Wednesday, 4 April 2012

22. Wonder: The Three Gorges Dam

(For the Three Gorges Dam preview, please click here.)

For two days and three nights the Three Gorges Dam grew closer. Taking a cruise down the Yangtze River, Burness and I enjoyed a couple of gentle days of watching the world go by. Beginning at Chongqing, the first day was an unspectacular mix of the pretty but industrial; by the second day the spectacular had kicked in as we passed through the famed gorges. We reached the dam late on the final night, and our leisurely drift down the Yangtze was over.

It wasn't always like this. The world of the Yangtze River has changed quite significantly in the four years since the Three Gorges Dam was essentially completed, in 2008. Take a huge, fast moving river and dam it up and what happens? The water level rises, in this case quite significantly. For 360 miles upstream the water level rose, up to 180 metres, flooding cities and towns and requiring the resettlement of 1.4 million people. The section of river became a reservoir ten times the size of San Marino. The Yangtze was tamed and the tourists came out to play. According to our English-speaking guide on the boat, the river cruise industry has taken off, now that the river-reservoir is wider, slower, and is crowned with the Chinese government tourist authority AAAAA-rated attraction of the dam, putting it on a par with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. For two days and three night, on our slowly chugging boat, the Three Gorges Dam loomed large ahead, responsible for this new world around us.

In this regard, the impact of the Three Gorges Dam goes far beyond just the visual impact of a construction 2.3 kilometres long and 181 metres high. A few hundred miles of landscape has been changed by it, and life for the millions within the vicinity irrecoverably altered. As far as my list of Wonders go, few others can have had such a direct impact on their surroundings. An environmental catastrophe claim some, although as the dam generates the equivalent of about eighteen nuclear power plants with clean hydroelectric energy, there is a strong argument that with China being the biggest polluting country on earth this is exactly the approach they need to be taking.

This, it may be said, typifies the Three Gorges Dam: it has some very strong points both for and against. By taming the Yangtze, it generates massive amounts of energy, prevents flooding which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the past century, and provides a great deal of employment, both direct and indirect. In fact, for the Chinese, if you are to believe pretty much anything official on the project, the dam is the pride of the nation, and a glittering example of Chinese know-how, the prowess of socialism, and a wonder of the self-sacrificing spirit from the allegedly happily-willing resettled citizens. Here's some commentary from an official Chinese news agency upon the completion of the Three Gorges Dam.
Generations of Chinese have dreamed of the day when the high gorges become a flat lake... Looking at the magnificent Three Gorges Dam and seeing the river water rising level by level behind the dam, we cannot forget those people who dedicated themselves to and sacrificed for the Three Gorges of today...

For over a decade, the builders of the Three Gorges project have relied on this trust and understanding to create one miracle after another. They have solved one difficult world-class problem after another, and used their own hands to build inch by inch an eternally lasting enterprise that will benefit billions of Chinese people. Is this not a vivid expression of the powerful cohesion of the Chinese nation and the superiority of socialism in pooling strength to accomplish great things?

Let the Great Wall sing out and the vast reservoir area speak up for the turning of the high gorges into a level lake, and for the grand renaissance of the Chinese nation! During these memorable days when the Three Gorges are being flooded on schedule, let us sing for the Three Gorges!
This is far from a one off: visit the Three Gorges museum in Chongqing and celebrate with the Chinese "The long evolution, the magnificent scenery, the lofty spirit, the brilliant culture, the Three Gorge Project, the resettlement of a million of migrants and the emergent protection of historical relics in the Three Gorges area..." , and enjoy lots of photos of happy citizens as they are relocated forever as they "sacrifice individual interest for national benefit."

Oh, socialist China and its sledgehammer subtlety! An unquestioning tourist could peruse the museum, enjoy the cruise, view the dam and not ever consider that the Three Gorges Dam was anything but a glory for all involved. Naturally, there is a darker side. The 1.4 million displaced might not all be as beaming and radiant as the press photography would have you believe. Even the government now admits they are worse off now than they were promised, amidst inadequate rehousing with tiny plots of land or urban slums, and with limited compensation for the upturned lives. Corruption has been widespread. Culturally, over a thousand archaeological sites were flooded and lost forever. Environmentally, the newly-created reservoir is causing regular landslides, making the shores dangerous, and the now-still waters are becoming increasingly polluted. And the clincher, for those unconcerned about social, cultural, or environmental issues, and more focussed on the grandeur of structures: the Three Gorges Dam is not all that visually impressive. It may be a big chunk of concrete, but it does not astonish in the way you would expect from a Wonder. The Three Gorges Dam... is not a World Wonder.

My first view of the dam was the best: in the quiet of night, it was an enigmatic horizontal line of orange, two kilometres of twinkling lights cutting across the waters. Perhaps not very grand, but quite simple and pretty, like a single laser light.

But also, hardly recognisably a dam. It was the following morning I was given a proper introduction to my latest Wonder, in possibly one of the worst formats possible: as part of a Chinese tour group.

Being part of a Chinese tour group had never been part of my design, but was a hideous necessity. The final part of the river cruise was a visit to the dam, the creator of the entire modern Yangtze cruise experience. At 8am we were bundled off the boat and into a coach, and for an hour a lady stood at the front of the bus, barking Chinese through a microphone. Her Chinese monologue was only ever interrupted for brief and redundant English snippets, such as "To your left is a wall and maybe you can see the Three Gorges Dam behind the wall." We finally arrived at a large car park, where everyone got off and went through a nonchalant security check, before getting back on the bus and driving for another ten minutes. This was to be the highlight of the cruise, the entire reason I'd taken the cruise in the first place - the viewpoint for the Three Gorges Dam.

Yeah, it doesn't look all that good.

