If all goes according to plan, the People's Republic of China by the year 2009 will have completed the biggest, most expensive, and perhaps most hazardous hydroelectric dam ever attempted. The megadam is under construction near the center of China on a fabled stretch of the Yangtze River. Along a mountainous section of the river valley that sharply narrows in three places to form immense, steep-walled canyons--the Xiling, Wu, and Qutang Gorges--the dam will create what the Chinese refer to as a "lake within the gorges." The government claims the Three Gorges Dam will increase the supply of affordable electricity throughout the Yangtze Valley, control floods, boost the growing economy, reduce air pollution, and lessen the impact China's energy production has on the earth's ozone layer.

Although the project had floundered for decades, and final engineering and financing plans were incomplete, last December Premier Li Peng brushed aside international criticism and proclaimed that construction had officially begun on the 1.3-mile-long, 610-foot-high dam. On the surface, the benefits of a megadam to China seem indisputable. But are the benefits worth the costs and risks?

Both the technical and social dimensions of the project are staggering. A reservoir stretching 385 miles up the Yangtze River will be created, forcing the resettlement of 1.4 million people and submerging ancient farmland, temples, wildlife habitats, and archaeological treasures dating back 10,000 years. Much of the unique scenic splendor of the Yangtze River, which has been an integral part of Chinese life and mythology, will be lost forever. The environmental effects will be comparable to those of damming the Grand Canyon or diverting Niagara Falls.

The dam has attracted worldwide attention because of the ecological dangers, technical challenges, and human rights issues it poses, and it has raised questions about the rights of other industrialized nations to intervene in Chinese internal affairs. In China the project has sparked a fiery and unprecedented debate over its feasibility. It has also conjured up terrifying memories of disastrous dam breaks from China's past, the worst of them the overnight crumbling of 62 dams in Henan province in 1975. That tragedy was attributed to three once-every-2,000-years typhoons that struck in the same month. In the deluge, the dams--including two of China's largest "iron dams" in the Huaihe River--held against the torrents for only two days. The iron dams had been built in the early 1950s based on Soviet designs, and government officials had proclaimed them indestructible, like the Titanic. When they burst, the "river dragon" escaped with such demonic force that tidal waves wiped out entire towns; an estimated 86,000 to 230,000 people died. Two million more people were trapped for weeks, and some 11 million were stricken by disease and famine in the aftermath.

Surmounting a news blackout by the Chinese government, Human Rights Watch/Asia compiled an account of the disaster from confidential sources in the country. It published a report in February, nearly 20 years after the fact. To this day the catastrophe has not been publicly acknowledged by the Chinese government, nor has it been cited in government hearings on the Three Gorges project.


Within China, the project has triggered a political backlash. Concern over the dam has reached such heights that many patriotic citizens have been impelled to openly challenge the regime's "mandate of heaven" for the first time since the communists took power in 1949. Scientists, writers, scholars, statesmen, flood refugees, and sympathizers have broken their political shackles and risked imprisonment with insistent pleas for caution. Regardless of the project's outcome, their opposition to state policy already stands as an important historical act on the part of a broad cross section of intellectual elites.

In May 1992 police arrested 179 members of the Democratic Youth Party in Kai County and charged them with counterrevolutionary activities aimed at sabotaging the progress of the Three Gorges project. To this day no one knows their whereabouts or legal status; inquiries by journalists and diplomats have gone unanswered. Human Rights Watch/Asia has appealed to foreign governments and businesses contemplating involvement with the dam to assist in discovering the fate of the dissenters.

Anti-dam lobbyists believe that public access to basic information about the iron dams and debate by hydrologists could have prevented the flood disasters. By calling for an immediate investigation of the Three Gorges construction plans and pushing for more government accountability, they hope to avert the catastrophe that would result if the 36 billion cubic yards of water to be dammed were ever to be released. That flood would be 40 times larger than the one caused by the 1975 collapse of all 62 iron dams combined. Between 270,000 and 400,000 cubic yards of crashing water per second would roar downstream, engulfing dozens of towns, including the populous cities of Shashi, Yichang, Wuhan, and Changsha, and imperiling 10 million Chinese.

