Three Gorges Dam to be Completed

Steven Benson
In the next few days, the reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam will reach a level of 175 meters. After 27 million cubic meters of concrete have been poured, 39 cubic kilometers of water have been stored, 1.3 million people have been displaced and up to $88 billion have been spent, the world’s largest and most controversial hydropower project will thus be completed.

Now it is time to take stock. I have followed the Three Gorges Project since the mid-1990s, and had the chance to visit the dam site this summer. I believe the following lessons need to be drawn from the Three Gorges experience:

•    The hydropower plant on the Yangtze River will substitute the burning of 30 million tons of coal every year. Yet China will have to grapple with the project’s environmental legacy for many generations. The Three Gorges Dam has decimated aquatic species and commercial fisheries, is eroding the reservoir area and the Yangtze Delta, and causes frequent toxic algae blooms. Even so, more than 100 further dams are being planned on the Yangtze River and its tributaries. The social and environmental impacts of the Three Gorges Dam should be independently evaluated and addressed before new dams on the world’s third-longest river are built.

•    Many people who were displaced by the reservoir have been cheated and impoverished. Compensation payments have been routinely embezzled, and the promised jobs and replacement lands failed to materialize. In an innovative move from which other countries could learn, the Chinese government began compensating past victims of dam displacement in 2006. The Three Gorges resettlers have still not gotten a fair deal, and need to be retroactively compensated.

•    Western export credit agencies and equipment suppliers such as ABB, Alstom, General Electric and Siemens benefited from the boondoggle in the Yangtze Valley. They should contribute to the funds required to mitigate the environmental damages and restitute the victims of the project.

•    China has strengthened its environmental laws and regulations in recent years, but important flaws persist. These flaws need to be addressed. Environmental impact assessments need to be carried out before hydropower projects are started, and violations of environmental laws need to be sanctioned more rigorously.

•    Improving China’s energy efficiency would have been cheaper and cleaner than building the Three Gorges Dam. In recent years, the government has aggressively promoted energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. China deserves international support for this approach, for example through an exemption of green energy technologies from patent protection in developing countries.

Three Gorges Dam Nears Completion
Three Gorges Dam Nears Completion
Seth Rosenblatt
The project authorities are keeping a low profile as the reservoir reaches its final height, and are not organizing a big event to mark the completion of the project. China’s President and Prime Minister have not attended earlier events to celebrate the Three Gorges Dam, as if to keep a distance from a boondoggle which their predecessors promoted and approved. Yet dam construction on China’s rivers is moving forward at a breakneck pace, without much public debate.

A public discussion of the costs and benefits of the Three Gorges Project is needed. International Rivers has just published a new factsheet on the Yangtze Dam to contribute to this discussion. We have also created a Three Gorges arts page, which combines a musical composition, paintings and photographs to commemorate the submerged Yangtze Valley. What is your opinion about the Three Gorges Dam?

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. An extended version of this commentary has appeared in the Huffington Post. Peter’s blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at