TOPICS > World

Big Dig: Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River

October 8, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s called Three Gorges Dam, and it’s the largest hydroelectric project in the world. It was the subject of a recent National Geographic cover story, and the writer and photographer are here to tell us about it. But first some background from Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS: For centuries China has used the Yangtze River as its central highway. It courses through the heart of the country 3700 miles long, the world’s third longest river. Millions of people live along its banks and transporting themselves, their goods, and agricultural products from town to town and sometimes all the way to Shanghai and the sea.

More than a decade ago the Chinese chose this site, about a thousand miles upstream from Shanghai, for construction of the enormous Three Gorges Dam. At this location the river runs through three spectacular gorges at the foot of graceful mountains. Work on the giant project began in 1994 and will last another dozen years.

Project costs are unclear. Estimates range from $17 billion up to $100 billion. Chinese officials claim the dam will control the unpredictable river which frequently floods and kills thousands of people.

When finished, the project, as shown in this model in Beijing, will generate one ninth of China’s power. One hundred forty towns like this one with an historic suspension bridge lie in the path of the lake it will form behind Three Gorges Dam. As this computer-generated image shows, the towns, along with 300 villages and a large amount of farmland, will be underwater.

The lake, itself, will stretch for about 350 miles, about the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Already, thousands of Chinese are moving all their worldly possessions to new sites above the water line.

Between one and two million people will lose their homes and have to move away. Ancient temples, as well as burial grounds and other historic sites, will be lost beneath the lake, as will the spectacular canyons that tourists come from all over the world to see.

China looks on the construction project as a key to the modernization of the country and as a symbol of its planning and engineering strength. But environmentalists want to stop it, or at least reduce its size, and they say it’s not too late to do that. One writer, Dai Qing, won an award for her articles in a book against the dam. Chinese officials jailed her for 10 months but she has now been released.

DAI QING, Environmentalist: (speaking through interpreter) We can use lots of other methods if we want to produce hydroelectricity. We have a lot of means at our disposal. We don’t have to build a dam on the river’s main artery. In my opinion we can let it flow in its natural course.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still construction continues and travelers, including the team from National Geographic, are making pilgrimages on the river for what may be their last look at the canyons beneath the towering mountains, canyons that soon will be inundated by the Three Gorges Dam.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Here to tell us more are Bob Sacha, who took the pictures for the National Geographic article, and Arthur Zich, who wrote the story. Thank you both for being with us.

Arthur Zich, give us a sense from what you saw of the scope of this project.

ARTHUR ZICH, Writer: It’s almost unimaginable, the scope. I wrestled with this when I was trying to write the story, put it into lay terms, and you could imagine about 15 or 20 New Jersey Palisades that it had been blown apart, ground down to gravel and stretched out, but that doesn’t–it doesn’t come close to it. You’re talking about a mile and a third across, six hundred feet high. It’s just beyond the imagination.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is a huge project and a long river; how did you cover it, how did you manage to do this project?

ARTHUR ZICH: Well, we started in Chongqing–what is now China’s largest city–it used to be known as Chungking during the war of–Chiang Kai-Shek’s wartime capital. And we took every conceivable form of transportation from city to city to city. We zigzagged. We went down. We walked. We hitched rides. We took ferries. We took river boats. We took excursion boats. We took barges, and just made our way slowly over six weeks down 370 miles of river, talking to people in all of the places that were going to be flooded as the waters rose.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob, show us the picture that best tells us where the dam is at this moment, what’s happening now, and what happens when the water’s diverted.

BOB SACHA, Photographer: The dam is so huge that you have to climb up the side of nearly a mountain to see all of it, and when I was there and took these photographs, the dam will go from where I was standing with a camera through that crane there and across to the other side–again, as Art said, a mile and a third–and in the next month or so they will divert the river, the main body of the river and then create a bathtub, as it were, for where the river bed is now, to start building the main body of the dam.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have another picture like that. Show us that one that shows this enormous–

BOB SACHA: The other picture is this building of the temporary locks, which is basically blowing away a granite mountain, removing the stone by hand and dump truck and they’re recycling that stone to put into the dam. But when you go there to see it the people are tiny like ants and there’s construction equipment everywhere and dump trucks and steam shovels all very old, third-hand, American equipment, and a lot of dynamite always being cleared, and explosions and then works 24 hours a day, day and night.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who’s in charge of the construction? One of the criticisms, as you write in your article, is that dams haven’t always been made in China, and they’ve broken apart, fallen down, failed, and that’s led to the death of tens of thousands of people. Who’s in charge of this?

ARTHUR ZICH: It’s a government corporation that’s in overall charge of it, and you’re quite right. The Chinese brought in back–several years back–brought in Russian technology to–Russian dam builders to help them–and these dams have been almost totally unsuccessful. Their record of dam building is very bad.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the family you got to know that was being–that had to move.

BOB SACHA: For me the project is so immense that I tried to humanize it, and my desire was to find one family. And I lucked out in a town called Chi-Ling, where they led me to the local Communist Party official. And while he–his house was going to be just slightly above the reservoir, the people in the village didn’t want to move. So he took it upon himself to leave the village and move. And everything had to be carried down these very steep hills and they carry them–and there’s a photograph of somebody carrying the wedding armoire on his back on a basket just steadied by a wooden stick.

It was really sort of sad as they went away in the morning, the firecrackers were going off to chase the evil spirits away, and they had to leave one daughter behind to finish school, and it was a really emotional moment and pretty strongly to me humanized the enormity of this project.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How about the big criticisms, silting, the destruction of habitat for all kinds of animals, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, all these other criticisms that we’ve heard?

ARTHUR ZICH: It’s hard to say how much of–the animal and fish environmental damage is going to be done. Certainly the river is going to pollute. That’s appalling. In the piece I use the phrase the human waste is not being treated; the industrial waste is not being treated. We’re going to have an open sewer the length of Lake Superior.

BOB SACHA: When the river rises and falls all this gets flushed out and when the dam is built, it’ll be a still lake, so there will be very little of this flushing action. So it’s typical of the Chinese along the river to simply dump everything into the river, but that’s fine as the water recedes and rises again during the flood season. It seems to clear it out, but I think the problem is when the dam comes, that won’t be the case.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did you see that best illustrated the arguments in favor of this dam?

ARTHUR ZICH: I think the arguments in favor of the dam, which are put forth by the government, all depend upon the dam working. If the dam works–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Assume for a minute it works.

ARTHUR ZICH: Assume for a minute that it works, that is, it will control flooding on the Yangtze River, where–which is one of the most terrible, devastating rivers in the world for an enormous number of people, some 400 million people live below the dam. Second is electrical generation–generation of electrical power. And third would be navigation where they hope it will be able to bring 10,000 ton oceangoing vessels all the way inland, a thousand miles inland up to the city of Chongqing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A leading critic here from an environmental organization said this is the last Stalinist project and that it’s incumbent upon environmentalists to stop it and that it can still be stopped. Do you think that’s true, or can it be stopped?

ARTHUR ZICH: I think that the only thing that would cause it to be dismantled would be a complete overhaul of the leadership of China. Even then I think it’s so far along now, there’s so much invested in it, not only in money and labor, but also in Chinese pride and face.

The–this is–there’s an irony here–if–with–just noting briefly–this is the biggest project China has undertaken since it began the Great Wall. The Great Wall was totally obsolete before it was finished. The only other comparable project in Chinese history is the Grand Canal, which never functioned. It isn’t a very good big project record.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.