Three Gorges Gates Close on Chinese History


scene at the construction site of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s
Yangtze River had an eerie sort of timelessness. Mountains of concrete
and other-worldly cranes towered over workers carrying water in
cans hanging from poles balanced across their shoulders. On June
1, 2003, this phase of construction was completed; the click of
a computer mouse closed the gates on 4,000 years of Chinese history
and 2 million of pre-historical settlement. The official celebration
was covered on live television, as raging white water lost its battle
with closing sluice gates. The water level in what is to be a 365-mile
reservoir was expected to rise to 135 meters within 2 weeks and
to 175 meters by the time the entire project is completed in 2009.

construction since 1994, the Three Gorges project is to be the world’s
largest dam and perhaps its most audacious public works project
since the Great Wall. But not all Chinese are celebrating. 

The Dam and the Damned 


the gains the government promises in return for its $50 billion
investment in the great dam are: hydroelectric power, enough to
satisfy 10 percent of domestic demand; flood control; enhanced irrigation
and navigation; and promotion of tourism. For tourists who had packed
Yangtze riverboats since 2000, the attraction was not what was to
be gained with the dam, but what was so soon to be lost—soaring
peaks shrouded in mist, interspersed with cascading terraces of
rice paddies; hovering cliffs, crowned with pagodas, linked by gracefully
arching bridges; and far below the placid precipices, a thoroughfare
of rushing waters urgently going about the business of delivering
boats to the settlements they service on the shoreline. 

at Chongqing, already one of China’s largest cities and expected
to absorb several hundred thousand of the soon-to-be-displaced,
one finds a panorama of the damned gracing the walls of the Three
Gorges Museum. The mural, by local artist Liu Zuo-zong, navigates
in 100 meters the 600-kilometer stretch of the Yangtze over which
water will be backed up by the dam, mapping peaks and valleys, islands
and tributaries, cities and towns, bridges and temples, imperial
halls and pavilions, and archeological sites. A dotted line running
through the mural corresponds to actual markers along the shoreline,
showing how much of this deeply rooted thicket of civilization is
to be submerged. 

Atlantis of the Yangtze 


were plans to relocate a few of the historically most significant
temples and pagodas; the 2nd

Zhang Fei temple of Yunyang, for example, was to be rebuilt on higher
ground when the densely populated center-city of Yunyang, a municipality
of more than a million people, is submerged. But prehistory is another
matter; archeologists have been working feverishly to document what
they could from some 1,300 known sites before they are washed away.
Some traces of the ancient Ba people will remain, as their “hanging
coffins” were situated high on the cliffs, but the society
represented by the two-million-year-old jawbone recently discovered
at Dragon Bone Cave will be forever lost. 

threatened plant and animal life, there is to be no Noah’s
Ark. The dam project will wreak havoc on fish populations; it will
destroy much of the habitat of the giant panda and the Siberian
white crane, both of which are endangered species; and it is expected
to cause the extinction of the Chinese alligator and the baiji,
the white dolphin found only in the Yangtze. There are fewer than
100 baiji remaining and efforts to promote reproduction outside
their river habitat have thus far failed. 

there are the people. More than 700,000 have already been uprooted,
most of them within the past year. Estimates of the total number
to be displaced range from 1.1 to 1.9 million, with most falling
into the middle range of 1.4 to 1.6. At any rate, it will amount
to the largest peacetime evacuation in history. The reservoir will
cover more than 630 square kilometers, flooding 13 major cities,
140 towns, and over 1,300 villages, along with 1,600 factories and
mines and an unknown number of farms and plantations. 

the first cities to go under will be Zigui and Badong. Just upstream
of the dam, in the Xiling Gorge, Zigui hosts the temple of Qu Yuan,
great poet of the Warring State Period (475-221 BC). Badong, with
half a million people in the city and outlying settlements that
comprise the municipality, is the gateway to the popular Shennongxi
Canyon and Gezihe Stone Forest. Further upstream, Wushan city, hub
of another municipality of a half million, is also to be totally
inundated. Its Damiao Longgu Ruins are the locale of one of the
earliest humanoid fossils ever found. Fengjie, just above the spectacular
Qutang Gorge, a municipality of almost a million, dates to the New
Stone Age and has a 4,000-year history of continuous settlement.
Its city-center is to be totally submerged, along with the centers
of two municipalities of more than a million just upstream: Yunyang,
home of the famous Zhang Fei temple, and Wanxian, known as the Emperor
City since it hosted troops of the Emperor Hanzhao. 

upstream toward Chongqing, two more municipalities of about a million,
Zhongxian and Fuling, will lose only half to two-thirds of their
densely populated centers; but Zhongxian municipality will lose
a portion of ShibaoZhai, the 13-story, 56- meter Ming dynasty pavilion
and the town that accommodates and thrives from its visitors. Situated
between those two cities, but on lower ground, Fengdu, with a population
of 740,000, is to be mostly submerged. Some of its 70 temples, the
oldest dating to the Tang dynasty, will survive, however, as they
climb the Mingshan Hill above the city. 

