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Three Gorges: The Great Dam of China

Jeffrey Syken

Not since the Great Wall of China was the modern nation of China to embark on a project of such colossal size and, like the Great Wall, the “Great Dam of China” would be visible from space - such are its vast and imposing proportions. However, unlike the Great Wall (which was built for defensive purposes), the great dam in the mid-reaches of the Yangtze River would serve “Nation Building” purposes in providing clean, abundant and inexpensive electrical energy for China’s expanding industry, improve the navigation upstream of the dam (by providing slower and deeper water) and help control the chronic problem of flooding of the Yangtze River Valley with its associated toll in death and destruction. Considering the fact that the Yangtze accounts for 75% of China’s annual flooding and fully one-third of its +1 billion population call the valley home, this would be no minor feat.

It was the great Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen who, in 1919, first proposed a dam in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River. During WWII, Nationalist Chinese leader Chang Kai-shek asked the U.S. government for assistance in designing and building “China’s Dream Dam,” in the Yangtze’s Ichang Gorge. In 1944, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, responsible for building a myriad of dams in the U.S., sent their top dam designer – John Lucian Savage, to China to explore the possibilities. The designer of Hoover and Grand Coulee Dam/s, among many others, recognized the potential of the site and designed a dam that would take full advantage of it. However, the Chinese Civil War would interrupt these plans and, with the victory of the communists in 1949, the plan was shelved. Even so, Chairman Mao Zedong thought the dam was a good idea given the Marxist belief that “Man Must Conquer Nature.”

In the wake of the growing Democracy Movement and Tiananmen Square protests (and subsequent massacre, in June 1989), Chinese government leaders realized that they needed to do something on a large scale that would improve the lives of millions of ordinary people, especially in rural areas such as the Yangtze River Valley. Considering the fact that, at the time, many of China’s top leaders were trained engineers, it’s no surprise that the idea of building a dam in the Three Gorges of the Yangtze was revived with the goal of making the valley a Chinese “Ruhr.” However, there would be a “Faustian Bargain” made to create such a dam given the environmental and cultural impacts of such a dam. Over one-million people would be displaced by the dam and prime rice and grain farms would be lost forever, as would be archaeological sites. Given its unstable nature, landslides along the reservoir’s banks have become a chronic problem and despite the dam, floods downstream are still a problem. On the other hand, the dam succeeded Brazil’s Itaipu Dam as the world’s greatest producer of electrical power, as (centrally) planned.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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