Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydropower project ever built.
When construction began in 1994, it was designed not only to generate electricity to propel China’s breakneck economic growth, but also to tame China’s longest river, shield millions of people from fatal floods and, as a symbol of technological prowess, become a searing point of national pride.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
‘A tea cup for a big tub of water’
The Three Gorges Dam is an awe-inspiring structure.
Workers hold up a layout plan of the Three Gorges Dam project by the Yangtze river in Hubei province in September 1995. Scroll through the gallery for images of the Three Gorges Dam, through the years. Credit: Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Here’s how it works: the enormous dam is situated on an upstream section of the Yangtze and helps prevent flooding downstream by trapping rainwater in a huge reservoir, and then controlling the release of that water through its sluice gates. The 660 kilometer (410 mile) reservoir winds upstream through the narrow valleys of the Three Gorges — a series of steep canyons known for their imposing beauty and once treacherous currents — to Chongqing, a sprawling municipality of 30.5 million people in western China.
During the dry season, October to May, the reservoir’s water level is kept at a maximum of 175 meters (574 feet) to optimize electricity generation at the adjoining hydropower plant. Before the summer rains arrive in June, it’s gradually lowered to 145 meters (475 feet) to make room for the incoming floodwaters.
The lowering of water levels creates 22 billion cubic meters of storage space — enough to contain nearly 9 million Olympic-size swimming pools of water. But that’s nothing compared with the sheer volume of floodwater that can flow into the dam during bad years, said Fan Xiao, a Chinese geologist and long-time critic of the dam.
During a “once-a-century flood” more than 244 billion cubic meters of water — or about twice the volume of the Dead Sea — can pass through the Three Gorges in two months, according to Fan’s calculations.
The storage capacity of the dam’s reservoir can handle only about 9% of that amount, he added.
“It’s like using a small cup to deal with a big tub of water. In terms of flood control, the cost of the dam has surely outweighed the gain.”
Besides, the dam can only hold back the water for so long, as it has to make room for new rains — and in flood season torrential downpours can come in quick succession.
Last month, three flood waves have already hit the Three Gorges. The dam has opened its sluice gates multiple times since late June to release water from its reservoir, drawing criticism on Chinese social media that this exacerbated the floods downstream.
But Poyang Lake, in Jiangxi province, still swelled to its highest level in history — surpassing the previous record set by catastrophic floods in 1998, which killed more than 3,000 people. Other places downstream also broke historical records.
This aerial photo, taken on July 15, 2020, shows a flooded area near Poyang Lake due to torrential rains in Poyang county, Shangrao city in China’s central Jiangxi province. Credit: STR/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
David Shankman, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Alabama, who has studied flooding on the middle Yangtze, said the record-breaking water levels showed that the Three Gorges Dam could not prevent severe floods. “That’s a factual statement,” he said. “This dam is fully operational for many years now, and now we have the highest water level ever recorded.”
Miroslav Marence, an associate professor of storage and hydropower at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, said the problem is not the design of the dam, but the expectation that the dam can solve all the problems of flooding on the Yangtze, the third largest river by volume in the world. “It’s impossible to do it just with a dam,” he said.
For example, while the Three Gorges Dam can reduce the intensity of floods coming from upstream to a certain extent, it won’t be able to prevent floods caused by intense rainfall on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze or the tributaries in its basin entirely, he added.
And that is part of the problem: A lot of the flooding in central and southern China this summer, for instance, was caused by rains that fell downstream and didn’t ever go through the dam.
The dream of every Chinese leader
The Chinese have for millennia manipulated waterways for flood control, irrigation and navigation. For China’s imperial rulers, the ability to harness rivers not only saved lives and brought prosperity, but also gave legitimacy to their reign, as natural disasters were taken as a sign that the emperor had lost the mandate of heaven, by which he ruled.
This ambition to control water resources has only grown in modern times, with the prowess of technology.
Every Chinese leader since Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China, dreamed of building a massive dam on the Yangtze, which has repeatedly wreaked havoc on its banks during flood season.
