The Three Gorges Project in China

Jimmy B. Foster, P.E.
Director of Public Works
City of Plano, Texas
Chair, APWA International Affairs Committee

Controversial? Yes. The largest water conservancy project ever built? Yes. Costly? Yes. This article will, however, focus on the simpler and more basic issues associated with this project, which will result in the largest concrete structure ever built. This project will join another Chinese structural achievement—the Great Wall—in being visible from the moon.

Building a dam on the Yangtze River (Jingjiang River) was first proposed by Sun Yat-Sen in 1919 for power generation, but the idea was shelved due to unfavorable political and economic conditions. It was ultimately approved by the Chinese government in 1954 as a flood control project. On April 3, 1992, the Fifth Plenary Session of the National People's Congress passed a resolution to proceed with the project.

Power generation is still a very important feature of this project. Once completed, this $25 billion project will have a power generating capacity of 18,200 MW and an average annual output of 84.7 terawatt-hours (trillion watt-hours) of electricity. It will be the largest hydropower plant in the world. (As a comparison, Grand Coulee Dam has a generating capacity of 6,809 MW.)

  The smoke-filled valley of the Yangtze River

The Three Gorges Project does have its issues of controversy. Some unofficial cost estimates for the project run as high as $75 billion. The total land area to be inundated by the reservoir is 632 square kilometers, on which approximately one million people live. Taking into consideration population growth and relocation, the total population to be resettled may be over 1.1 million. Some estimates even go as high as two million. While hydroelectric power will be much cleaner than the burning of coal, there are concerns about increased water pollution, endangered species, and extensive logging. Opponents of the project state that some 1,300 archeological sites will be inundated, and the legendary beauty of the Three Gorges will be destroyed. With a sediment discharge load of 526 million tons annually, the Yangtze may see its navigation limited as ports become clogged. This sediment may also impact one of the major perceived benefits of this project—flood control. The reservoir's 22.1 billion cubic meter flood storage capacity will lessen the frequency of big downstream floods, but siltation could reduce its storage capacities.

When finished, the Three Gorges Dam will be 181 meters tall and will impound 451 billion cubic meters of runoff. (Grand Coulee Dam is 170 meters tall.) The lake will stretch 660 kilometers (409 miles) from Yichang City to Chongqing Municipality. In October 2000, I took a cruise on this stretch of the Yangtze River. I've had the good fortune of traveling to, and visiting, 54 countries of the world. The Chinese say, "If you haven't traveled up the great Yangtze, you haven't been anywhere." I can now say, "I've been somewhere."

We boarded our ship, the Queen, New Century Cruises, at Wuhan, a city of 7.16 million people. As the ship headed upriver into the turbulent, turbid, and rapid waters of the Yangtze River, one immediately notices the vitality of this natural resource. Ferries, fishing boats, and barges carrying materials and livestock, all occupy this swirling, brown liquid domed by the smoke of industrial emissions and village fires. The smoke remained for the entire three-day voyage, yet the cruise remains one of the most memorable and beautiful trips I have ever taken.

Our cruise itinerary stated, "Welcome to the wildest, wickedest river on earth." The itinerary continues, "The river can rise 60 feet in 24 hours...Such floods periodically close the 'Little Gorges' to all navigation." Having over 3,600 tributaries, the Yangtze River floods once every ten years on average. Historical records indicate that the river has flooded 214 times during the 2,100 years between the early Han Dynasty and the late Qing Dynasty. These floods are frequently catastrophic. The 1931 flood drowned 145,000 people; in 1935 the death toll was 142,000. In 1998, in the flood considered to be the most serious in recent years, 32 million hectares of land were flooded, 1,562 people were killed or injured, and more than 200 million people were affected.

The Three Gorges Project is composed of the dam (concrete gravity type), two power plants, and navigation facilities. The total length of the dam axis is 2,310 meters, which with its height of 181 meters will require the excavation of 103 million cubic meters of earth and rock, the placement of 32 million cubic meters of earth and rock embankment, the placement of 28 million cubic meters of concrete, and 463,000 tons of reinforcing steel. This is a massive undertaking. Huge cranes are everywhere. Concrete is being poured 24 hours per day. A relatively large village for the 10,000 temporary workers and the 10,000 engineers is in close proximity to the dam. Once the dam is completed, an international hotel complex is planned.