Although Premier Li, a former hydroelectric engineer, has admitted that "China does not have the technology to build the 26 sets of 700-megawatt turbines and electrical generators that will be the heart of the dam," many top Chinese scientists have been persecuted for saying much the same thing. Li and the pro-dam faction led by Qian Zhengying, the minister of water resources and electrical power, are denying the public forums in which they can register their disapproval and seem intent on forcing the project through as an icon of superpower status and national prestige. They typify the rigid Mao Zedong mindset that resulted in monumental disasters like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the great floods.

Qian was serving as minister of water resources and electrical power in 1975 during the iron dams catastrophe. In the 1950s she denounced China's top hydrologist, Chen Xing, and purged him from party ranks for warning about the shoddy construction of the dams and predicting they would bring a "scourge on the people." After the calamity Qian confessed: "I personally must shoulder the principal responsibility." Having relieved the top leadership of responsibility, she was exonerated. Incredibly, at age 70 she remains minister of water resources and leader of the proponents of the Three Gorges project. History seems to be repeating itself.

In 1992 Qian and Li banned the publication of a scholarly book by eight opponents of Three Gorges, all experts on water conservancy science and technology and members of the China People's Political Consultative Conference, the highest government body in China. One of the editors, Tian Fang, like Chen a hydrologist denounced by the government in the 1970s, claims that the government has slandered and reviled him, but he has continued to say there could well be a catastrophe if the Three Gorges project goes forward.


While the controversy has been churning up as much white water as the rapids swirling through the gorges, travel agencies around the world have been exploiting the situation and offering "last chance tours." I had sailed the gorges twice but longed to see the endangered scenery again, so in August 1994 I joined the flock of tourists motivated by the deadline. For me the river holds a sentimental attachment; two generations of my family have lived in China. My missionary grandparents fell in love sailing up the Yangtze in a junk from Shanghai to Wuhan, where they married on Christmas Day, 1891. The next spring they sailed in a houseboat through the gorges of the Yangtze to Chongqing. As a child I was fascinated by sepia photos of my elegant grandmother in her bustle skirt and high-buttoned boots walking with my grandfather in his velvet-collared Prince Albert suit coat and canvas shoes along the banks of the Yangtze. High above on a narrow towpath were dozens of nearly naked laborers in red turbans, straw sandals, and harnesses made of braided bamboo. They strained, often on all fours, to pull the houseboat upstream through the foaming waters.

The Yangtze is actually three rivers in one. Tumbling down from its source in the Tibetan glaciers of the Tangula Mountains across the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, it is known as the River to Heaven. From Qinghai it becomes the River of Golden Sands, which flows a thousand miles to Yibin. The last stretch, covering 2,000 miles, is known as the Long River. It cascades through the Three Gorges past Wuhan before spreading its wings through the alluvial plains and winding a path to its mouth in the Shanghai estuary. This 3,960-mile tripartite torrent makes up that mystical force known as the Yangtze, or child of the ocean.

No other river has touched so many lives. More than 380 million people, a third of China's population, live along its banks, where half of China's food is grown. The river has given unequaled adventure to travelers and inspiration to generations of poets and painters. The spectacular gorges with their mysterious rock formations resembling a pantheon of deities and mythical beasts have given rise to folklore and legends passed on by peasants, mandarins, and emperors for millennia. The river embodies the mythic image of Old Cathay--the five-clawed celestial dragon, symbol of the emperors. Lung Wang, the four-clawed dragon king and chief of the water gods, is reputed to reside in a castle under Goose Tail Rock in Wind Box Gorge.

We began our journey by sailing into a navigation lock below the Gezouba Dam. The first attempt at a dam on this site was torn down because of hasty construction by zealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The subsequent dam cost several times the original estimate. Our boat entered the lock, and as it filled, the water hoisted us 70 feet in 20 minutes and released us into the whirling waters of the Three Gorges. The morning mist over the river valley slowly lifted, revealing a landscape of green terraced hills that gave way to the precipitous limestone cliffs of Yellow Cat Gorge. Together with Lampshine Gorge, this forms the 16-mile-long Xiling Gorge, which is the one of the "Three Gorges" that will be closest to the megadam on the upstream side. We sailed along, our course winding between small village churches with spires and weathered rock ramparts that culminated in the Pillar of Heaven, a mountain that rises about 2,000 feet above the water level.

