of the Three Gorges project in 1988. He also led a series of petitions urging the government to keep the Three Gorges reservoir level at 156 metres.

1 For more information about Sanmenxia see, for example, “Dam designer calls for silt-plagued Sanmenxia to be shut downThree Gorges Probe, July 11, 2003.

2 Li Peng’s Three Gorges Diary was published in August 2003 by the Three Gorges Press and covers the dam project from 1981 to 2003.

3 An interview with Pan Jiazheng on the Three Gorges dam by Lu Yuegang, China Youth Daily, July 2, 2003.

4  “Three Gorges Revisited” by Fan Xiao, Chinese National Geographic, Issue 4, 2006.

5 From the article “The Three Gorges: a wiser approach” by Jianqiang Liu, October 23, 2007.

6 The Chinese government defines its resettlement compensation policy as “living resettlement” and “production resettlement.” Living resettlement policy applies to migrants (or resettlers) whose houses and land will be flooded or those who will lose only their home. In this case, the government is responsible for helping migrants build a house and arrange for a job/farmland by giving compensation. Production resettlement policy applies to migrants whose land will be lost (no home or other assets involved). In this case, the government is responsible for providing migrants with replacement farmland or a job; often migrants are given very little or no funds if replacement land is arranged for them. Those falling under this production resettlement category, more than 200,000 people, are not included in the official resettlement list.

Guo Yushan, Transition Institute, Beijing, September 18, 2008

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