Articles by Dai Qing

Dai Qing: On The Completion of the Three Gorges Project

(April 7, 2011) Dai Qing, Chinese investigative journalist and Probe International Fellow, delivered the following speech about the Three Gorges Dam project in November 2010 while on a speaking tour in British Columbia, Canada. In her address, she reports that the problems predicted by dam critics published in her books, “Yangtze! Yangtze!” and “The River Dragon Has Come!,” are now coming true.

Dai Qing
Probe International Fellow
November 2010
British Columbia, Canada

The Yangtze and the Three Gorges

Beginning in the mountains of Tibet, the Yangtze stretches 6,300 km through China before emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghai. On its way, it carves through mountain ranges and heads northeast before reaching the most impressive section of the river: the Qutang Gorge, Wuxia Gorge and Xiling Gorge, collectively known as the Three Gorges.

Once past the Three Gorges, the river widens and meanders through fertile plains and a number of major cities before entering the sea.

The Yangtze is called the ‘Golden Waterway’ and has always been essential for transport and agriculture in the central regions of China.

The total drainage area of the Yangtze is 1.8 million square kilometers, and is home to more than 400 million people. The Yangtze River valley is also China’s agricultural and industrial heart, producing 70 percent of its grain and 40 percent of the total industrial output.

The Three Gorges region is considered one of the most important in China.

Nineteen years have passed since the government formally announced its ambitious plan to build the world’s biggest dam – the Three Gorges Project (TGP).

The Main Parameters of the Three Gorges Project

Normal Pool Level 175 meters The maximum height of reservoir above sea level
Total Reservoir Area 1,084 m2(660 km long)
Total Storage Capacity 393 billion m3
Crest Elevation 185 meters
Length of Dam Crest 2,309.47 meters
Flood Control Designed to withhold a 1 in 100 year flood
Electric Power Installed Capacity A total of 32 power generating sets producing 22,500 MW (including underground power station) See
Annual Generation 84.7 TWh, not including the underground station and power supply station.
Navigation The Three Gorges Group website says it is dedicated to improving the passage of 10,000-tonnage fleets between Shanghai and Chongqing. Two-way, five-tiered shiplock system.Shiplift (under construction).
Reservoir Inundation Land Area 632 km2, with 19 cities and counties effected. 27,280 ha of farmland and orchards flooded.
People relocated Official Figure (2009):1,270,000 This does not include the people forced to migrate because sedimentation raised the reservoir level. If that number is included, the figure would be 1,400,000

The parameters of the dam, as originally planned, have changed. The 26 turbines have become 32—with another six small turbines installed underground. Construction of the shiplift has only now started, with planned completion by 2015.

Originally, the Three Gorges Project was to be completed in 2013 when the reservoir’s water level was to reach 175 meters above sea level. But now, in the fall of 2010, authorities have already raised the dam’s reservoir to the 175-meter mark. The reason for this is simple: a higher water level means more electricity can be produced—and the sooner officials are able to raise the reservoir, the sooner they’ll be able to generate this power.

Now, we have to stop here and ask: is damming the Three Gorges a success story or a looming disaster?

What are the pros and cons of this project?

Let’s see what the authorities have to say:

“The gigantic Three Gorges Project, which continues to attract worldwide attention, will offer outstanding economic results, as well as excellent environmental and social benefits. The project will be key to eliminating present dangers posed by fierce flooding in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and is thus an irreplaceable project…

In January 1993, The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) founded the State Council Three Gorges Project Construction CommitteeOn December 14th, 1994,Premier Li Peng visited the dam site and, acting on behalf of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council, announced the official “commencement of construction.”

Authorities said the dam was necessary as it would produce power, provide flood control, improve navigation and benefit local citizens.

The government proudly declared that a rapidly modernizing China—with its “socialist system with special Chinese characteristics”—had the financial and technical ability to build it.

The Project today

You may know that after the CPC came to power by force in 1949 there have been a number of “movements,” including the Anti-Rightist campaign in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Before Mao’s death in 1976, no one in China would dare say anything to challenge him – even if they were a top leader or one of his close comrades.

In the 1980s, China welcomed reform and opened itself to the world. Not just the country’s new leaders, but society as a whole, began on a journey of self-examination—the air of enlightenment even spread to the intelligentsia.