The August sun slowly thinned the ground haze to reveal fishermen casting silvery nets from grottoes embellished with weirdly shaped stalactites. On the south bank yawned the black mouth of Dragons Cave, reputed to extend to the center of the earth. Local lore has it that no one who has explored the cave has ever returned, dead or alive. The entrance was festooned with silky maidenhair ferns and feathery bamboo. Above, smooth rock canopies streaked with black, like the palette of some giant calligrapher practicing brush strokes, hung precariously. Streamlets, seemingly from nowhere, tumbled over ledges.

As we traveled upriver, the panorama unrolled like a Chinese scroll. At every turn new summits appeared, some crowned with jagged rocks, some shaped like towering pipe organs, and others like the battlements of medieval castles. A few of the rock fantasies appeared ready to fall in the river, as many have done in the past. The New Dragon Rapids was created in one night in 1896 by a tremendous landslide that narrowed the river from 400 yards to 150 yards, changing a placid current into boiling rapids that over the years have devoured thousands of boatmen and travelers before the vicious rock teeth of the rapids were dynamited in the 1950s. Passage through the gorges is not the dangerous voyage it used to be. Devil's Threshold and Coffin Rapids no longer live up to their names, but the old towpaths and shimmering shrines along the riverbank are constant reminders of the way it once was.

Xiling Gorge comprises several inner gorges with names like Shadow Play Gorge and Ox Liver and Horse Lung Gorge, describing the shapes of prominent stalactites at each site. The highest and last inner gorge, Military Manual and Sword Gorge, was named after China's most honored military genius, General Meng Liang, who like most of the heroes of the Yangtze gorges lived during the romantic period of the Three Kingdoms, 221 to 265 A.D. He was also prime minister of Hubei province and was born in Xiangfan, the same city on the banks of the Han River where my father was born and raised. It did not matter that my father was born nearly 1,700 years after Liang's era. During his childhood, Liang was his living hero, and I grew up on tales of this general who won his wars by wit and strategy rather than military might. Liang is said to have written the ultimate book on military strategy, but he feared it would fall into the hands of wicked warlords who might use it to conquer China. So he buried it, along with his sword, somewhere in Xiling Gorge.

These relics, never found, are just two among the multitude that thousands of archaeologists hope to save from the Three Gorges megadam. They are racing against time to excavate over 300 square miles of riverbank before Liang's writings and other artifacts from ten centuries of Chinese history--including 200 ancient tombs--are submerged in the reservoir that is now planned. Archaeologists compare the excavations to those carried out in Egypt before the Aswan High Dam was built. Chinese archaeologists argue that the treasures belong not only to China but to the world and that an international effort even larger than the one to preserve the relics along the Nile should be mounted along the Yangtze. Like their Egyptian counterparts, they are appealing to the United Nations and foreign researchers for money and modern equipment. The cost of the necessary excavations in the proposed reservoir area is estimated at $180 million.


Opponents of the megadam fear that vast stretches of the Yangtze River ecosystem will be irreversibly upset. American environmentalists have joined the Chinese opposition, claiming the river blockage will endanger or wipe out the Chinese alligator, the finless porpoise, the white crane, the river dolphin, as well as the Chinese sturgeon, which is unique to the Yangtze. (This giant fish dates back to the age of the dinosaurs and is one of the earth's few living fossils.)

Seismologists studying the project are more worried about its possible effects on people than on animals. They say that the reservoir will be over an active fault line and the weight of the water could trigger an earthquake that could demolish the dam. Also, fluctuating water levels could cause instability on the riverbank, resulting in landslides and tidal waves. The New China News Agency warned last year that extended rains or a jarring earthquake in the region would likely cause the Huangla Stone, one face of an enormous (141 million cubic feet) cliff 40 miles upstream from the dam, to fall, "triggering waves as high as 250 feet to surge along the river." Advocates of the megadam project claim, as they did with the iron dams, that it is designed to withstand any seismic shock and that most of the Yangtze shoreline is solid rock.

