China Energy Industry

Flee from floods

Why did the Chinese government choose not to reveal the real total capacity of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir – perhaps the most critical technical specification of the entire project?

The designers of China’s massive Three Gorges Dam project always knew they would operate the dam’s reservoir at a higher normal pool level but kept this under wraps in order to minimize resettlement costs. China monitor, Probe International, predicted in, Damming the Three Gorges, that such a subterfuge would condemn thousands of people to live in an active flood zone which they would be forced to flee on a fairly frequent basis. A classic example of a project where benefits are overestimated and the costs are underestimated in order to make a megaproject look feasible – an effective deceit particularly in cases where scrutiny of rigged calculations is nil. German-based hydrology expert, Wang Weiluo, looks deeper into the Three Gorges reservoir’s “fluid” storage capacity and the normalization of “flee from floods” for the people trapped between lies and refuge.

By Wang Weiluo

This article was first published by the US-based Chinese website, Yi Bao (yibaochina.com) on July 27, 2022

1. The total capacity of Three Gorges reservoir has changed from 39.3 billion cubic meters to 45 billion cubic meters

In 1992, the National People’s Congress reviewed and approved the State Council’s proposal to build the Three Gorges dam project with a total storage capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters.

Diagram of the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River: the normal pool level of 175 meters, the total storage capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters and the flood control capacity of 22.15 billion cubic meters. (Source: the Xinhua News agency).

On July 7, 2022, the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project officially began in Danjiangkou City, Hubei Province. The total static investment of the project is 58.235 billion yuan, which exceeds the total static investment of 57 billion yuan for building the Three Gorges project, as announced by Vice Premier Zou Jiahua during the National People’s Congress vote in 1992. The Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project will take water from the Three Gorges reservoir and divert it to the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze, below the Danjiangkou dam, nearly 200 kilometers away, through underground water transmission tunnels, delivering an average of 3.9 billion cubic meters of water per year.[i] The technical data of the Three Gorges reservoir, including the total storage capacity of the reservoir, are important for the construction of the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project. Niu Xinqiang, member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, chairman of the Yangtze River Design Group and technical director of the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project, recently told the Chinese Communist Party media that the total storage capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir is 45 billion cubic meters, not 39.3 billion cubic meters, as previously announced by the Chinese government. Li Yong, director of the South-North Water Diversion Project of the Ministry of Water Resources of the State Council, also confirmed to reporters that the total reservoir capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir is 45 billion cubic meters.

Niu Xinqiang, member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, chairman of the Yangtze River Design Group and technical director of the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project. (Source: Changjiang Yun (hbtv.com.cn).

The total capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir has thus just changed from 39.3 billion cubic meters to 45 billion cubic meters, which is a numerical expansion of 5.7 billion cubic meters, or about 15 percent. The Three Gorges Project, which holds several world records, has been hailed as one of pillars of a great power by Xi Jinping. The fact that the total capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir has grown to 45 billion cubic meters is something that, by rights, should have been publicized with great fanfare. Especially in this period of sluggish economic data and increasingly intense social tensions, it would have been a good idea to bring out the national weapon to the next level to boost the confidence of the nation. Why should the “good news” be revealed so quietly, at the expense of the political value of the “good news”?

The total reservoir capacity of Three Gorges reservoir is perhaps the most critical technical specification of the Three Gorges project: it affects the determination and realization of the goals of flood control and power generation, the size of investment and economic benefits, as well as the extent of inundation and losses, the number of migrants, and the elevation level determining populations which must be resettled. The expansion of the total reservoir capacity of the reservoir has benefits for the project. But it also has an extremely negative side as far as the social impact of the project is concerned.

The Three Gorges Project, a project that was reviewed and approved by the National People’s Congress, is touted as a model of “democratic decision-making”. As the decision maker, the National People’s Congress has the responsibility of supervising the Three Gorges Project. Changes to important technical specifications of the Three Gorges Project should have been approved by the National People’s Congress. However, now it appears that, after approving the Three Gorges Project, the National People’s Congress did not fulfill its responsibility to supervise the project, and the State Council has not taken the National People’s Congress’s supervisory responsibilities seriously. The recently announced changes in important technical specifications of the Three Gorges Project – changes in the reservoir operation plan of the Three Gorges Project, changes in the resettlement policy of the Three Gorges Project, and substantial increases in the investment amount of the Three Gorges Project – were not reported to the National People’s Congress for review and approval. The implementation of the Three Gorges Project’s follow-up work[ii] (wiping the Three Gorges Project’s ass) was also not approved by the National People’s Congress.

2. The total reservoir capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is 45 billion cubic meters is something that the Chinese Communist government has known for a long time but has been concealing it for 30 years!

