The Dam

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The Three Gorges Dam project is a massive effort. In fact, this project is the largest hydroelectric project in the history of the world. This project was first proposed in 1920 by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. The project was to generate from 15,000 to 20,000 megawatts of electricity power and improve the navigation along the river. The project was started in the early 1990s. The dam is 6,312 feet long and 594 feet high. It will create a reservoir about 375 miles long (575 feet deep, with an average width of 3,600 feet), permanently submerge about 150,000 acres, including at least 20 towns, 16 archeological sites and resettle 1.4 million people. It's designed to generate over 18,000 megawatts of electricity, provide flood management, and improve navigation of the upper Yangtze River. That will allow 10,000-ton ocean-faring cargo ships and cruise liners to navigate 1,500 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean to the port city of Chongqing even during the dry season (fall and winter).

Needles to say, it is highly controversial, so here are the arguments:





The dam will far exceed the official cost estimate, and the investment will be unrecoverable as cheaper power sources become available and lure away ratepayers.

The dam is within budget, and updating the transmission grid will increase demand for its electricity and allow the dam to pay for itself.


The 1.4 million relocated people are worse off than before and their human rights are being violated.

15 million people downstream will be better off due to electricity and flood control.


Water pollution and deforestation will increase, the coastline will be eroded and the altered ecosystem will further endanger many species.

Hydroelectric power is cleaner than coal burning and safer than nuclear plants, and steps will be taken to protect the environment.

Local culture and natural beauty

The reservoir will flood many historical sites and ruin the legendary scenery of the gorges and the local tourism industry.

Many historical relics are being moved, and the scenery will not change that much.


Heavy siltation will clog ports within a few years and negate improvements to navigation.

Shipping will become faster, cheaper, safer and available year-round as the rapid waters are tamed and ship locks are installed.

Power generation

Technological advancements have made hydrodams obsolete, and a decentralized energy market will allow ratepayers to switch to cheaper, cleaner power supplies.

The alternatives are not viable yet and there is a huge potential demand for the relatively cheap hydroelectricity.

Flood control

Siltation will decrease flood storage capacity, the dam will not prevent floods on tributaries, and more effective flood control solutions are available.

The huge flood storage capacity will lessen the frequency of major floods. The risk that the dam will increase flooding is remote.

We, of course, heard the party line:

  1. It will save thousands of lives lost to periodic disastrous flooding.
  2. It will make the Yangtze navigable year round
  3. It will generate electricity for the expanding economy.

Whatever the arguments, there is one incontrovertible fact: it is being built.

Here is the model of the completed dam in the visitors center, looking upriver. From left to right the sections are:dam01.jpg (226565 bytes)

bulletPowerhouse no.2 (the last section to be built.)
bulletSluice gates to release water downstream at a steady rate.
bulletPowerhouse no. 1
bulletShip elevator to allow rapid transit for smaller ships.
bulletExisting headland
bulletDouble 5-stage locks, one for upriver, one for downriver.


June 2003 update: The dam reached its interim height of 135 meters on June 10, 2003. The European Space Agency satellite "CHRIS" took this picture on June 30, 2003. It shows  the water filling behind the dam. The water is being released downstream through the sluice gates creating the white turbulence  below the dam. The ship locks are now in operation along the right side of the dam.

NOTE: The only way that I could find to convey an overall impression of the size of this thing was via the following panoramic shots.

dampano1.jpg (355521 bytes)Looking downriver we see that the foundations of all but powerhouse no. 2 are complete.

lockpano.jpg (346088 bytes)From the top of the headland we can peer down into the locks. The river is held back by a temporary earthen dam. A couple of the massive doors have already been installed at the downriver end.

There are some cars on the road across the construction site from us. The lock doors are over 100 feet tall. That gives you some idea of the scale of this thing. Now look at the picture below, taken from the same place. The locks are at the far left end. The dam is at the right. In the foreground are barracks for some of the laborers. The engineers and officials live in high-rise buildings downriver, past the locks. This will become a resort area when the construction is finished.
dampano2.jpg (536903 bytes)

O.K. Now we have the big picture, so I can go ahead and show you some of the little pictures.

dam02.jpg (270200 bytes) dam03.jpg (264498 bytes) This is the exit from the ship locks you can see the one door that has already been installed.
dam05.jpg (432883 bytes) dam04.jpg (307325 bytes) Giant cranes and conveyor belts toil on the face of the dam by the ship elevator and powerhouse no. 1 
dam07.jpg (283631 bytes) One of the many concrete plants built at the site supplies concrete to build powerhouse no. 1

Ice water and refrigeration are used to make sure that the concrete cures properly in the high heat of this region.

dam06.jpg (237559 bytes) The circular control vanes for the sluice gates in mid-channel are already in place. During the dry season, these gates will release impounded water downriver to maintain a navigable depth.
dam08.jpg (167470 bytes) On the far side of the river the end of the dam awaits the attachment of powerhouse no.2
dam09.jpg (200965 bytes) An inspection tunnel is visible in the end of the dam as we sail through the gap where powerhouse no.2 will eventually be built.

The dam will be closed at the end of the navigation season in December of 2002 and there will then be no traffic through here until the water level reaches the height of the ship locks. The wet season of 2003 should bring it up there. In the meanwhile buses and trucks will take people and goods around the dam.

dam10.jpg (163596 bytes) The intake gates low on the face of the dam will help in flushing silt buildups through the sluice gates.
lesser34.jpg (281720 bytes) From now on we will be seeing signs reminding the population of the future water levels: 135 meters above sea level in 2003, and 175 meters in 2009.
2001, 2005, F. W. Schneider, all rights reserved -  Inquiries to Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More