China's Dams

Astonishing changes in the life and environment of Chongqing: 20 years after the construction of the Three Gorges Dam: Fan Xiao

Twenty years after the completion of China’s monumental Three Gorges Dam, a new study by Chinese geologist Fan Xiao finds the mega-project’s impacts on his hometown of Chongqing, some 600 kilometres upstream, have been dramatic. Lost in the dam’s grand scale are the harsh consequences borne by the region’s environment and economy; its after-effects are felt most intensely by the individuals and communities struggling to adapt in the immense shadow of China’s largest public works effort since the Great Wall.

Chinese geologist and environmentalist, and the author of several reports for Probe International, Fan Xiao is the former chief engineer of the Regional Geological Survey Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau. 

Introduction by Lisa Peryman for Probe International

As one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken, the Three Gorges Dam has affected jaw-dropping alterations to both the landscape and society in the region it upended to secure its creation. The port city of Chongqing, one of the largest industrial and commercial centres in the southwest of China and located at the upper end of the dam’s reservoir in the Yangtze, has experienced some of the most profound changes.

Chinese geologist Fan Xiao, as a native of Chongqing, writes he was shocked by what he saw when he returned to his hometown region during two visits in 2012 and 2013. An out-of-control buildup of silt, geological instability, deteriorated ecosystems, unrecognizable landscapes, lost economies, and impoverishment are among the changes Fan documents in the study he produced as a result of those trips home  Astonishing Changes in the Life and Environment of Chongqing: 20 Years after the Construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

After seeing first-hand the effects of the dam’s sediment buildup on the navigability of area waterways (a well-known problem, although one of the dam’s hyped benefits was an improved shipping capacity), Fan writes, “I have never seen anything like this in my life”. Large areas of deep sandbars and a massive dam, created from gravel carried by the Yangtze’s flow, stretching “like a huge dragon from the confluence of the Jialing (a tributary of the Yangtze) and Yangtze rivers, all the way to the center of the Yangtze,” are among Fan’s observations. Impacts that show no sign of relenting, given that now around 70% of the Yangtze’s sediment flows are trapped in the reservoir area, where once they would continue downstream unimpeded, prior to the closing of the sluice gates in June 2003. While it is true that the absolute amount of silt accumulating in the Three Gorges reservoir is less than originally expected (some of which is, ironically, trapped by dams built upstream), Fan reports the sediment-deposition ratio is much higher than expected, as well as highly concentrated in specific areas.

Along with silt buildup, the operation of the dam reservoir has increased geological disasters in the region, triggered by the rising and falling of the reservoir’s water level, experts at the Chongqing Geological Environment Monitoring Station told Fan. Since trials began to fill the reservoir to its Normal Pool Level (maximum capacity) of 175 metres in September 2008, the incidence of geological disasters (including earthquakes and landslides) in the area have risen dramatically. Since 2000, a budget of more than 10 billion yuan was created for a disaster management program for the Three Gorges reservoir region. Although 511 projects have already been completed to help stabilize landslides-in-waiting, Fan says, a number of newly created hazardous sites, as a result of impoundment, have yet to be assessed and addressed.

The rising and falling reservoir creates a shock of another kind in the form of an ugly drawdown belt caused by constant erosion and exposure. Although remedial programs are underway to help vegetation in the drawdown zone recover, the shoreline, now pocked by a dramatic barren scar when water levels are lowered, would continue in the face of huge challenges: the vastness of the reservoir itself, the length of its extensive drawdown belt and the ever-changing water levels which make the reservoir’s edge hostile to plant and animal life.

Along with shoreline vegetation, the reservoir region’s best agricultural belts were also lost by the flooding of the reservoir: in particular, the two popular native commodities, the navel orange of Fengjie County and Fuling City’s mustard  products that require very specific conditions to thrive. Farmers of mustard are now required by the local government to grow lychee. Lychee trees take years to mature and farmers meanwhile would have no income during the wait and no flexibility to experiment with other crops. The situation, says Fan, reminds him of China’s “Great Leap Forward” era, when farmers were forced to grow certain crops, resulting in the great famine that lead to the death of at least 30 million people.

Although the creation of the Three Gorges Dam was expected to boost traffic to the region from tourists eager to view China’s miracle of modernity for themselves, as well as generate income for reservoir residents, Fan uncovered zero tourism growth in the years since the dam’s impoundment. A major reason for the stall, Fan says, is the gorges’ diminished beauty caused by the dam’s radical changes to once majestic mountains and spectacular scenery, and a rushing river now vastly tamed, surrounded on either side by unsightly drawdown zones.

Rebuilt towns and cities along the reservoir have been slow to thrive as hoped and an ongoing Yangtze pollution problem continues to plague the river. Water quality in the river’s main channel has dropped from an average of Grade II prior to impoundment to an average of Grade III, and down to IV (no direct human contact advised). Yangtze tributaries in the reservoir region also continue to deteriorate: a survey of main tributaries reveals readings of Grade II water have dramatically diminished while readings of Grade IV water have significantly increased. Grades V, V+ (essentially useless), and even lower (worse than useless), have been identified in several sections. Meanwhile, the overall purifying capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir, Fan reports, has decreased by nearly 50% since 2003.

To read Fan Xiao’s findings in full, see: Astonishing changes in the life and environment of Chongqing: 20 years after the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

To view a picture gallery of images taken by Fan Xiao documenting the dramatic changes he observed during his visits to the Three Gorges Dam reservoir area, see here.

For more information, contact:

Fan Xiao
Email: gobiwind@163.com

Patricia Adams, Executive Director, Probe International
Tel. 1 (416) 964-9223 (ext. 227)
Email: patricia.adams@probeinternational.org

Related Reading:

Fan Xiao: Three Gorges revisited

Three Gorges Tourism: Boom or Bust?

Several important issues in Three Gorges resettlement

Rethinking resettlement

Are dams triggering China’s earthquakes?

A study on the relationship between water levels and seismic activity in the Three Gorges reservoir

Chinese geologist links recent Badong County quake to Three Gorges Dam

An Investigation Into Wastewater Treatment in the Three Gorges Reservoir Basin

Letter Two: Give our ancestral estate back to us; give human rights back to us

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