Hydrologists are concerned about the high degree of sedimentation in the Yangtze. I once scooped up a glass of river water and three minutes later an inch of reddish silt had settled on the bottom. Critics believe the dam will cause the river sediment, which is now suspended in the water and largely carried downstream, to pile up around the planned port installation at the end of the reservoir, clogging effluent pipes and causing dangerous sewage backups and floods upstream in Chongqing, a city of 15 million. Downstream, the concerns are about not getting enough silt. Considering that the city of Shanghai and the Yangtze estuary rest entirely on beds of river silt, the concern of residents there is understandable. Dam proponents maintain that downstream areas will not be starved of silt if appropriate reservoir management techniques are used. Such techniques, however, have yet to be developed.


The Chinese government has estimated that the Three Gorges reservoir waters will engulf 13 cities; hundreds of villages, districts, and townships; 955 business enterprises and factory towns; and 115,000 acres of the richest land along the river basin. The resettlement of some 50,000 residents is already in motion and a full-scale evacuation is due to begin this year. The government has pledged to spend $4.8 billion on resettlement and earmarked $3.2 million for compensation to the 1.4 million refugees who will be wrenched from the land of their ancestors and relocated in unfamiliar and inhospitable areas.

Government officials are preparing for the serious social unrest that will likely ensue. According to a report on security problems prepared by officials of the Wanxian Prefectural Public Security Department and published recently by Human Rights Watch/Asia, the relocation plan is "spawning outrage towards the government, resulting in resistance to resettlement and interference with the construction of the Three Gorges Project." [1] The report states that "the area where the Wanxian inhabitants are to be moved is already one of many people and little land. The standard of living is backward, and fights are constant over water, trees, and patches of farmland."

Crime has risen because of the huge influx of workers and tourists near the dam site. "Mafia-type gangs will become an evil force," the report says, and "gold-panning fever [greed for illegal profits] directly entices some state officials to engage in criminal activities such as corruption, bribe-taking, embezzlement, speculation, and fraud. This will hinder the process of construction and relocation."

The report cites active opposition to other resettlements that resulted in demonstrations, looting, assaults, and kidnapping and warns: "Considering the difficulties caused by these small-scale resettlements that have involved only a few hundred people, imagine the magnitude of the problem that will come from attempting to relocate 1.4 million people." The report's recommendations include the establishment of a unified public security organization in the gorge area, a major increase in the police force and its equipment, and more support for the local security units from the Central Committee in Beijing.

Between Witches Gorge and Wind Box we sailed through Kai County, where the picturesque orchards on the river banks dripped with ripe mandarin oranges and emerald rice paddies stretched over the foothills. Kai, in the Wanxian district of Sichuan, is the largest and richest county destined to disappear in the deluge. The welfare of thousands of relatively wealthy farmers and their families will have to be sacrificed for the dam, and Chinese security officials are not surprised that the farmers are resisting.

We docked in Wanxian, a centuries-old city with a population of more than 300,000 that has been condemned under the dam plans. Ironically, Wanxian is famous for its propitious location, which provides favorable feng shui--spiritual alignment within the landscape--to protect its people from evil and attract benign influences. Apparently it will not be able to protect them from modern technology. The Three Gorges reservoir will submerge half the city, the surrounding farms, and the famous mulberry plantations that feed China's silkworms. We visited a vast silk-spinning factory that will be relocated to Yuanyang, one of the new townships in the mountains established for refugees of the dam project. The Wanxian farmers told us they are demanding over $12 million in compensation for the loss of their mulberry trees alone, but the corruption of the local officials in charge of dispensing the money means they have little chance of receiving it.

We docked at the town of Shibaozhai, noted for its bountiful terraced rice paddies and Precious Stone Castle, a 12-story pagoda erected on Jade Mountain almost 2,000 years ago. The pagoda towers 300 feet above the town, which will be submerged beneath the reservoir, but the temple will survive, just above the water line. The town's 3,000 residents, however, will have to leave their ancient temple and resettle in mountainous areas where they face local hostility, infertile land, and a lower standard of living. Other towns confront similar fates. The residents of nearby Shuidong, for example, who have an annual per capita income of $192, are being relocated to the mountain village of Huangling, where the average income is only $65. The merchants in doomed Shibaozhai are making the most of the tourists while they last. For ten yuan, two bearers will carry visitors in a sedan chair up to the well-stocked gift shops at the foot of the temple.