In fact, the total capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is 45 billion cubic meters, which the Chinese Communist government has known for a long time, but the Chinese Communist government has been hiding it from the Chinese people, the residents of the Three Gorges Reservoir area and the National People’s Congress representatives who voted for the project for 30 years ago on the presumption it was a 39.3 billion cubic meters reservoir!

Generally speaking, the larger the total capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir, the better it is for achieving the Three Gorges Project’s goals of flood control, power generation, shipping, and now, the newly added function – the South-to-North Water Transfer. Why would the Chinese government conceal this data that is beneficial to the Three Gorges project? The logic does not make sense, or at least many people would think so. This is because the larger the total capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir, the larger the inundation area of the Three Gorges reservoir, the greater the area of land submerged by the Three Gorges reservoir, the greater the number of migrants forced to move by the Three Gorges project, and the higher the elevation of the resettlement sites, the less land is available to resettle migrants. The resettlement problem is the most difficult one has always been the most difficult one to solve in the construction of Three Gorges Project.

According to the Three Gorges Project demonstration and decision-making procedures established by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council, the delegates to the National People’s Congress would have the final say when its delegates voted nay or yay for the project. However, we now know that thousands of representatives of the NPC did not have the full knowledge and information needed to make the decision on the Three Gorges Project. Most of their information came from the explanatory notes given by Vice Premier Zou Jiahua back in 1992 on the State Council’s Motion on the Construction of the Three Gorges Project. Zou Jiahua said, “The resettlement of people relocated by the reservoir is an issue of great concern to everyone. The Three Gorges Reservoir has a large number of migrants. According to 1985 statistics, the population of the submerged area was 725,500 people.”

According to what was stated in 1992, the Three Gorges Project would have a dam crest elevation of 185 meters, a normal pool level of 175 meters, and a total reservoir capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters. After construction, the flood control standard of the Jingjiang River would be raised to one in 100 years; the annual power generation capacity of the Three Gorges Project would be 84 billion kWh, accounting for one-eighth of the national power generation capacity; the 10,000-ton fleet would reach Chongqing directly. The total static investment in the Three Gorges Project would be 57 billion yuan. Based on such knowledge and information, two-thirds of the representatives of the NPC agreed to build the Three Gorges Project and one-third disagreed.

After the National People’s Congress approved the Three Gorges Project the total static investment in the Three Gorges Project climbed from 57 billion yuan to more than 90 billion yuan, and the number of migrants also changed from 725,500 to 1,130,000.

Map of the Three Gorges Reservoir inundation area.

How was the number of 1.13 million migrants in the Three Gorges Project calculated? It was based on the NPL being 175 metres above sea level, called the red line[iii] for resettlement. Those who lived below the red line were called migrants of the Three Gorges Project and would need to be relocated. Many of those migrants were relocated to higher ground above 175 meters above sea level. But in practice, 2 meters of wind and wave height was then considered a threat, so those who lived in the area below 177 meters above sea level were defined as migrants of Three Gorges Project and were resettled in areas above 177 meters above sea level.

The red line for resettlement in the Three Gorges Reservoir area. (Screenshot).

With a dam crest elevation of 185 meters, a normal pool level of 175 meters, a total reservoir capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters, 1.13 million people would become migrants. The cost of their resettlement would be 40 billion yuan and it would be distributed to local governments on a per capita basis. Later, that resettlement cost increased to 80 billion yuan, but it was still not enough. Then, the ever-climbing costs of resettlement were incorporated into the so-called Three Gorges follow-up work, which has still not been completed. The Chinese Communist government has refused to say how much money has been spent on resettlement and how many migrants have been relocated. Official reports have stated that 1.4 million people were relocated. That was later reduced to 1.3 million, and then to 1.2 million. But the government of Chongqing Municipality says that 1.13 million people were relocated from the Chongqing reservoir area; the government of Hubei Province says that more than 260,000 people were relocated from the Hubei reservoir area. The two add up to about 1.4 million people. In addition, some migrants in the Three Gorges reservoir area were relocated several times, in fact, up to four times; some towns were also relocated several times. Badong County, for example, was also relocated as many as four times. Migrants who moved multiple times in this way were counted only once for statistical purposes. There are also the so-called 100,000+ “ecological migrants”,[iv] who were not considered to be the migrants of the Three Gorges Project.

In August 2000, more than 630 migrants from Yunyang County were boarding a passenger ship bound for Shanghai to be resettled on the Chongming Island. The red banner behind them read as “To sacrifice individual interests for public good, to support the construction of the Three Gorges Project for the country.” (Photo credit: Li Feng)

Returning to the official statistics, with a total reservoir capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters, the normal pool level of the Three Gorges Project is 175 meters above sea level. And with the relocation red line of the Three Gorges Project of 175 meters above sea level, the total of migrants is 1.13 million people. This does not sound like a problem.

