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 and towns flooded (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages), and length of reservoir (more than 600 kilometers). The project has been plagued by corruption, spiraling costs, environmental impacts, human rights violations and resettlement difficulties.
The environmental impacts of the project are profound, and are likely to get worse as time goes on. The submergence of hundreds of factories, mines and waste dumps, and the presence of massive industrial centers upstream are creating a festering bog of 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. The weight of the reservoir’s water has many scientists concerned over reservoir-induced seismicity. Critics have also argued that the project may have exacerbated recent droughts by 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.
The Three Gorges Dam is a model for disaster, yet Chinese companies are replicating this model both domestically and internationally. Within China, huge hydropower cascades have been proposed and are being constructed in some of China’s most pristine and biologically and culturally diverse river basins – the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River, Nu (Salween) River and upstream of Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River and tributaries.
Through the Three Gorges Project, China has acquired the know-how to build large hydropower schemes, and has begun exporting similar projects around the world. Now that the project’s problems have been acknowledged, it is important to draw lessons from the experience so that the problems of the Yangtze dam are not repeated.
While Three Gorges is the world’s biggest hydro project, the problems at Three Gorges are not unique. Around the world, large dams are causing social and environmental devastation while better alternatives are being ignored.