Foreign critics also point to the violations of the human rights of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers involved in the Three Gorges project. According to Human Rights Watch/Asia, these laborers face discrimination from local government authorities and inhabitants. Long before the official start of the project, 20,000 workers were building watertight enclosures for work on the dam foundations, constructing roads, and moving some 19.7 million cubic yards of earth and stone. Sailing past Sandouping near the new dam site, we saw that the village there had already been evacuated and wiped off the south bank to make room for construction. Thousands of workers were swarming like ants over the scorched terra cotta banks laying power lines to Zhongbao, an island in the river that was chosen as the central staging area of the project because its core, like the riverbed where the immense dam wall will be built, is solid granite.

Human Rights Watch/Asia reports that Sichuan and Hubei, the two provinces most affected by the project, have large numbers of political and religious prisoners in the penal labor camps of China's laogai system. It also charges that China's suppression of free labor practices and incarceration of political prisoners in forced labor camps is a result of the government's plan for construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

Critics in China's scientific, engineering, and environmental communities who have attempted to raise technical questions about the project have been accused of counterrevolutionary intent and disloyalty, which in communist China are cardinal sins. Opponents have been persecuted since 1956. Li Rui, Mao's personal secretary and a vice minister of water resources, was the first to be purged during the Great Leap Forward. Since then, two generations of scientists and writers have been denounced, publicly humiliated, and imprisoned for their criticism. In 1989 an investigative journalist, Dai Qing, published a collection of articles by several scholars against the dam. After the Tiananmen debacle her book, Yangtze! Yangtze!, was officially banned and 30,000 copies were destroyed. The authors were accused of advocating bourgeois liberalization and providing "opinions for chaos and riots." Dai was imprisoned for ten months. The eminent scientist Qian Jiaju, who openly criticized the project, was forced into exile.

The controversy over the dam, which began out of genuine concern over the environmental dangers and future economic health of China, has degenerated into a bare-knuckle political fight. Opponents charge that they have been prevented from expressing their opinions at meetings of the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project, the main government body planning the project. They have accused pro-dam Communist Party officials of employing unscientific methods and indulging in impossible plans in their quest to build what would be by many measures the biggest dam in the world to stand as a symbol of the regime's power and bring it everlasting glory.

In an interview with Dai, Huan Shunxing, a member of the National People's Congress, expressed his frustration over an instance of censorship at a meeting of the party in 1992: "I raised my hand requesting to speak but was ignored by the chairman. I stood up anyway and at this point I heard a journalist from Taiwan shout: 'No sound! No sound!' Later I learned the entire sound system in the meeting hall had been shut down, with the exception of the chairman's microphone. How dare the NPC cut off the power to prevent delegates from exercising their right?"

Although opposition has been severely hampered, it has not been stilled. In April 1992, when Premier Li presented the official resolution on the construction of the Three Gorges Project to the seventh National People's Congress for approval, he received an unprecedented response. The resolution passed, but instead of the usual unanimous approval from the compliant quasi parliament, almost a third of the NPC delegates opposed the resolution or abstained from voting. Notably, most of the opposition came from insiders and specialists at the government's own Water Resource and Electric Power Research Institute.


Estimates of of the project's cost range between $17.3 billion and $30 billion. To help defray this, the government has been seeking $8 billion in foreign investment. The World Bank, after overseeing a four-year, $8.7 million feasibility study conducted by the Canadian International Development Agency, refused to help with funding. Merrill Lynch and other potential investors have also withdrawn because of the financial and political risks, as well as questions of human rights violations.

Responding to political and business pressures, several foreign governments have vacillated. The Bush administration expressed support for the project, and the Department of the Interior agreed to provide technical assistance. In 1992 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation signed an agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources to provide technical consulting services for the Three Gorges project. Seven environmental groups in the United States threatened to sue the bureau on grounds that the dam violated the Endangered Species Act. The bureau terminated the agreement, a bureau spokesperson explaining: "It is now generally known that large-scale water retention dam projects are not environmentally or economically feasible. We wouldn't support such a project in the United States now, so it would be incongruous for us to support a project like this in another country." The Clinton administration is reviewing the issue.