But when you think about it, when the crest elevation of the Three Gorges Project is 185 meters, what is the function of this dam section between the normal pool level of 175 meters and 185 meters? Is it to show the majesty of the Three Gorges Dam? With the normal pool level at 175 meters above sea level, what is the flood control level of the Three Gorges Project? Is it still 175 meters above sea level? What is the maximum flood control operating level of the reservoir that will prevent a flood of one in 10,000 years[v].Is it still 175 meters above sea level? The flood control group in the feasibility study of the Three Gorges Project[vi] suggested that the Three Gorges Project should have a minimum flood control storage capacity of 30 billion cubic meters, but the flood control storage capacity is officially only 22.15 billion cubic meters out of a total storage capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters. Can it meet the requirements proposed by the flood control group?

The Chinese Communist government has not released these figures.

According to the author’s calculation, if the total reservoir capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is indeed 45 billion cubic meters, this corresponds to a flood storage level of 180.4 meters above sea level (sometimes called 181 meters above sea. In other words, during flooding, the water level of the Three Gorges Reservoir at the dam site can rise up to 180.4 meters above sea level, which is 5.4 meters higher than the normal pool level.

Since the dam crest elevation is 185 meters above sea level, the new numbers make sense. When the Three Gorges Project is playing its so-called flood control role and the water level is raised to 180.4 meters above sea level, the Three Gorges Reservoir will have a total storage capacity of 45 billion cubic meters, and the flood control storage capacity will be 27.85 billion cubic meters, which is close to the 30 billion cubic meters proposed by the flood control group of the feasibility study.

3. Why did the government reveal the information that the total storage capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is 45 billion cubic meters?

The Chinese government knew 30 years ago that the total storage capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is really 45 billion cubic meters but concealed it for 30 years. Why did the Chinese government reveal that the total storage capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is 45 billion cubic meters now?

Because the 45 billion cubic meter storage capacity is needed to justify the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project.

The Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project will take water directly from the Three Gorges Reservoir, with an average annual withdrawal of 3.9 billion cubic meters. The government’s original official capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir was 39.3 billion cubic meters, of which 22.15 billion cubic meters was for flood control (also the entire active reservoir capacity). The proposed average annual water transfer via the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project would account for about 10% of the total reservoir capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters and about 17.6% of the total active reservoir capacity of 22.15 billion cubic meters. But, according to technical data analysis, the original Three Gorges Project reservoir capacity of 39.3 billion cubic metres is not sufficient to support such a large water transfer.

In its propaganda, the Chinese government claims that the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project is a way to connect the two “pillars of a great power” and a way to connect the “big water tank” and the “big water basin”. 

The two “pillars of a great power” refer to the Three Gorges Project and the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, as defined by Xi Jinping. The “big water tank” is the Three Gorges Reservoir, and the “big water basin” is the Danjiangkou Reservoir, which is the water source of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. In fact, the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel does not connect the Three Gorges Reservoir and the Danjiangkou Reservoir.[vii]

As Niu Xinqiang told reporters, the Three Gorges Reservoir is a key backbone project for the management and development of the Yangtze River, a strategic water source for China and a “big water basin” in the Yangtze River Basin, with a multi-year average inflow of over 400 billion cubic meters of water, a total reservoir capacity of 45 billion cubic meters and a regulating reservoir capacity of 22.15 billion cubic meters, which is abundant and stable. Danjiangkou Reservoir is the first large-scale backbone project of the Han River, an important water source for China’s inter-basin water transfer project, and the “big water basin” of Han River Basin. It is the only source of water for the first phase of the South-North Water Transfer Project. The Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project thus connects the Three Gorges Reservoir, the “big water tank” and the Danjiangkou Reservoir, the “big water basin”.[viii]

According to Niu Xinqiang’s introduction, the “big water tank”, the Three Gorges Reservoir has a total capacity of 45 billion cubic meters, and a regulating reservoir capacity of 22.15 billion cubic meters, while the “big water basin”, the Danjiangkou Reservoir has a total capacity of 29.5 billion cubic meters, and a regulating reservoir capacity of 18.7 billion cubic meters. It seems to make sense: the “big water tank” is apparently larger than the “big water basin”.

If the “big water tank”, the Three Gorges Reservoir, has only a total capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters and a regulating reservoir capacity of 22.15 billion cubic meters, but the “big water basin”, the Danjiangkou Reservoir, has a total capacity of 29.5 billion cubic meters and a regulating reservoir capacity of 18.7 billion cubic meters, the Three Gorges Reservoir will have difficulty being the “big water tank” and in fact, will be  at most only a “small water tank”, because it is not much bigger than the Danjiangkou Reservoir.

As we all know, the Han River is a tributary of the Yangtze River, and the Han River Basin and the Yangtze River Basin are basically simultaneously subject to the same climatic conditions in terms of heat and rain, so there is not much difference in their wet and dry periods. In fact, when the Han River valley enters the dry sesaon, so does the Yangtze River valley. When the Han River is short of water, so is the Yangtze River.