government has far-reaching resettlement plans, of course. Along
the Yangtze from Chongqing to Yichang, where cities are to be submerged,
new construction can be seen in progress on mountainsides above
the anticipated waterline. The people to be displaced have been
promised new accommodations—though often in distant and ethnically-distinct
locales—or compensation for their homes and lands; but, in
too many cases, new jobs were not available, new houses were not
affordable, and new farmland was not arable. Some officials involved
in relocation management had already been convicted of embezzling

World Commission on Dams, an international panel of experts, estimates
that up to 80 million people around the world have been displaced
or directly disadvantaged by dams. By these calculations, dam refugees
outnumber war refugees four to one. In China as elsewhere, refugees
of relocation schemes less ambitious than the Three Gorges project
have often found that promised funds and facilities were not forthcoming
or that the money soon ran out, leaving them at the mercy of insecure
job markets in unwelcoming cities. According to the Lawyers’
Committee for Human Rights, at least 46 percent of the 10 million
Chinese previously displaced by dams and resettled now live in conditions
of extreme poverty.

curator at the Three Gorges Museum laid out the pros and cons of
the project with carefully crafted dispassion. Even in private,
he declined to give an opinion of his own. Asked how the local people
feel about it, he responded, “I don’t know for sure; but
what I know for sure is that how they feel doesn’t matter.” 

of opponents of the construction of the dam have been arrested or
“disappeared,” putting a damper on open criticism. But
passive resistance is said to be the Chinese way and some are simply
refusing to leave their villages. Greater resistance is expected
from the rural population, who understand the irreplaceable value
of land and from the elderly, both rural and urban. Apart from those
most immediately affected, the one-to-two million who can expect
to be uprooted—to lose homes, communities, livelihoods, and
social, historical, ecological, and aesthetic grounding—and
a few million more on the perimeter who will feel the pressure of
a massive new influx of population on water and other resources,
on land and housing and on demand for jobs and services, the concern
most readily expressed is that of security. 

some, security concerns center on the viability of the dam, given
the possibilities of incompetence, malfeasance, or just plain errors
on the part of bureaucrats, engineers, or contractors. One of the
country’s supposedly unbreakable dams collapsed in 1975, leaving
200,000 dead. Before the last sluice gate closed, the Three Gorges
Dam had already developed hundreds of cracks, some tens of meters
long. Moreover, the Three Gorges Dam site is in an earthquake-prone
region. Project engineers claim the dam could withstand quakes up
to a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale and that no stronger quake
had struck the region in more than a century. Yet, in the history
of the Yangtze, a century is not a very long time; and a miscalculation
puts at risk a floodplain population of some 300 to 400 million. 

most who expressed concern, however, even before the terrorist attacks
on the U.S. Pentagon and World Trade Towers, security has had military
connotations. A multi-billion-ton wall of water a mile long and
hovering 40 stories high over several hundred million people on
China’s richest farmland might pose an attractive target to
terrorists or would-be enemy nations. What no one seems to mention
is that such a potential security threat becomes an actual threat
to civil liberties and human rights, as any criticism of the dam
project or highlighting of its vulnerabilities can subject one to
charges of treason. 

Purchasing Power and Immortality 


is no denying that “socialism with Chinese characteristics”
(more accurately, capitalism with statist characteristics) has produced
a robust economy demanding ever more energy and from sources less
pollution-prone than the currently pervasive coal. It also needs
effective means of flood control. In the last century alone, floodwaters
have claimed 300,000 lives. But the high-reservoir-level needs of
electricity generation and the low-reservoir-level needs of flood
control cancel each other out. Experience suggests that where goals
are in conflict, the goal that generates money wins out. Ultimately,
accumulating silt will interfere with both objectives. With respect
to agriculture, it is hard to imagine that anticipated improvements
in irrigation will compensate for the many acres of already productive
farmland to be submerged. 

to improving conditions for navigation, flooding the gorges should
certainly do that in general, but submerging factories and whole
cities is bound to create new hazards for shipping even if, as planned,
the cities are first demolished. Along with the garbage and sewage
trapped in the reservoir rather than flowing downstream, the debris
of submerged cities may introduce pollution hazards heretofore unimagined. 

there alternative means of generating energy and promoting flood
control? With drawbacks no doubt, but a quicker and cheaper means
that would avoid the most dramatic threats and sacrifices and have
the additional benefit of decentralizing control would be the erection
of a number of smaller dams on tributaries feeding into the mighty
Yangtze. Scattered smaller dams would not serve so effectively,
however, as a symbol of technological superstardom, a monument to
the current leadership—the mausoleum or chariot to ensure passage
to immortality.

Knippers Black is a professor at the Graduate School of International
Policy Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
She has published 11 books on international politics and development,
the most recent being

Inequity in the Global Village


Development in Theory and



ed., both 1999.