A number of engineers, scientists and former high-ranking officials began to express, not just the opinions of the Party, but their own.

The most notable of these new voices—and one that captured the attention of the entire nation—was an Investigative Group from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC).

They were treated as allies and “travelers in the same boat” by the Communist Party of China. But when it came to the fate of the Three Gorges and the Yangtze River, they decided to voice their dissent.

Their concerns and internal debates about the dam were published in the book, Yangtze! Yangtze!

Twenty-five years have since passed. Many of the problems they discussed have come to pass and many new, unforeseen problems have also emerged at Three Gorges. Unfortunately, many of the questions raised by critics inside and outside China have never been answered.

Let’s look at the benefits of the dam promised by officials: power generation, flood control, navigation and benefits for local residents.

Hydropower Generation

Power generation is the dam’s main priority and the true aim of those who support it.

The TGP started producing power in 2003. To date, it has produced 390 billion TWH.

But consumers have yet to see the price of their electricity fall. In fact, electricity customers in China now have to pay a so-called “construction fee” to support the project.

Some of you may know that the generators installed at Three Gorges are 700MW, not 680MW. This is because, years ago, after Europe decided not to construct monster dams in their rivers, they then sold the technology for 700MW generators to Brazil. Brazil then sold it to China, which is the only country in the world with the guts, power and money to go forward damming mighty rivers.

Now, as the most “Powerful Hydro Nation” in the world, China has to get its money back on its dam-building prowess. This is why China has signed contracts to build major dams in Africa and Asia.

Flood Control

China is an ancient agriculture country. Emperors from the ancient dynasties, the Ming and Qing, for example, to modern leaders—Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping—have instinctively seen flood control as their primary task.

As such, the promoters of dams always scared these leaders with images of flood disasters as a way to appropriate the necessary funds.

In the 1910s, dam supporters began to approach Sun about damming the Yangtze, but their pleas were halted by the warlords’ war. In the 1930s and 40s, Chiang Kai-shek was more occupied with the war against Japan. Still, he did send a delegation of interns to the US to learn how to dam the Yangtze.

Mao first wanted to build a major dam on the Yellow River, which eventually became the Sanmenxia dam. Then, he dreamed of building another dam, this time on the Yangtze with a “beautiful, smooth lake” in the Three Gorges region.

The dam builders argued about how high this dam should be, in order to store water and prevent floods.

Year Height of dam (m)
1940s 235
1950s 195
1980s 165
Now 185

But, even with the dam standing 185 meters high, would it be capable of completely stopping the threat of floods in Wuhan, the largest city below the dam and home to millions of people?

Let’s see what happened.

In the summer of 1998, from June to August, the floodwater totaled as much as 660 billion cubic meters—with 300 billion cubic meters coming from the upper reaches of the Yangtze and 360 billion cubic meters from tributaries below the dam. For the latter figure, the TGP is completely useless.

Moreover, can a dam with a flood storage capacity of 22 billion cubic meters be expected to control such a devastating flood?

Premier Zhu’s action

Zhu Rongji was appointed Premier in 1998. Just after his appointment he said: “Everybody knows that I’ve been indifferent to the TGP, but now that I’m Premier, I have to deal with what has happened.”

What happened? The flood in 1998 is what happened!

He found, based on records, that it was not the biggest flood in history, but the water level was the highest on record. This is because sedimentation had raised the bottom of the riverbed.

Declaring that no trees would be cut, the Premier called for dykes in downstream sections of the river to be strengthened, and put in place a plan to move more than 2.5 million residents out of the Jingjiang flood diversion area.

Let me pause here, to tell you of an old story about the Jingjiang flood diversion area, a section of the Yangtze between Zhicheng City in Hubei Province and Chenglingji City in Hunan Province.

Originally, nature controlled floods. Along the Yangtze, in both the middle and downstream stretches of the river, there are several big natural lake systems that assume the role of flood diversion, retention, and discharge.

People living along Lake Dongting had both a house and a boat. Typically, they would live in the house, but would move to their boats when the floods arrived and then return when the waters receded.