On June 10, 2016, several migrant “netizens” were taking pictures and playing live video streaming in the Kui Men area of Qutang Gorge in the Three Gorges reservoir area, where their homeland had been flooded by the rising reservoir about dozen years ago. The riverbank was exposed because the dam authorities lower the reservoir level from 175 meters to 145 meters in June each year in order to make space for flood control purpose. The Three Gorges Reservoir was by no means a “big water tank” at this point. (Photo credit: Li Feng)

But the Yangtze River has far greater demands on it than the Han River. The water in the Three Gorges Reservoir must first ensure the needs of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River[ix], and only when there is excess it can be used for the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel diversion project. Moreover, it is not the only project diverting water from the Yangtze. Another river diversion project called Yinjiangjihan, downstream of Three Gorges and just upstream of Jingzhou[x], already diverts 3 billion cubic meters of water from the mainstream of the Yangtze River every year. Moreover, there are other projects such as the Yinjiangjihuai project (a water diversion project from Yangtze River to Chaohu Lake and Huai River)[xi], the Yinjiangjitai project (water diversion project from Yangtze River to Taihu Lake)[xii], the east leg of the South-North Water Diversion Project (water diversion project from Yangzhou City in lower Yangtze River to Tianjin)[xiii]. In addition, the Yangtze River also performs other important functions, such as replenishing water levels and the rich ecosystems in the large floodplain lakes along the river such as Poyang Lake and Dongting Lake, ensuring the flow of water to the Yangtze River Delta to prevent salt water from intrusion and to ensure the water flow needed to provide for the water depth requirement of Shanghai Port and the Yangtze River mouth to ensure that the mouth of Yangtze River is not silted up, is a heavy task as is protecting the shoreline of Yangtze River into the East China Sea, which continues to expand to the east and does not retreat[xiv], etc.

Since the Three Gorges Dam was put into operation in 2003, the time of extreme drought has advanced and lengthened in Poyang Lake downstream of the dam. (Source: IC Photo)

In terms of engineering feasibility, in order to justify the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel, it is necessary to show that the total capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is not 39.3 billion cubic meters, but larger; and the active capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is not 22.15 billion cubic meters, but larger. In this way the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel project, to be feasible, must have a larger guaranteed rate of water transfer, to take 3.9 billion cubic meters of water from the Three Gorges Reservoir each year.

In this way, Niu Xinqiang and Li Yong revealed the secret that the Chinese Communist government had been hiding for more than 30 years in order to justify the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel diversion project so it could be built. It should be noted that Niu Xinqiang and Li Yong were only focused on the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel diversion project and their heads were only thinking about that project.

But they forgot that the Chinese people also think, especially when it comes to their vital interests. By announcing that the total reservoir capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir is not 39.3 billion cubic meters but 45 billion cubic meters, they have revealed that the Three Gorges Reservoir can store water up to 180.4 meters above sea level during floods, thereby raising the inundation level of the Three Gorges Reservoir and expanding the inundation area. When the Three Gorges Project uses the total flood storage capacity of 45 billion cubic meters, will those houses in the Three Gorges Reservoir area that are between 177 meters above sea level and 180.4 metres be flooded? Will the people in the Three Gorges reservoir area whose houses are to be flooded need to be relocated again?

4. The lower dam height plan of the Three Gorges Project and “flee from floods”

In the 1950s, Mao Zedong proposed the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project to deal with the floods on the Yangtze River. According to Mao, it should be possible to finish the job in one go by building a dam at the mouth of the Three Gorges. Zhou Enlai brought in Soviet experts who proposed a dam with a normal pool level of 265 meters above sea level; the director of the Changjiang Water Resources Commission proposed a NPL of 235 meters above sea level, with a flood control capacity of 115 to 126 billion cubic meters in the Three Gorges reservoir. Zhou Enlai proposed a NPL of 200 meters above sea level for the Three Gorges project, based on the fact that the elevation of the highest step of the Chaotianmen Wharf in Chongqing was 200 meters above sea level with a total reservoir capacity of 70 billion cubic meters.

During the Cultural Revolution, Qian Zhengying, director of the Revolutionary Committee of the Ministry of Water Resources, and Zhang Tixue, director of the Revolutionary Committee of Hubei Province, suggested to Mao Zedong a 200-meter-high dam proposal, who rejected it on wartime security grounds, saying that he could not sleep with a basin of water over his head.

Mao Zedong died and history entered the era of Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Li Rui said that Deng Xiaoping made two errors in his later years: one was the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River, and the other was the June Fourth (Tian’anmen Square Massacre) Incident. It is clear that Deng Xiaoping was the main decision maker of the Three Gorges Project.