It turns out that the Three Gorges Dam is not an attractive landmark. It is a big slab of concrete built for functional, and not aesthetic, reasons. It is all about power, not beauty, and the engineers during construction were not at all concerned about it being pretty. It was not designed to be looked at. The Three Gorges Dam generates electricity and it does this extremely well. It is effective. And it just so happens that the Three Gorges Dam is so big, so powerful, so effective that a great deal of fame - and notoriety - has followed. Regarded as a AAAAA tourist attraction, buses full of tourists line up at the viewpoint car parks, the tourists swarm, the tour guides bellow out rote facts through microphones. It is a major tourist attraction. And so while as an engineering feat there is no question that the Three Gorges Dam is a great success, it has also been put in the position where it is being judged as a visual attraction. And it is not a very visual icon. For me, judging it as a Wonder, there is no doubt the engineering behind it, with the endless series of numbers and statistics associated, impress; however, it needs more than that. It needs a visual impact, the big numbers behind it need to translate into a visual oomph. And there, sadly, the Three Gorges Dam is lacking.

It lacks in all areas of tourist appeal. Sure, the boat trip that preceded it was pleasant, but no aspect of the actual visit to the dam was enjoyable, or even terribly interesting. Access to the dam itself is prohibited for tourists. The two viewpoints we were led to were poorly chosen. One gave a view of the dam, sure, but failed to convey anything of the size and might; the other gave the rear view of the dam, that is from the reservoir, therefore most of the dam is underwater and not visible.

2335 metres long and 181 metres high is huge, but these are mere numbers if the full meaning of them doesn't come across. Stand at the base of the dam and maybe then the size would overwhelm - but this doesn't appear to be possible for a tourist like myself. And later in the season, with the waters higher and the sluice gates open, perhaps the raw power of the Yangtze and the vast strength of the dam holding it back might be apparent - but on a calm, grey early spring day, this sense was lacking. The Three Gorges Dam is all about power - but I could sense none of it. And remove the feeling of size and power and all you have is a dull grey dam.

Of course, I always attempt to remove my own personal experience of a Wonder from my actual assessment. Imagine I was able to stand at the bottom of the dam and witness the roar of water through the sluice gates - well, that wouldn't that be something. But it still wouldn't change that this is a feat of engineering, and engineering only. I've worked on many oil rigs before, and have been impressed by the sheer brute mechanical power behind them. Man's ability to design machines on a large scale is awesome. But no rig could ever be described as a Wonder. They are function only, without an aesthetic heart or soul. Less than that, they are ugly. The world needs industry, but it is rarely pretty. Such sentiments apply to the Three Gorges Dam, and possibly by extension all dams. They do the job - and not much else. As an engineering feat, the Three Gorges Dam is up there - but a Wonder needs more than just size and numbers. It needs visual flair, or a sense of the dramatic, or the intangible essence of mystery, or something to grab you and pull you in. It needs more than a drab grey wall holding back some calm-looking water.

Some criteria then.

Size: Unquestionably huge - 2335 metres long and 181 metres high, although it should be stressed that this is a dam built between gorge walls rather than being freestanding. However, despite the numbers, this size does not make much of an impact upon viewing, it simply doesn't seem as vast as expected. The poor viewpoints may be partly responsible for this.
Engineering: Very impressive. The Three Gorges Dam tamed the Yangtze and generates a colossal amount of hydroelectric power.
Artistry: Zero. The dam was built for function only; it is not an attractive thing to look at.
Age/Durability: Only four years old since effective completion. The expected lifespan for the average dam is between 50 and 75 years; the Three Gorges Dam would be expected to go beyond that, but even so it's hard to imagine it as timeless: I can't imagine it surviving even a century of neglect.
Fame/Iconicity: It's pretty big in the dam world, and pretty famous in China. Outside of that, its notoriety have made it one of the best known dams in the world, although by name rather than by image - I doubt many would recognise it from a photo as it doesn't have the visual characteristics to distinguish it from any other big dam.
Context: The finishing point of most Yangtze River Cruises, it has created a huge reservoir of water from the existing river, and changed the landscape around it. But the Three Gorges are substantially more scenic than the Three Gorges Dam, and the dam itself is positioned at a fairly nondescript section of river.
Back Story: For such a new structure, the Three Gorges Dam has amassed plenty of tales, mostly on the controversy surrounding its building and the resettlement of over a million people. It also ties in with the history and culture of the Three Gorges area as a whole, although again the controversy rears its head as it is responsible for flooding much of that history and culture.
Originality: It's just a dam that's a little bigger than usual.

Let's be honest, I wasn't expecting a big deal from the Three Gorges Dam. I'd read the history behind it and seen the pictures, and knew it wouldn't be pretty. But I'd really hoped to be impressed by its sheer size and power - and so I was pretty disappointed to not sense any of that. The Three Gorges Dam underwhelms entirely. Quite simply, it's boring. I would love to see it at its best, all size and all power, but even so I don't think that would lift it high in my Wonder league table. On a good day, and if I was feeling charitable, perhaps it might not quite be at the very foot of the table, but as it stands, the Three Gorges Dam is fitting the role it does best, and supporting the weight of everything before it. A great feat of engineering, but visually entirely unremarkable, and bottom of the list, with even the Lotus Temple seeming a charming delight in comparison.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Angkor Wat
4. Sydney Opera House
5. Borobudur
6. Kailash Temple in Ellora
7. Akshardham

Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Forbidden City
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Leshan Giant Buddha
Terracotta Army
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Really enjoyed reading this. Never thought I'd find an article about a dam interesting or indeed readable, but I finished it and learnt alot.

  2. Nice article. I agree that the aesthetic component should have been a requisite, especially when you consider the abundant loss of natural and cultural beauty caused by its construction.


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