Three Gorges Dam – Still China’s Model for the World?

Three Gorges Dam construction
Three Gorges Dam construction
Chris De Bode

On his eight-day visit to China, Nepal’s Prime Minister Prachanda planned to visit the Three Gorges Dam this week. He would have followed in the footsteps of dignitaries from South Africa, Congo, Switzerland and many other countries. China is aggressively marketing the Three Gorges Project to the rest of the world. As it happened, Nepal’s Prime Minister resigned just before leaving for China. Yet the propaganda efforts around the Yangtze reservoir beg the question: Is the Three Gorges Dam still China’s model for the world?

The dam on the Yangtze River is by far the world’s largest hydropower project. With 18,200 megawatts, its capacity is bigger than the 500 hydropower plants and five nuclear reactors of my native Switzerland combined. China completed project construction ahead of schedule last October, and the reservoir will reach its final height this year. With good reasons, the Chinese authorities take great pride in this amazing technical achievement.

While construction has gone according to plan, resettlement and environmental mitigation have not. During a brief period of open discussion, the Secretary General of the Yangtze River Forum admitted in 2007 that “the problems are all more serious than we expected”. Other Chinese government officials warned that “if no preventive measures are taken, the project could lead to catastrophe”.


Discussion of the Three Gorges Dam was soon silenced. But just as Nepal’s Prime Minister got ready for his pilgrimage to the Yangtze River, Caijing, China’s leading business journal, published a new account of the problems besetting the project. It detailed how fluctuations of the water level have made landslides a frequent scourge along the reservoir. Since impoundment began last November, more than 150 dangerous geological events have been reported. A study by the Yangtze River Water Resources Committee found that the dam may trigger disastrous landslides at 1,331 sites and cause 178 kilometers of riverbanks to collapse over the longer term.

More than 1.2 million people have been resettled for the Three Gorges Project. Land for the displaced farmers and jobs for the city dwellers are extremely scarce. A local official reports that the resettlers have received new houses, but their living standards have fallen. The new houses typically cost more than the compensation which resettlers received. Yet the environmental problems will require further large-scale displacement. According to Caijing, an additional 530,000 people will have to move away from the reservoir area by 2020 to relieve pressure on the fragile ecosystem.

Pollution is another scourge. Just as the creation of a reservoir impeded the river’s capacity to cleanse itself, heavily polluting industries have been allowed to settle in the area. Industrial discharge, soil erosion and waste from farms, dairy production and households have triggered massive algae bloom. The central government funded the construction of numerous sewage treatment plants in the area. Yet in 2005, 70 percent of them were idle because the indebted local authorities could not afford their operating costs. The situation may get soon worse when the local authorities will have to take over maintenance responsibilities for the project from the China Three Gorges Project Corporation.

An in-depth review for China’s central government found in March 2008 that follow-up work for the Three Gorges Project – mainly for environmental and social mitigation measures and geological hazard control – will cost more than $14 billion. If these measures don’t work, Caijing estimates that erosion and sedimentation will fill the reservoir with earth in less than 40 years.

The Three Gorges Dam is the most prominent example of how China’s quest for economic growth at all cost is undermining the long-term prosperity and well-being of the population. The government has responded to the looming ecological disaster by creating a new Ministry for Environmental Protection, strengthening environmental laws and regulations, and promoting renewable energy sources.

China has become the world leader in wind and solar energy in recent years. These technologies are more likely to bring lasting social and economic development to South Africa, Nepal and Congo than a copy of the Three Gorges Dam. We hope the government propaganda and the travel program of visiting dignitaries will soon reflect this shift.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at