In the summer of 1980, Deng Xiaoping took a boat from Chongqing to Wuhan, on his way to inspect the Three Gorges area and listen to Wei Tingcheng, director of the Changjiang Water Resources Commission, on the 150-meter-high dam proposal for the Three Gorges Project. When the ship arrived in Wuhan, Deng summoned Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and other CCP leaders to Wuhan and made it clear that he supported the low-dam option for the Three Gorges Project (the 150-meter option is called the low-dam option; the 200-meter option is called the high-dam option.) On November 24, 1982, while listening to a report from the State Planning Commission in Beijing, Deng stated his position on the Three Gorges Project: “We are in favor of the low-dam option, and if we see it right, we will make up our mind and won’t waver.” Now Deng Xiaoping’s statement has been altered so that instead of “in favor of the low dam option,” it only says “make up our mind when you see it right and don’t waver.”

Although the Deng-favored NPL would be only 150 meters above sea level, the planned dam crest elevation of Three Gorges Dam would be 175 meters above sea level. Compared with the NPL of 175 meters above sea level and the dam crest elevation of 185 meters above sea level which was approved by the National People’s Congress in 1992, the Deng-favored NPL was 25 meters lower, but the dam crest elevation was only 10 meters lower.

It is said that the biggest advantage of the 150-meter option was the small number of migrants, which was only 327,400. This number was calculated based on the NPL of 150 meters, with the main flooded area to be in the Yichang area of Hubei Province, and a part of the Wanxian area in Sichuan Province.

But the flood control benefits of the 150-meter scheme were calculated based on the NPL of 173 meters above sea level. With a dam crest elevation 175 meters, if minus 2 meters of wind and wave height, the reservoir can store water to 173 meters above sea level, which was roughly similar to the 175-meters scheme approved by the NPC in 1992.

Deng Xiaoping expressed his support for the low-dam plan after listening to the reports that the NPL? 150-meter plan had a number of advantages, including good flood control benefits, good power generation, 10,000 tons of ships from Shanghai directly to Chongqing, and a small number of migrants.

With the NPL at 150 meters, the Three Gorges Reservoir could store water up to 173 meters above sea level during the flooding season. But the resettlement plan would be executed according to the NPL of 150 meters above sea level, and the residents living below 150 meters would be relocated and resettled to areas above 150 meters above sea level. The problem was that, in order to achieve the goal of flood control benefits by storing water up to 173 meters above sea level, what would happen to the residents who lived between 150 meters and 173 meters or even in higher terrain?

The Ministry of Water Resources and the Changjiang Water Resources Commission believed that the residents could temporarily flee to higher ground on the slopes to take shelter for their safety. They could wait until the flood passed and then come back. The Ministry of Water Resources and the Changjiang Water Resources Commission even gave this plan a name – “flee from the floods”.

In 1984, the State Council approved in principle the 150-meter NPL dam plan for the Three Gorges Project, which was ready to start construction in 1986.

But the 150-meter NPL dam plan approved by the State Council was firmly opposed by the opponents of the Three Gorges Project, especially by members of the NCCPPCC (National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference). In his published book “On the Three Gorges Project”, Li Rui explained the reasons for opposing the Three Gorges Project. On the other hand, the Chongqing Municipal Government asked the State Council to raise the NPL to 180 meters above sea level.

5. People in the reservoir area do not want to temporarily relocate during flood control operation when the reservoir surcharge storage is called upon

On March 16, 1992, then-Premier Li Peng, on behalf of the State Council, presented the “Proposal for the Construction of the Three Gorges Project” at the 5th meeting of the 7th National People’s Congress. Li Peng said: “After years of research, demonstration and review, the dam site of the Three Gorges Project was chosen in the town of Sandouping, Yichang City, Hubei Province. The dam will be 1,983 meters long, with a crest elevation of 185 meters and a maximum dam height of 175 meters. With a total storage capacity of 39.3 billion cubic meters, the NPL of the reservoir is 175 meters.”]

A few days later, on March 21, 1992, then Vice Premier Zou Jiahua was entrusted by the State Council to make a statement to the NPC on the motion of building the Three Gorges Project. Zou Jiahua said that in 1984, the State Council had approved in principle the feasibility study of the Three Gorges Project at a NPL of 150 meters. In 1984, the Chongqing Municipal Government submitted a request to the State Council that the NPL should be raised to 180 meters so that the 10,000-ton fleet could reach the port of Chongqing directly. The Ministry of Transportation held the same view. In the re-evaluation and review, according to the opinions and requirements of various parties, six options were considered for the NPL of 150 meters, 160 meters, 170 meters, 180 meters, as well as “two-stage development” and “first-stage development, phased water impounding”, etc. A comprehensive technical and economic study was conducted. Considering that the Three Gorges Project should first meet the flood control requirements of the middle and lower reaches, that the 10,000-ton fleet can reach Chongqing directly, that the siltation problem[xv] should be handled with certainty, and that the people in the reservoir area do not want the reservoir to be temporarily relocated due to reservoir surcharge storage during flood control operation, it was finally decided that the NPL would be 175 meters, the dam crest elevation of 185 meters, and the “one-stage development, once completed, and continuous resettlement” would be adopted. The scheme is more reasonable than the original one, and the flood control capacity increased from 7.3 billion cubic meters to 22.15 billion cubic meters, which increases the benefits of the Three Gorges Project for flood control, power generation and shipping. Apparently, the new plan was acceptable one to all relevant departments, regions and people in the reservoir area.

