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The weight of the reservoir's water has many

Three Gorges scientists concerned over reservoir-induced

seismicity. Critics have also argued that the project
may have exacerbated recent droughts by

Dam withholding critical water supply to downstream

users and ecoystems, and through the creation of a
microclimate by its giant reservoir. In 2011, China's
highest government body for the first time officially
acknowledged the "urgent problems" of the Three
Gorges Dam.

Three Gorges Dam Nears Completion

Seth Rosenblatt
The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest
hydropower project and most notorious dam. The
massive project sets records for number of people
displaced (more than 1.2 million), number of cities Pollution in the Three Gorges Reservoir
and towns flooded (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 International Rivers
villages), and length of reservoir (more than 600 Through the Three Gorges Project, China has
kilometers). The project has been plagued by acquired the know-how to build large hydropower
corruption, spiraling costs, environmental schemes, and has begun exporting similar
impacts, human rights violations and resettlement projects around the world. Now that the project's
difficulties. problems have been acknowledged, it is important
The Three Gorges Dam is a model for disaster, yet to draw lessons from the experience so that the
Chinese companies are replicating this model both problems of the Yangtze dam are not repeated.
domestically and internationally. Within China, huge While Three Gorges is the world’s biggest hydro
hydropower cascades have been proposed and are project, the problems at Three Gorges are not
being constructed in some of China’s most pristine unique. Around the world, large dams are causing
and biologically and culturally diverse river basins - social and environmental devastation while better
the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River, Nu alternatives are being ignored.
(Salween) River and upstream of Three Gorges Dam
on the Yangtze River and tributaries.The International Rivers protects rivers and defends the
environmental impacts of the project are profound, rights of the communities which depend on them.
and are likely to get worse as time goes on. The We monitor the social and environmental problems
submergence of hundreds of factories, mines and of the Three Gorges Dam, and work to ensure that
waste dumps, and the presence of massive industrial the right lessons are drawn for energy and water
centers upstream are creating a festering bog of projects in China and around the world.
effluent, silt, industrial pollutants and rubbish in the
reservoir. Erosion of the reservoir and downstream
riverbanks is causing landslides, and threatening one
of the world’s biggest fisheries in the East China Sea.
Chinese Government Acknowledges Problems of

Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River

In an unexpected statement, China’s government
has just acknowledged the serious problems of
the Three Gorges Dam. “The project is now greatly
benefiting the society in the aspects of flood
prevention, power generation, river transportation
and water resource utilization,” the government
maintained, but it has also “caused some urgent
problems in terms of environmental protection, the
prevention of geological hazards and the welfare of The undammed Nu River in China's Southwest
the relocated communities.” On the same day, it For a few years, the Chinese government appeared
announced concrete measures to improve the living to heed the lessons from the Three Gorges Dam.
conditions of the displaced people, protect the Several destructive new projects on the Yangtze and
Yangtze’s ecosystem and prevent geological other rivers were suspended. Representatives of
disasters. What is new about this acknowledgment? China’s well-connected hydropower bureaucracy
And what does it mean for China’s future dam have complained that this period, when fewer dams
building plans? than planned were built, were “wasted years.” “We
must proceed [with hydropower dams],” an official
Chinese government officials have admitted the from the Nu Valley in Yunnan Province commented
problems of the world’s largest hydropower project in January. “The resources here are too good; not to
on the Yangtze River before. “We thought of all the develop is not an option.”
possible issues,” Weng Lida, the secretary general of
the Yangtze River Forum, told the Wall Street The hydropower lobbyists seem to have kept the
Journal in August 2007. “But the problems are all upper hand within China’s government. In February,
more serious than we expected.” Around the same the head of the National Energy Administration
time, senior officials warned that the project had announced that under its new Five-Year Plan, the
caused an array of ecological problems, including government was going to approve no less than 140
more frequent landslides and pollution, which could gigawatts of new hydropower projects. This amounts
result in an environmental “catastrophe” if to seven Three Gorges dams and is more than any
preventive measures were not taken. (You can find other country has built in its entire history. The
a summary of the social, environmental and energy administration plans to build new dam
geological problems of the project in our factsheet cascades on the Nu River, the middle and upper
from November 2009.) reaches of the Yangtze and its tributaries, and the
upper Mekong.

China’s National People’s Congress adopted the new

Five-Year Plan in March, but the plan for the energy
sector is still under discussion. The opinions within
the government appear to be sharply divided.
Pushing back against the dam builders, a senior Sun and Xu submitted their findings to the Premier
official in the Ministry of Environmental Protection Wen Jiabao, who is a geologist himself. After the
warned that “hydropower could cause more severe earthquake disaster in Japan, the seismic and
pollution than coal-fired power plants” in terms of geological risks of dams could no longer be ignored.
ecological impacts, resettlement problems and In April, Hu Siyi, a vice-minister of water resources,
geological hazards. called the risk of earthquakes and other natural
disasters the biggest obstacle to dam building in the
country’s Southwest. He acknowledged that the
ability of water projects “to resist floods,
earthquakes and other natural disasters has become
an issue of increasing public concern.”

Landslide on the Three Gorges reservoir

As yesterday’s government statement confirms, a
key lesson of the Three Gorges Project is that dams
can have serious geological impacts. The fluctuating
water levels of the reservoir on the Yangtze have
destabilized hundreds of miles of slopes
and triggered massive landslides. Most of the
projects discussed under the new Five-Year Plan
would be built in China’s mountainous Southwestern
region, which is seismically active. The devastating
earthquake of 2008 in Sichuan Province, which
damaged hundreds of dams and may have
been triggered by a reservoir, further illustrated the
risk of building hydropower projects on fault lines.

Environmental organizations invited Sun Wenpeng

and Xu Daoyi, two senior Chinese geologists, to pay a
field visit to the Nu Valley to investigate the region’s
unique tectonic formations. They found that “the
tectonic movement in the Three Parallel Rivers area
[of the Nu, upper Mekong and upper Yangtze] is
stronger than anywhere in the world – how can they
build a cascade of dams here?” The scientists also
warned that the proposed dams “may increase the
risks of geological disasters.”