In an industrial blueprint he laid out for the Republic of China in 1919, Sun envisioned damming the Three Gorges to improve navigation and provide hydropower for the whole country.
The revolutionary leader did not live to see this dream realized. His successor Chiang Kai-shek carried on with the task in the 1940s, inviting renowned American engineer John L. Savage — best known for his work on the Hoover Dam — to survey the valleys and draw up a design for the Three Gorges Dam. Chiang even sent dozens of Chinese engineers to the US for training, but the project was abandoned during the Chinese Civil War.
The faces of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin appear on a large mural of the Three Gorges Dam in Wuhan. Credit: Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Getty Images
After the Chinese Communist Party took power, Chairman Mao Zedong endorsed the project, writing about “walls of stone” and “a smooth lake rising in the narrow gorges” in a poem. But his plans were disrupted by the turmoil of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
When his successor Deng Xiaoping brought up the idea again in the late 1970s, it was strongly opposed by some leading hydrologists, intellectuals and environmentalists, who pointed to its human and environmental costs, from the mass relocation of residents to threats of geological hazards, environmental damage and loss of archeological sites.
Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng (left) at the National People’s Congress on March 21, 1992 in Beijing, China. Credit: Mike Fiala/AFP/Getty Images
Some delegates said they were blindsided when the Three Gorges Dam suddenly appeared on the NPC’s agenda, without advance notice or discussions about the project, according to a 1994 edition of “Yangtze! Yangtze!”
Why is the dam so controversial?
Residents of Fengjie, in southwest China’s Chongqing, watch the demolition of buildings in their town on November 4, 2002, to make room for the Three Gorges Dam’s resevoir. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
“The huge weight of the water behind the Three Gorges Dam had started to erode the Yangtze’s banks in many places, which, together with frequent fluctuations in water levels, had triggered a series of landslides,” the Xinhua report said, citing officials and experts at a meeting.
Water gushes out for the first time through the Three Gorges Dam on June 11, 2003. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
The dam, which sits near two major fault lines, has also been blamed for a surge in earthquakes in the region. Scientists argue that the weight of the large reservoir and the permeation of water into the rocks underneath can trigger earthquakes in regions already under considerable tectonic stress.
But in 2011, the Chinese government admitted the Three Gorges Dam had created a range of major problems.
The costs of such projects exceeded original estimates and many benefits were never realized, Beard said.
Water is released from the Three Gorges Dam to relieve flood pressure in Yichang, central China’s Hubei province on July 19, 2020. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Shankman, the geologist at Alabama University, said many dams in the northwestern coast of the US were actually removed because they blocked the migration of fish from the ocean up the rivers, causing their populations to drop. In the southeast of the country, upstream dams in the mountains created environmental problems, driving fish species to extinction, causing water pollution, and the recession of coastlines due to the blocking of sediments.
Marence, the dam expert in the Netherlands, said after the boom in dam building from the 1950s to the 1980s, more countries and organizations started to become aware of their environmental impacts.
But dams with hydropower facilities do “produce a lot of cheap energy, and it’s renewable,” said Matthijs Kok, a hydraulic engineering professor at Delft University of Technology.
“However, they have an environmental price, and if we want to build new dams, we should look carefully at the environmental damage. We have to find compromise,” he said.
The Three Gorges Dam in China.
Installed generation capacity: 22,500 megawatts. Credit: Wang Gang/Xinhua/Getty images
Some geologists say instead of relying on dams to stop flooding, we should give rivers space and allow them to expand during the flood season.
“Large alluvial rivers naturally flood during the wet season. Floodwater is not a problem, that’s simply what rivers do. The problem is when you have a lot of people living in the areas that are subject to flooding,” Shankman said.
Along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze are some of China’s most densely populated areas. For centuries, people have built levees to protect their communities and farmlands from flooding. But these measures, too, are imperfect.
With the climate crisis expected to bring about heavier, more frequent flooding, some experts say China will be forced to find new solutions for future generations.
Graphics by CNN’s Jason Kwok.