Zou Jiahua continued by saying that reservoir resettlement was a matter of great concern to everyone. The migrants to be relocated by the Three Gorges Dam, were large in number, with extensive regions and departments affected. According to the 1985 statistics, the population was 725,500 people in the soon-to-be flooded area.

On April 3, 1992, the 5th meeting of the 7th National People’s Congress approved the State Council’s proposal to build the Three Gorges Project: the crest elevation would be 185 meters high, the NPL 175 meters, and the total reservoir capacity would be 39.3 billion cubic meters.

In his explanation of the motion, Zou Jiahua explained why the NPL of the reservoir was changed from 150-meter to 175-meter. As he said, one of the reasons was that people in the reservoir area did not want to be forced to flee when the reservoir was needed for flood control purposes. Therefore, the government chose the 175 meter option instead, which showed the government’s intention that they didn’t want to leave people in the flood storage area.

However, Zou Jiahua’s explanation which was made thirty years ago proves that in the previously proposed 150-meter NPL plan, the Chinese Communist government was prepared to ignore the safety of people’s lives and property and force them to accept temporary relocation due to the reservoir surcharge storage during flood control operation, so as to reduce the number of migrants and investment in the dam construction. In other words, the government once was prepared to force people to accept the practice of “flee from floods”.

Today’s announcement that the total reservoir capacity of the Three Gorges reservoir is actually 45 billion cubic meters is also an attempt to force people in the reservoir area to accept the practice of “flee from floods”.

6. With the total capacity of Three Gorges reservoir now expanded to 45 billion cubic meters, the active flood area of the reservoir will also expand, which will generate a large number of new migrants

Since the Three Gorges Reservoir was put into operation in 2003, and especially since the reservoir was impounded to 175 meters above sea level in 2010, the Three Gorges reservoir area has suffered frequent flooding disasters, the most serious being in 2020. The Chinese official media explained that floods and flooding of houses and crops in the Three Gorges reservoir area as “natural disasters” that have nothing to do with the dam project, as high gorges produce flat lakes[xvi]. Thus, with the NPL of 175 meters, the people who are in the area above 175 meters above sea level to be flooded, is also a “natural disaster”. With the total capacity of Three Gorges reservoir now expanded to 45 billion cubic meters, the flood storage area of the reservoir will be expanded further and those people living between 175 metres and 181 metres above sea level will be forced to move during floods that are blamed on natural disasters, but are really the result of a policy decision to store flood waters.

In August 2020, Ciqikou, Chaotianmen, and Nanbin Road areas in the downtown core of Chongqing were flooded. (Screenshot)

In fact, the Three Gorges Reservoir is not a flat lake, especially during the flood season when the flow is high:  the greater the flow, the greater the hydraulic gradient of the reservoir[xvii]. The Three Gorges Dam cuts flood peaks, intercepts floodwaters, and raises the storage level upstream of the dam, all of which will raise the flood level in the Three Gorges Reservoir area. This issue has been discussed in previous writings and will not be expanded here.[xviii]

Even if the high gorges produced a flat lake, even if the Three Gorges Reservoir has no hydraulic gradient, with the NPL of 175 meters and the relocation red line at 175 meters above sea level, the storage capacity of the reservoir is 39.3 billion cubic meters based on the government’s claim in the past. Now that the capacity of the Three Gorges Reservoir has been expanded from 39.3 billion cubic meters to 45 billion cubic meters, the starting point is no longer the NPL of 175 meters above sea level, but the storage level of 180.4 meters above sea level.

Now that the total storage capacity of the reservoir has expanded to 45 billion cubic meters and the NPL must rise to 180.4 meters, if the Chinese Communist government does not relocate the people living in the area between the previous relocation line of 175 metres and the flood storage level of 180.4 meters, would the residents of the Three Gorges reservoir area be forced to “flee from floods” during the flood control operation? Does the Chinese government think that the residents of the reservoir area will still accept the explanation that the floods are “natural disasters”?

