The Three Gorges Dam: Part I, China's Monumental Solution

This series of posts was originally written as an assignment for a modern Chinese history class, and the blog created to solve an email problem preventing my professor from receiving the paper. However, in the conversion to HTML, the paper lost some of it's organization and most of the citations.*

On June 1, 2003, the sluice gates of the Three Gorges Dam closed for the first time, halting the flow of the third largest river in the world, the Yangtze. During the following two weeks, it rose 400 feet, submerging abandoned towns, historical sites, cultural landmarks, and countryside that has been immortalized in Chinese art and literature for thousands of years.

Peal S. Buck described it as the "wildest, wickedest river" on earth in her 1931 novel The Good Earth. Over the last century, between 500,000 and a million people have been killed in floods from the Yangtze. In 1996 alone, far from the worst year, approximately $7 billion of property was lost in floods. When the dam is completed in 2009, it will save 15 million people from the floods and over 20 million acres of land. Moreover, the dam will produce 18,200 megawatts of hydro-electric power from 26 generators; that's more than 80 billion kWh of electricity each year equal to the energy produced by 18 nuclear power plants or the burning of 40 million tons of coal. China currently obtains more than 70% of its energy from burning coal, causing widespread acid rain, and pacing it to overtake the US as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases in a little over 20 years.

However, the dam as planned is five times wider than the Hoover dam, will create a lake 365 miles long, the length of California's Central Valley, and six hundred feet deep. It will require almost a trillion cubic feet of concrete, 350,000 tons of rebar, and 310,000 tons of metal. It is officially expected to cost US$29 billion (double China's military budget in 2000) though outside estimates range as high as US$70 billion.

While it will certainly more than match the powerful Yangtze, a single dam that large is not required merely to generate energy and control flooding. That aim could be accomplished by a number of smaller dams spread out across the Yangtze and its tributaries. There are also much cheaper forms of energy production, such as gas-fueled>combined cycle plants and co-generators, which are cleaner, more reliable, and fuel-efficient, do not require long-distance transmission systems, and carry no risk of black-outs. Dr. John Byrne, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy says, "I think China has embraced an energy dinosaur."

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This page contains a single entry by published on July 26, 2003 9:09 AM.

The Three Gorges Dam: Part II, Why China Needs the World's Largest Dam is the next entry in this blog.

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