China's Dams

Water brief: Three Gorges Dam

(January 1, 2009) For more than a decade, the biennial report The World’s Water by the Pacific Institute’s President, Dr. Peter Gleick, has provided key data and expert insights into our most pressing freshwater issues. In The World’s Water 2008-2009, Dr. Gleick examines the usual anticipated benefits of power, navigation and flood control and the growing list of problems — serious impacts on fisheries, coastal erosion due to vastly lower sediment flow in the Yangtze, landslides, earthquakes and social unrest due to the displacement of millions of people.

Water Brief 3: Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, China

Peter Gleick

The World’s Water 2008-2009

Pacific Institute

The Three Gorges Dam (TGD) and associated infrastructure is the largest integrated
water project built in the history of the world. It has also been one of the most controversial due to its massive environmental, economic, and social impacts. The very first volume of The World’s Water, published more than a decade ago, reviewed the plans underway at that time to build the Three Gorges Dam, along with many of the expected benefits and costs (Gleick 1998). A decade later, the physical dam itself has largely been completed, although work is continuing on electrical generating systems and a wide range of peripheral projects. This chapter offers an update on the project and a timeline of major events. It is crucial to note that while extensive information on the project is available from authorities and government officials, reliable independent information on environmental and social costs is harder to find (Dai 1994, 1998; Heggelund 2007). This update draws on official materials, as well as information available from non-governmental and non-Chinese sources, to get a clearer snapshot of the project’s complex implications.

There are growing indications that very serious problems have started to develop. In
the summer of 2007, major western media began to report on growing threats from
landslides, pollution, and flooding, as well as growing social and political unrest and
dissatisfaction associated with relocating millions of people (Oster 2007, Yardley 2007). Even officials in China have begun to be increasingly outspoken about unresolved challenges associated with the project. Weng Lida, secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum was quoted as saying “the problems are all more serious than we expected” (Oster 2007). In September 2007, Chinese officials “admitted the Three Gorges Dam project has caused an array of ecological ills, including more frequent landslides and pollution, and if preventive measures are not taken, there could be an environmental ‘catastrophe’ “ (Xinhua 2007c). The complex and massive effort to relocate millions of displaced and affected people has also caused a range of social, political, and economic problems.

In conclusion, Dr. Gleick says,

Over decades, the overall implications of the project will become more evident, but before the full benefits have begun to be delivered, the environmental, social, political, and economic costs are beginning to accumulate. Even official government spokesmen are beginning to question the substantial human and environmental costs of the project, while other officials are moving rapidly forward on new massive water infrastructure elsewhere in China, without having learned the lessons from Three Gorges. Long-term sustainable water management in China will require a better balancing of the true costs and benefits of their water choices.

Read the full report here and on the Pacific Institute Website.

Read China and Water from The World’s Water 2008-2009, also by Dr. Gleick.

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