There are two places in the Three Gorges reservoir area that are below 175 meters above sea level, probably around 160 meters above sea level, and the residents in the two places have not been relocated but should have. The two places are the old city of Fuling and the old city of Kaixian (now called Kaizhou). The number of migrants to be relocated in the two places was 100,000 each, for a total of 200,000 people. The planned number of migrants for the Three Gorges Project should have been 1.33 million (the planned 1.13 million plus the 200,000 who should have been relocated but were not). In order to reduce the number of migrants for the dam project, the government decided not to relocate the residents in these two areas. A river embankment with a top height of 180 meters above sea level was built along the Yangtze around the old city of Fuling, in an effort to block the rising water from the Yangtze River. In the old city of Kaixian, a 180-meter dam was built on the Xiaojiang River to regulate the back water rising from the Three Gorges reservoir along the Xiaojiang River.[xix]

Since the Three Gorges Reservoir came into operation, both places have been flooded constantly, with more flooding reported in the old city of Kaixian County than in the old city of Fuling City. The local people thought the floods were caused by local heavy rains, but in fact the Three Gorges project is the culprit of the floods.

Severe floods hit Kaixian (Kaizhou District) in the Three Gorges Reservoir area in 2020. (Screenshot)

Now that the storage capacity of Three Gorges Reservoir has been officially expanded from 39.3 billion cubic meters to 45 billion cubic meters, can the government continue to fool the people by saying that the NPL of the reservoir is still 175 meters above sea level?

Now we are faced with a practical problem: the total reservoir capacity of Three Gorges reservoir is 45 billion cubic meters, which corresponds to the storage level of 180.4 meters above sea level. How large is the flooding area of the reservoir at this point? How many peoples’ houses are going to be flooded? How many migrants will be relocated again? Today’s China is full of bad buildings and bad projects, so the Three Gorges Project is a typical bad project, so is the South-North Water Transfer Project.


Editor’s Notes:

[i] As will be explained later, this water will be diverted from the Three Gorges dam reservoir to replenish water in the Han River, downstream of the Danjiangkou dam, which itself is diverting Han River water to Beijing via the South North Water Diversion Project. Populations downstream of Danjiangkou are suffering water shortages due to the diversion SNWDP.

[ii] The follow-up work would finish some unfinished work, for example, migrants who have not resettled properly should be resettled once again; the newly-built county town should be abandoned and build somewhere else because of the unstable geological background; moreover, the follow-up work would deal with things that happened unexpectedly after the dam was put into operation, such as geological disasters, backwater issues. These unforeseen events were never included in the government’s original plan, so they have to deal with them in the name of follow-up work.

[iii] The Red Line or the Relocation Line is the elevation level determining populations which must be moved and resettled. In the case of the Three Gorges dam project, the current Red Line is 175 metres above sea level, which is consistent with the NPL (normal pool level) of the Three Gorges reservoir. In the practice of the resettlement of the Three Gorges dam, three relocation lines were set based on the plan of “first-stage development, phased water impounding.” In the first phase of water impounding started in June 2003, people who lived in the area below 135 metres must be moved and resettled. In the second phase of water impounding started in September 2006, people who lived in the area below 165 metres must be relocated. Then in the third phase of water impounding in September 2008, people who lived in the area below 175 metres must be relocated and resettled.

[iv] Ecological migrants or environmental migrants are people who are forced to leave their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local or regional environment. These changes compromise their well-being or livelihood. In the Three Gorges reservoir area, there changes include geological disasters, severe soil erosion, increased drought, lands distressed by unstable geological background, the backwater of the reservoir, and human activities especially the construction of new towns, roads, infrastructures and facilities related to the migrant resettlement programs.

[v] According to the feasibility study of the Three Gorges Project, with the NPL (normal pool level) of 175 meters above sea level, the dam can deal with a one-in-100-year flood. But the maximum flood control operating level, one of the most basic technical specifications, cannot be found in the reports of the feasibility study. Thus, the author asks this question and believes that the dam authorities know the maximum flood control operating level but refuse to reveal it. Furthermore, the author also believes that the maximum flood control operating level should be higher than 175 meters above sea level for sure, if the dam authorities attempt to deal with greater floods, an event of one in 10,000-year flood, for example.

[vi] In June 1986, China’s Hydropower Ministry set up a team of 412 experts to conduct the feasibility study of the Three Gorges Project. These experts came from various government departments, institutes and universities, and they were divided into 14 groups and worked on examining different aspects of the dam project, including geology and earthquake, dam buildings and structures, hydrology, flood control, sedimentation, shipping, power systems, electrical and mechanical equipment, resettlement, ecology and environment, integrated planning and water levels, construction, budget and comprehensive economics. The final reports of the feasibility study completed in 1989 and then were submitted to the State Council.

[vii] The Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel does not physically connect the Three Gorges Reservoir and the Danjiangkou Reservoir, because the water channeled from the Three Gorges Reservoir won’t directly flow into the Danjiangkou Reservoir. In fact, the exit of the tunnel is located at Panjiayan Village, about 5 kilometers downstream of the Danjiangkou Dam on the Han River, according to the “Approval of the Environmental Impact Report on the Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel Project” issued by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China.