In 1988 the Canadian government agreed to help fund the project and recommended that it be "carried out at an early date." In Amsterdam the International Water Tribunal ruled against the China-Canada agreement, stating that "due to expediency, the very high ecological and socioeconomic risks of the megadam have not been adequately assessed by the defendant's feasibility studies." The tribunal strongly advised that the project be halted until the populations at risk can exercise their "rights to information and consultation" and "the right to effectively participate in processes affecting their habitats and livelihoods." In April 1992 the Canadian government announced that the Canadian International Development Agency could no longer use government funds for the megadam. However, after the 1994 general election, as part of a broad policy of developing economic ties with China, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien reversed course and announced his support of the project. Three engineering companies established Team Canada to "develop and execute engineering project management . . . in the rapidly growing Chinese power market." Premier Michael Harcourt of British Columbia, who took part in the original Canadian feasibility study, forbade involvement with the megadam for all government agencies in British Columbia.


The dam's advocates argue that China's fast-growing economy and population have a right to improved prosperity. Today there is a severe energy shortage; about 180 million Chinese have no electricity. In the region to be served by the Three Gorges project, the energy available per person is roughly one percent of per capita energy consumption in the United States. The argument that reportedly persuaded Deng Xiaoping to endorse the project is that the dam reservoir would raise the water level some 500 feet, improving river navigation and enabling 10,000-ton ships to sail up the gorges to Chongqing (vessels are currently limited to 1,500 tons). The Yangtze carries 78 percent of the country's riverborne freight, but present navigational conditions cannot meet the development needs of the economy. The dam would increase capacity for shipping fivefold and decrease shipping costs by about 35 percent. The project would also generate ten percent of the electrical capacity China will need, estimated at 18,200 megawatts, or the equivalent of ten nuclear plants, according to proponents.

Opponents do not deny that China needs more power and better flood control, but are leery about putting all their eggs in one basket. Instead of building a single dam of unprecedented size, they recommend building smaller power plants along sparsely populated tributaries throughout the river system, such as the Dadu, Jinsha, and Wujian Rivers, and in the upper reaches of the Yangtze above Chongqing. The mainstream areas of the Yangtze would be the last developed. Opponents maintain that medium-sized projects could yield the same amount of electricity and flood control at lower cost. Such a plan would avert the need for massive population relocation and eliminate the risk of a giant flood. Dams in these areas were already in the planning stages, but progress stalled as the money went to finance the megadam. Critics also claim that increased sedimentation and the need to substantially lower the reservoir water level in summer for flood control would interfere with navigation. They point out that 10,000-ton ships, the size of oceangoing vessels, could not clear the bridges in Nanjing and Wuhan; mammoth locks exceeding all present international standards would have to be constructed.

After being bandied about for decades, the Three Gorges project now resembles an avalanche gaining speed. Sun Yat-sen proposed such a dam in 1919, when nations were still blind to the consequences of environmental changes. Mao resurrected the project, and it is now being championed by Li, who despite his access to the negative engineering and environmental reports is plunging ahead, without regard for human consequences. Human Rights Watch/Asia warned that without public scrutiny "the dam will simply stand, like the Great Wall, as the ultimate symbol of power and authority of a repressive state."

The Great Wall was built by slave labor, including Confucian scholars who objected to the emperor's burning of Chinese classics. Thousands perished. Their bones were crushed and used for mortar, earning the wall the grim sobriquet, "the longest cemetery in the world." Unlike the Three Gorges megadam, however, the Great Wall cannot break and cause further catastrophe.

[1] "The Three Gorges Dam in China: Forced Resettlement, Suppression of Dissent, and Labor Rights Concerns," New York: Human Rights Watch/Asia, February 1995.

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  • Audrey R. Topping is an author and photojournalist specializing in Chinese affairs. Her books include Dawn Wakes in the East and Splendors and Sorrows of Tibet.
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