The Three Gorges Dam: The True Cost of Limitless Power and Hydroelectricity

Since June, heavy rains in China’s Yangtze river basin have caused the mighty river and many of it’s tributaries to swell from their banks and into Chinese communities.

The Three Gorges Dam sits at the center of this very real crisis, that has been given limited coverage by sources outside of Chinese state run news agencies.

The historic flooding ripped through densely populated Chinese provinces, towns and counties and the downpours quickly overwhelmed millions of people.

In this article I am going to explain the events that have taken place and the current status of the crisis, to the best of my abilities.

The Genesis

In early June, heavy rains began falling in many parts of China. As a nation the Chinese people are accustomed to heavy seasonal rains and the wrath of mother nature, which comes in the form of frequent flash flooding and landslides. But this year the rains started almost a full month early with parts of the now waterlogged nation receiving rain that is easier to measure in terms of yards instead of millimeters or inches. The sudden rush of water left many of the nation’s people scrambling to secure their belongings, livestock, businesses, and some even struggling for their existence.

The Crisis Deepens

As the rains continued throughout June many lakes and tributaries along the Yangtze also swelled to levels unseen for at least 30 years, possibly longer. Poyang Lake and the surrounding communities were inundated by floods that left many communities under water. Only the roofs of untold numbers of homes in this heavily populated community were left poking above the deluge.

Landslides began taking place, dozens per day, possibly more. But, the landslides were a minor issue compared to the potential crisis developing in the reservoir of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, The Three Gorges Dam.

From late June throughout the entire month of July the dam was battered by wave after wave of flood waters. This in turn has caused the water level behind the dam to rise above safe levels. The Chinese government has been scrambling to respond and since that time has (at least according to their reports) activated it’s highest level of emergency flood response measures in most areas along the Yangtze.

What we do know

Reports from many citizens on the ground who’s lives and entire way of life have literally been swept away by the waters differ from the official narrative. Many report that the government has removed or blown open several damns and dykes without prior notice.

Chinese state media announced on Sunday that it blasted holes in the Chuhe River dam in order to “alleviate the pressure of flood control” at the massive Three Gorges Dam, which is straining under the pressure from flooding of the mighty Yangtze River.

Breitbart- July 20, 2020

In early August video surfaced of hundreds of farmers heading towards higher ground (see our video series on the dam for reference) after waters inundated thousands of acres of farmland, seemingly without warning. The C.C.P. has been trying to alleviate pressure on the Three Gorges Dam and the series of large dams along the Yangtze river, but why was a warning not issued to the nation’s people? Many of which already have very little in terms of financial assets or means to rebuild.

In Shexian, a county that suffered its worst flooding in decades this month when an upstream dam overflowed in the middle of the night, residents said they had been given no warning. July 28, 2020

“If the government just gave us half a day’s warning, I could have saved $14,000 to $28,000 in damage,” Shao said. He’d lost at least $43,000, he said, and had received no government relief, a maddening, if typical, setback in this region. July 28, 2020

The people of the nation have suffered the most throughout this ongoing crisis. The catastrophe has only been made worse in recent weeks with the start of typhoon season as Typhoon Hagupit dropped several more inches of rain on the already soaked east coast of the country, including the financial hub of Shanghai.

The Dam Issue

The Three Gorges Dam spans the Yangtze river in the town of Sandouping in Yiling district, Yichang, Hubei province, in China. Dating back as far as 1919 the Chinese philosopher Sun Yat-Sen openly wrote about a hydroelectric dam spanning the Yangtze that could generate 22 gigawatts of electricity.

After about 75 years of debate, controversy and civil war the project was finally approved, and on December 14, 1994 ground was broke on the worlds largest hydroelectric dam. The dam was fully operational almost 18 years later in May of 2012. The Three Gorges Dam’s design was modified during construction to add additional power production capacity, which added years to the completion date.

The project was billed as an opportunity for China to solve two very important issues that plagued the rapidly developing nation.

  • Flood control
  • Electricity production

The project was controversial because of the massive number of rural residents who’s lives were affected by the mountainous structure. Over 1.3 million people were relocated and many towns along the banks of the mighty river were submerged to make way for the dams reservoir, which can hold almost 32 billion acre-feet of water when filled to its 175 meter capacity.

The role the dam has played in flood control has been debated essentially since ground broke, as three floods have already pushed the dam to the limits of it’s capacity, including two floods that took place before the dam was fully operational (2008, 2010). The series of floods in 2020 have caused Chinese officials to admit that the structure had ‘deformed slightly’ due to the intense stress caused by the massive wall of water retained by the dam.

In a rare revelation, Beijing has admitted that its 2.4-kilometer Three Gorges Dam spanning the Yangtze River in Hubei province “deformed slightly” after record flooding.

asia times july 21, 2020

The official Xinhua News Agency quoted the operator of the the world’s largest hydroelectric gravity dam as saying that some nonstructural, peripheral parts of the dam had buckled.

Asia times July 21, 2020

Many critics believe that the people who call the Yangtze’s basin home are suffering far worse now that the ‘state of the art’ flood control facility is operational.

In addition, critics say that the dams construction was for one purpose only and that was to generate massive amounts of energy, that has in part powered the nation’s economic resurgence.

China’s Stance

Chinese authorities have repeatedly said that the dam has controlled the copious amounts of water that have battered the structure for almost two months. China has also said that the dam cannot control water that ends up in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze basin without having a chance to pass through the facility. Chinese officials have also downplayed their admission of the damage and say the extent is minimal. The C.C.P. reassures the millions of residents below the dam that the deformations on the surface of the structure are well within safe parameters, and not to worry about the possible 300+ foot wall of water behind it.

Further Controversies

I recently watched an interesting documentary about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In the film, they explained that when engineers dug to the depths required to build the dam they encountered bedrock and constructed the dam directly on top of the solid rock, without any additional anchoring. Some believe that it is possible over time for water to work it’s way under the dam and weaken the structure from beneath, eventually causing a catastrophic failure.

Others cite a satellite photo supposedly taken in 2018 as proof that there are deformations on the dams walls.

Final Thoughts

In the end nobody honestly knows if the dam is going to fail or not. So far it’s still standing, despite taking massive amounts of punishment from the elements. What I do know for sure is if the dam did fail, a 300+ foot wall of water would inundate millions of acres of farmland, countless homes, and in some way, shape or form affect the life of every Chinese citizen.

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