The Taming of the Yangtze

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Sat Jan 20 06:06:21 MST 2001

Last updated 1600 Hrs IST, Friday, December 15, 2000

The taming of the Yangtze
Barun Roy, Friday October 20
The Three Gorges Dam will reduce the chance of major downstream flood,
writes Barun Roy
Eighty-one years after Dr Sun Yat Sen first mooted the idea and seven years
after work on it actually began in 1993, China’s Three Gorges Dam on the
Yangtze River, its biggest ever construction project since the Great Wall
and the Grand Canal, is on track for its scheduled completion in 2009.
In 1997, the main course of the Yangtze was diverted to prepare for its
damming. By last August, more than 7,400 people had been removed from the
project area and resettled, beginning a planned migration of some 1.13
million likely to be displaced.
In June 2003, the first group of generators will start producing
electricity, launching the biggest hydropower plant in the world.
The Chinese government has ignored all attacks by international
environmentalists, who say the project will destroy the ecology of the Three
Gorges area, and argues that a new ecology will be born and enormous
economic benefits will follow.
First and foremost, the project is seen as the ultimate means of breaking
the Yangtze’s cycle of devastating floods, which killed 2,40,000 people in
1870, some 30,000 in 1954, and over 3,000 in 1998. Note the falling numbers,
which clearly indicate the progress over the years of China’s flood control
programme. When Three Gorges is completed and its reservoir acquires the
full flood storage capacity of 22.1 billion cubic meters, the chance of a
major downstream flood will likely recede from once every 10 years now to
once every 100.
Also important to China is the power that will be produced by this gigantic
project. Its slated annual generation of 84.7 billion kilowatt hours of
electricity will be enough to meet the energy needs of central and eastern
China, where most of the country’s economic activity is currently
concentrated. With 26 generating units and an installed capacity of 18,200
MW, Three Gorges will spare the country 40 to 50 million tons of coal per
year, which it would otherwise have to burn to keep up with its electricity
needs, and thus help check the pollution of its atmosphere.
A third major benefit will be a vast improvement in transportation up and
down the river. Ocean-going cargo and cruise liners will be able to navigate
all the way to Chongqing, some 1,500 miles inland. Shipping through central
Yangtze will likely increase from 10 million tons to 50 million tons
annually and costs will be reduced by as much as 30per cent to 37per cent.
The government also points to a fourth coveted benefit, the economic ripple
effect of the project and a substantial boost to local economies around the
project area. Businessmen in Hubei, for example, have bagged huge contracts
emanating from the project, and the province’s GDP has maintained an 8.6 per
cent average growth over the last eight years.
A number of big and well-known companies have moved into Yichang city, near
the dam, and four counties around the reservoir, strengthening the
industrial base of the area and creating employment. Three industrial parks
have been set up to support the industrial activity. And don’t forget that
entire new towns will have to be built to relocate migrants from the project
The scale of the project is truly gigantic and the government is in no mood
to diminish it in any way. Above the point where the dam is being built,
1,000 miles upstream from Shanghai, the Yangtze flows through three deep and
separate gorges lying next to one another (hence the name).
A 1.2-mile-long wall of concrete, 185 meters tall at its highest section,
will bridge the gorges and create a reservoir 575 feet deep and 370 miles
long. Two cities, 11 counties, 140 towns, 326 townships, and 1,351 villages
will be partially or completely submerged by this enormous body of water,
but the government isn’t worried. To stifle criticism, it has marked as much
as a third of its $25 billion project investment for its relocation

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