The boat people lived like that for thousands of years, until the Ming dynasty. But around 1600, Premier Zhang Juzheng from Hubei had a lofty idea to make more farmland for his citizens and so he changed all of that. He built dykes along the north side of the Yangtze, which pushed the flood water south into Dongting Lake. In the 1950s through to the 1970s—in Mao’s era—people in Hunan (a name that means, South Side of the Lake) started to build dams and dyke-dams to create more farmland out of what had been the Dongting Lake. The Yangtze’s diversion areas became smaller and smaller.

This was the situation Premier Zhu faced in 1998.

And so he issued a policy to forcibly resettle people from the Three Gorges Project region to areas far away—in stark contrast to previous policies. We’ll talk about that later in the resettlement portion of my speech.


In the history of China, the Yangtze River is usually referred to as the Golden Waterway. Our former Premier, Zhou Enlai, used to say, “if one damages this Golden Waterway, one could be called a criminal to the Nation.”

Nowhere in the world does anyone think a dam would be good for shipping. Do we see dams on the main waterways of the Rhine or the Mississippi?

In 1988, I interviewed an official who headed the Yangtze Shipping and Transportation Department. I asked him what he thought about the dam being used as a way to increase navigation. He forced a smile and said: “Using only a small portion of the Three Gorges Project budget, the Transportation Department could meet the goals declared by the Project.”

“But this is the Party’s decision. I have no choice but to obey.”

But, he told me, that when they signed the agreement to proceed with the dam, they took care to ensure the Project authority would provide a shiplift. What has happened since then? Has the project improved navigation on the Yangtze?

Since construction began, shipping in the middle current of the river has been cut off for 11 years. Several million passengers have passed through the dam and spent three hours in the five stages of water locks. Construction on the shiplift has only just begun, years after it was originally promised, and is now slated for completion in 2015.

In the dry season, docks downstream suffer, as ships are held up because of the low water level. Once, from November 2004 to June 2005, traffic problems lasted as long as 160 days—with shipping completely halted for 67 days.

These extended delays have led to the creation of a new word in Chinese: fan ba, which means “dam turning over.”The popular term derives its meaning from the long wait times—three to dozens of hours—that effect cargo ships arriving at the dam during the Yangtze’s busy seasons.

The solution is to bypass the dam! Goods are now transferred from the delayed ships to trucks for passage around the dam by road. Trucked goods are then loaded onto different ships to continue their journey.

Sedimentation also plagues the dam’s reservoir and makes navigation under newly constructed bridges difficult.


How many people have been forced to relocate for Three Gorges Project?

Initially, Three Gorges Project supporters tried to lower the resettlement figure to make the dam more palatable. But once it was approved, the figure quickly rose.

Resettlement figures
1992 725,500
1994 1,130,000
2004 1,300,000
2009 4,000,00

[Editors Note: In the last line of the above table, Dai Qing estimates that 4,000,000 people have been relocated as a result of the Three Gorges Project. The official figure for the number of residents resettled by the dam is 1.4 million. But because many environmental problems have surfaced, the government has begun to resettle millions more. These subsequent resettlement programs have been done in the name of “urbanization” or “employment” programs, rather than because of the dam itself. A report by Probe International put this figure of subsequent migrants at 2.3 million. If this is added to the official figure of 1.4 million, the new total is 3.7 milliona figure that is likely to climb. Accurate forced migrant figures for the Three Gorges Dam have always been difficult to obtain for reasons outlined in Yangtze! Yangtze! and The River Dragon Has Come!.]

Not only has the figure changed, but so too has the resettlement policy.

In the 1980s, the so-called trial resettlement programs were guided by two key goals: first, the relocation of people to higher ground in the same district, and second, migrants would be encouraged to find shelter with friends and family. Authorities then planned to allocate funds for migrant resettlement to the local governments of resettlement areas. These governments would also be responsible for the building of new houses, and for providing farmland or factory jobs for migrants.

The problem with the resettlement plan, however, is: first, the ecology in the Three Gorges is too fragile to cope with the resettlement of so many people; and second, it was incredibly risky to entrust local officials with the administration of resettlement funds without proper oversight mechanisms in place.

After the 1998 flood—and in light of the many problems with the resettlement operations, particularly with the deterioration of the environment along the Yangtze—Premier Zhu abandoned the policy of resettling all Three Gorges Project migrants in the same area in favour of a policy known as distant resettlement. Residents were soon moved to other parts of the country in an effort to relieve the pressure on the increasingly fragile environment in the reservoir area.