The permanent navigation facilities will consist of the permanent shiplock and a shiplift (device to lift ships or barges). The shiplock will be a two-way, five-step flight lock, with each lock being 280 meters long, 34 meters wide, and 5 meters deep. They will be able to accommodate 10,000 tons of barge load. A ship will be able to pass through the locks in two to three hours. The shiplift, built for a faster passage of 13 minutes, will be able to carry one 3,000-ton passenger or cargo boat each time.

Construction of the dam. Note the numerous cranes.

For the next three days we continued our passage of the Three Gorges—the Xiling Gorge, the Wu Gorge, and the Qutang Gorge. Xiling Gorge, the longest and deepest of the gorges, is 40 miles long with cliffs that rise up to 4,000 feet. Our little cruise ship seemed like a toy lost in a giant's maze—a swift river squeezed between the cliffs of the gorge...time-warp farmers hoeing plots of red earth on impossibly steep slopes...sliding past waterfall-laced canyons. At periodic intervals, one notices the large signs on the hillsides. One sign reads "135 M," referring to the water elevation, in meters, after the first closure of the dam. Further up the hillsides, another sign reads "175 M," referring to the water elevation, in meters, when all construction is completed in 2009.

Continuing upriver to the Wu Gorge, one is impressed by the number of boats on the river. The Wu Gorge has twelve peaks, and its cliffs are so shear and narrow that they seem to be closing in on each other. Alongside the river is a road that was built during the Ming Dynasty. On this road, as many as 50 men would walk and pull the boats upstream. The high winds on the river made this job dangerous; it was not uncommon for the laborers to be pulled off the road into the river. The valley is one of tranquil beauty dominated by 12 foggy and smoke-obscured peaks called the Jade Screen. Turtleback Rock, Crown Peak, Goddess Peak, Phoenix Mountain, Lion Peak: all are descriptive of the scenes before us.

In route to the Qutang Gorge, we took a side trip up the Daling River, one of the Yangtze tributaries. Although the Daling River is 220 miles long, we only go about 25 miles, passing by Dragon Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge, and Emerald Gorge (aptly named due to the astonishing green from the frequent rains). These smaller gorges have been judged by many to be even more beautiful than the Three Gorges. Along the way, we see the remains of an ancient plank walkway (built more than 2,000 years ago), monkeys, hanging coffins, and the ever-present farmer working in his field.

After three days of travel up the Yangtze River, we reach Chongqing, a busy river port built on undulating hills at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jailing Rivers. Animated and industrious, the city of Chongqing, having a current population of 30 million, was named by the first Song emperor to celebrate his conquest of the area. Its history goes back 3,000 years. Thus, modern technology merges with one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It is hoped that the Three Gorges Dam, when completed in 2009, will, for the people who live along the banks of the Yangtze River, close a long history of suffering due to flooding and inadequate electrical supplies.

Jimmy B. Foster can be reached at (972) 769-4128 or at Paul Cooley, Vice President, PBS&J, Encinitas, California will present an educational session at the 2004 Congress entitled "Damming the Yangtze River: The Three Gorges Project."


Pay attention to your nonverbal communication
Have you met any international visitors in the past few months? Perhaps at the APWA International Public Works Congress in San Diego? If they did not speak your language, did communication take place? You bet! You may have communicated more than you realized.

Nonverbal communication plays an important role in our daily lives. Frequently, this form of communication is even more powerful than what we say verbally. Facial expressions, eye contact, and hand or feet positions all have different meanings in different cultures. Nonverbal behavior accounts for up to 60 percent of communication, depending on the culture. Interestingly, only 15 percent is communicated by words and 25 percent by intonation.

Are you now wondering what you communicated? If so, you're on the right track. There are numerous sources to help you improve your nonverbal communication skills. Use them.

Cultural Proverbs

"Better a mouse in the pot than no meat at all." - Romanian Proverb

"Do not be in a hurry to tie what you cannot untie." - English Proverb

"He who knows little, quickly tells it." - Italian Proverb

"Avoid the evil, and it will avoid thee." - Gaelic Proverb

"Confessed faults are half mended." - Scottish Proverb