[viii] The Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel will divert water from the Three Gorges reservoir downstream of the Danjiangkou Reservoir, which itself is diverting water from the Han River to Beijing via the South North Water Diversion Project. The Yinjiangbuhan Tunnel will replace water to downstream communities of the Han River, deprived of water as a result of the SNWDP.

[ix] The summer of 2022 provided a good example: the weather fluctuation caused extreme drought in the Yangtze Basin as a whole, so the central government gave orders to the dam authority several times, to lower the water levels in order to provide more water with the middle and lower reaches. More importantly, even in a normal year, the issue of water supply for the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River has become obvious and more serious since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam over the past three decades. This is because according to the operating mode of the dam, the reservoir enters the impounding period from September to May next year so that the dam generates more power electricity. But the period is the dry season of the river valley, so the middle and lower reaches in general and the lake areas in particular, including the Lake Dongting and the Lake Poyang, are facing challenges of the water shortage.

[x] Jingzhou City, once known as Shashi, is a city of Hubei Province. Jingzhou City is located by the Yangtze River, about 200 kilometres below the Three Gorges Dam.

[xi] The Yinjiangjihuai is a water transfer project diverting water from the Yangtze River in south to the Lake Chaohu and the Huaihe River in north. With a length of 723 kilometres and a budget of 91.271 billion yuan RMB, the project officially started construction in December 2016. The purpose of the project is to supply water to urban and rural areas and develop navigation, combined with irrigation and improvement of the water ecology of Chaohu Lake and Huaihe River. As many as 55 counties and districts will benefit from the project in Anhui and Henan provinces.

[xii] The Yinjiangjitai is a water transfer project diverting water from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River to the Lake Taihu, in order to increase the water level, improve the water environment and water quality of the Lake Taihu. In the year of 2022 alone, 608 million cubic metres of water has been diverted from the Yangtze River to the Lake Taihu via the Changshu Water Project in Jiangsu Province during a period from July 16 to September 2.

[xiii] Yangzhou is a city in Jiangsu Province in the lower Reaches of the Yangtze River, where the water is being taken from the Yangtze River and diverted to Shandong Province and Tianjin Municipality in north via the east leg of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. Based on the official data, about 675 million cubic metres of water from the Yangtze River is transferred to north China on a basis of multi-year average.

[xiv] Normally, over half of the Yangtze’s annual sediment load is deposited in the estuary and the remainder is carried by the ocean currents out to the coastline and continental shelf. But the Three Gorges Project would alter existing flow patterns and reduce sediment deposition in the estuary. This is because that mud and sand subside in reservoir at the upper reaches behind the dam and less sediment is reaching the estuary, which would intensify seawater intrusion and coastal erosion as a result.

[xv] Siltation in the reservoir is due to stagnant water in huge water storage. The siltation is a problem for many dams in the world, so the Three Gorges Dam is no exception. The main problems which can be encountered include loss of storage, damages to turbines and loss of hydro power production, and downstream impacts. Thus high rates of sedimentation in many reservoirs and better care of long term sustainability have emphasized the importance of reservoir sedimentation.

[xvi] This references Mao Zedong’s poem, “Swimming”: “To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain, till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.”

[xvii] Confusion on the issue appeared to have puzzled even the experts in the late 1980s, when 14 teams of Chinese experts conducted a feasibility study on the Three Gorges project. They arrived at the same conclusion, that the dam should be built, but their arguments were based on different assumptions on the slope issue. The resettlement team assumed the reservoir would be flat and that its final height would be the same for its entire length. But two of the other expert groups, which looked at flood control and sedimentation, assumed the reservoir would have a hydraulic slope with a gradient of 0.007 per cent (a water-level difference of seven metres every 100 kilometres). This assumption helped these teams reach their confident conclusions about the reservoir’s flood-storage capacity (22.1 billion cubic metres) and ability to flush out sediment. See: https://journal.probeinternational.org/2003/08/12/slippery-slope-confusion-surrounds-shape-reservoir-2/.

[xviii] See: https://journal.probeinternational.org/1999/11/16/three-gorges-project-error-democratic-decision-making/ and https://journal.probeinternational.org/2009/06/03/three-gorges-dam-one-long-slippery-slope/

[xix] The two places are special from a geographical perspective: the old town of Kaixian was located by the Xiaojiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze, which was not directly affected by the Three Gorges reservoir but by its backwater seasonally. So building a dam was able to regulate the backwater rising from the TG reservoir. With the old county town flooded, a new town was built in the nearby area thanks to the dam project. Fuling is a different story: the old city is located in the confluence of the Yangtze and Wu rivers, the government decided to keep the old city by taking advantage of the topography: to build a river embankment to block the rising water from the Yangtze. Although a new town was also built across the Yangtze River and just several kilometers away from the old town, currently most residents still live in the old town. One more reason, perhaps, Fuling is pretty close to the tail of the reservoir, about 500 km upstream from the dam site, so the backwater of the reservoir is not so strong. The government also took this account by doing so.

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