Friday, 5 August 2011

Preview: The Three Gorges Dam

Dam it!

Because that's what they've done to the Yangtze river. And now that I've got a pun on dams out of my system, we can all breath a sigh of relief and readily proceed without fear on the subject of the most powerful hydroelectric dam in the world, China's Three Gorges Dam.

The Three Gorges Dam, built in Hubei province in central-eastern China between 1994 and 2008 is a big old concrete beast that readily lends itself to lots of statistics and just as much controversy. It's over 2 kilometres long and has led to the rehousing of 1.3 million people; it was designed to power a staggering 10% of China's energy demands and has led to the loss of 1300 known archaeological sites; structurally it used enough steel to build 63 Eiffel Towers and is a prime example of the Chinese government disregarding the human rights of its citizens. It's an environmental catastrophe - yet by harnessing the natural power of the river saves on the burning of 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. What to think of this gigantic slab of concrete holding back a ferocious river - the third longest on earth - that has such a high human and cultural cost?

Well, first of all, just because a structure is unpopular or controversial doesn't mean it can't also be magnificent. Workers died by the hundreds building the Palace of Versailles and its gardens, by the thousands building St. Petersburg, and the Great Wall of China cost millions of lives, but nobody would argue these should be struck from our appreciation as a result. But just because all these people died a long time ago, does it make their lives any less important? I'd think not - but at the same time, if the 1.3 million people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam had been killed instead, could I include it on my list? If Auschwitz happened to be a magnificently beautiful 300-metre tall marble palace carved intricately by the world's finest craftsmen, could we still hold it in awe despite being the death of over a million people? I don't have ready answers. The purest way to appreciate any magnificent structure might be to view it with a mind cleared of its history. And therefore, while I see the Three Gorges Dam as a legitimate (even if not a terribly strong) candidate for a World Wonder, if I was one of the 1.3 million people displaced, not awarded proper compensation (12% of the resettlement budget was embezzled), and unable to complain due to lack of a grievance mechanism, would I regard it as a Wonder? I would f---ing hate it.

But I've not been cheated of my life and livelihood, and don't have personal reason to hate it. There are many controversial projects going on around the world, and I'm letting the Three Gorges Dam's sheer weight of numbers shout over the dissenting voices. Let's have some of these numbers. It's the height of a 60-storey building and at 181 metres is taller than the Gherkin in London; it's the equivalent size of five Hoover Dams or, if you're more Egyptian-inclined, eight Aswan Dams; the body of water its damming created is 370 miles long, 20 miles longer than the USA's Lake Superior; it's almost as long six full circuits of an Olympic stadium tracks (that's my clever way of saying it's a bit less than 2400 metres long); it cost $26 billion (£16 billion) and is the third most expensive structure ever built; and it is over five times more powerful than the world's most powerful nuclear reactor. It's big. It's powerful. If all my list of Wonders were converted into people, it would become the bouncer with an attitude that gave you an extra few kicks as it chucked you out the club.

But here's another number for you - in the 20th Century, around half a million people died due to floods in China with the massive Yangtze river being notably flood prone: building a dam controls the river and substantially reduces the risk of flooding, thus lives are saved. And although it cost a staggering £16 billion, it is expected it recoup these costs within ten years, and probably the majority of my list never generate anything in the way of a profit. The Three Gorges Dam is a life-saver and a money-spinner. It just depends on how you look at it.

Whether friend or foe, the Three Gorges Dam might be a modern monumental machine, but it is not exactly a new notion. It dates from well before the current Communist regime in fact, before even Chinese Communism was more than a cheeky parental glint, going back to China's first president, Sun Yat-Sen, in 1919 suggesting that a dam in the Three Gorges might be quite a handy thing. A gorge is the same as a canyon, being a deep ravine between cliffs, and so is an excellent position to squeeze an electricity-generating dam in (the middle of the 66km Xiling Gorge was eventually selected as the best spot). This was acted upon by Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalist government in 1932 and some preliminary work begun, but typical of that era's style nothing happened very quickly, and by 1947 civil war had broken out, and the nationalist government were quite brilliantly overrun by a new Communist power, headed by the disturbingly astute Chairman Mao. Mao had bigger fish to fry than building a big electricity generator, though considered the Three Gorges again in 1958 before his experimental politics backfired disastrously with the deaths of up to 40 million during the Great Leap Forward's society-modernising project, and put the Three Gorges Dam far back in the list of "things to do". Mao's interest never returned to the dam, and only in 1982, some years after his death, did support for the idea return. The proposal to build the enormous engineering project was finally passed in 1992.

As said before, the Three Gorges Dam is 181 metres tall, as tall as a skyscraper, although as it is built up to and into the edges of the gorge, it is not freestanding. However, imagine a skyscraper and then imagine how wide it is. About 30 or 40 metres perhaps. The Three Gorges Dam is 2335 metres long. That is simply a quite awesome wall of concrete - a 2.5 kilometre long skyscraper, if you like. That is why the Three Gorges Dam is on my list - it may not be nice and it may not be pretty, but it sure is big.

Finally, just to finish, some food for thought. Approximately 80,000 dams were built since the 1949 formation of the People's Republic of China to 1990. I don't have figures for the 1980s onwards, but between 1950 and 1980, an average of 110 dams collapsed per year. In 1973, 554 dams collapsed alone. In one night in 1975, a typhoon caused the collapse of 62 dams in just one province, killing between 86,000 and 233,000, depending whose figures you believe. China does not have a good track record in dam construction, and its reputation overall for robust buildings is decidedly poor. If the Three Gorges Dam was to collapse, millions might die. Early in construction, cracks of up to 10 metres long and 4 metres deep were reported. Nothing since appears to have been found, with the early problems smoothed over, but the Chinese are notably not always forthcoming with their bad news...

I'll be visiting the Three Gorges Dam in February or March, and will give a fuller report of its history and my own impressions then. I will be treading carefully.

Reviewed 6th April 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Simon Winchester's The River at the Centre of the World is a great book and describes his journey from mouth to source of the Yangtze. He goes into great detail about the dam and the debate surrounding it.