Since then, migrants have been relocated to 11 provinces and municipalities, including Shanghai, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, and Hubei.

Since the 1990s, migrants have not ceased their protests—both in public demonstrations and written petitions to higher authorities.

Unfortunately, these protests have been met with force. No one knows how many of the migrant representatives have been sent back with a police escort, have been jailed or beaten so severely they are now afflicted with a disability.

Last year, Chongqing announced a huge new resettlement plan for its vast municipalitya plan that would result in the resettlement of some four million people, many of whom were originally moved to make way for the dam.

What did critics of the dam suggest when the Three Gorges Project was in its infancy? What unforeseen problems now plague the project, but which nobody will admit exists?

Water pollution

Neither the feasibility study in 1986 nor the one in 1990 mentioned water pollution, even though water pollution would affect not only the reservoir, but the Yangtze’s tributaries as well. Neither of these pollution scenarios was included as costs in the project’s budget.

As construction proceeded, an effort was made to clear polluted sites from the areas to be flooded. Factories, mines, hospitals, residential buildings, tombs — all of them became a “second category” of pollution sources.

Meanwhile, industrial waste and domestic sewage continued to be dischargedinto the reservoir without effective regulation. Althougha number of pollution treatment factories were built along the reservoir, they rarelyoperate, as their operating costs are higher than the costof construction.

The most polluted area is upstream, in the tributaries. According to recent news reports “The Five-Year Plan for Water Pollution in the Three Gorges Reservoir Area and Upstream Areas” states that the risk of water pollution by heavy polluting industries in the Three Gorges reservoir remains a problem. Due to the presence of industries that harvest raw materials, water pollution problems are common in various parts of the river—including phosphorus pollution caused by the mining of phosphate, heavy metal pollution caused by the mining of coal and arsenic contamination in specific areas. Some of the pollution has directly threatened the safety of drinking water.

Geological disasters

Right from the beginning of the project, critics highlighted the threat of geological disasters—but none of their estimates reflected the true gravity of the situation.

For instance, a crack was discovered in the concrete dam itself—as wide as an adult’s hand stretching from top-to-bottom. Is it because of the quality of the cement or the pouring process?

In addition to repeated and variously sizedmud-rock flows and landslides, a distortion and twist in the shiplock has developed. Engineers have discovered that the shiplock’s gate frame doesn’t match the gate. What kind of force would be so powerful to cause this distortion? Only the earth!

The distortion—which happened in the five-step shiplock—means the crustal plate is moving. Even the Three Gorges Project authority has admitted that this is a very serious problem. But no one knows why it happened and information about the issue is not available to the Chinese public.

Weather impact

Sleet, heavy storms and massive droughts, which were once rare along the Yangtze, its tributaries and south China, have all occurred, since the Three Gorges dam was initiated and in the latter half of the first decade of 2000.

And no one dares to admit that the pressure the earth must bear annually beneath 22 billion tons of water during the raising of the reservoir may induce an earthquake.

And now that sand is being blocked behind the dam, clear, sediment-free water has been washing out of the dykes downstream of the project.

In 2008, a rat infestation in the Dongting Lake district, downstream from the dam, occurred when dam operators restricted water flow on the river.

The biggest headache for authorities appears to be the 30-meter drawdown belt that encircles the reservoir’s 5,300 kilometer perimeter. This is the no-man’s land that appears when the reservoir is lowered from 175m to 145m every year in preparation for the floods.

Last week, in early November, Huang Qifan, the mayor of Chongqing “suggested” reducing the reservoir draw-down level from its current 30 metres (from the 175 metre Normal Pool Level to the 145 flood control level) to only 10 metres (so, from the NPL of 175 meters to a 165metre flood control level) during the flood season, thereby sacrificing much of the flood control storage capacity.


How big is the Three Gorges Dam budget?

In order to get approval, the department in charge of the dam has used the “announce a little early on, then replenish unceasingly” financing method. This is what we call in Chinese, “small bait fishes big fish.”

The budget for the Three Gorges Project in the 1980s feasibility study was 36 billion RMB. By the time the Three Gorges Project was approved by the National People’s Congress in 1992, it was 57 billion RMB. And then the figure continued to rise: 75 billion in 1993, 96 billion in 1994 and now it sits at 204 billion RMB. But the truth is that the real cost of the Three Gorges dam is 600 billion RMB—just as those who opposed the dam calculated in 1989.

(It appears that the earlier investments estimated by the Chinese government did not include interest and inflation — known as the “static investment.” The last estimates of 204 billion and 600 billion RMB, however, do include interest and inflation and are known as the “dynamic investment.”)

In fact, only the cost of dam construction, the power transmission network and resettlement programs are considered ‘in’ the budget. The cost of moving relics, of environmental protection and the treatment of polluted water in the reservoir are not included in the official budget.

Meanwhile, those responsible for the Three Gorges Dam use money for the project to play the stock market, invest in Hong Kong, and trade in Beijing’s real estate market. No one has tried to put a stop to this and no one has investigated the losses yet. It’s an unspoken truth that a great deal of money from the Three Gorges budget has been siphoned off for corrupt ends, and spent on sedans, villas, and bribes.

Supplementary funds paid by the central government:

Pollution treatment—10 billion (RMB)
Historical preservation—3 billion (RMB)
Resettlement—5 billion (RMB)
Treatment after disasters—1 billion (RMB)
Six extra underground turbines—2.25 billion RMB
Fancy entertainment and bribes—The exact amount is unknown but it is believed to be billions of RMB.

The Yangtze and the Three Gorges

In the 1950s, 60s, and even the 1970s, Chinese citizens would have wholeheartedly followed whatever the Communist Party leaders said. Back then, we were willing to sacrifice our way of life to build a “new and strong China,” home to reclaimed terraced fields (which actually meant deforestation) and dams (we have built more then 84,000 large and middle-sized dams since the 1950s, with two-thirds of them now de-constructed or considered dangerous).

But now, with the advent of the 21st century, the entire world is beginning to understand both the positive and the negative impacts of the industrial revolution. The result is a sort of re-adjustment of the relationship between mankind and nature.

When the West (which used to be a pioneer in the damming of rivers) stopped building dams, how is it that we in China continued to build such a massive dam on a river which is over-exploited, over-populated and intensely damaged?

China’s undemocratic political system and crony capitalist economic environment have, together, paved the way for the Three Gorges Project.

The project is causing irretrievable losses and great harm to ordinary people and the environment.

With dramatic changes in China’s economy, massive amounts of money are now in the hands of the central government. The Three Gorges dam won’t be the last of this type built in China either; the Yangtze won’t be the last of China’s man-made disasters; and the ordinary people—who are being hurt by this project—will not be the last group to suffer in this way.

Encouraged by the Three Gorges Project, politicians and greedy businessmen are already extending their power to other rivers, to the coal and metal mines, and recently, the rare earth mines.

Records set by the Three Gorges Project rank it as the largest dam project built on Earth, with the longest reservoir, the highest shiplift and the largest capacity for power generation. But China can also claim to have the most polluted air, the most frequent mine catastrophes and deaths, the most expensive administrative costs and the largest gap between poor and rich with the highest percentage of an illiterate population.

Twenty-five years have passed since the debate over the Three Gorges Project first began. Though many Chinese citizens have the income of the middle class, they’ve become part of a silent majority. We don’t have the right to express ourselves freely, nor the right to criticize the government openly, let alone the ability to monitor, to supervise or curtail the actions of officials.

I really don’t know who or what can save the beautiful Three Gorges. I don’t know—in exchange for the luxury of promoting a “rising” China—how much the environment and ordinary people will pay.

But I do know that, in the end, only we can save China when more people start accepting their role as citizens.

Many thanks for your interest in and concern about the Three Gorges Project, the Yangtze, and China’s environment.

It warms my soul and encourages me.

1 reply »

  1. Three Gorges Dam is an example of involuntary resettlement caused by development projects (DIDR).

    The World Bank estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 10 million people per year. According to the World Bank an estimated 33 million people have been displaced by development projects such as dams, urban development and irrigation canals in India alone.

    India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement in India. According to Bogumil Terminski an estimated more than 10 million people have been displaced by development each year.

    Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.

    This is what experts have termed “development-induced displacement.” According to Michael Cernea, a World Bank analyst, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.

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