The Three Gorges Dam (Part 2)

Posted on Wed 08/13/2008 by


Recently there was an Australian 60 Minutes report on the Three Gorges Dam, and in the main, the report was basically negative.
I’m not an apologist for China, but some thoughts I had after viewing that report made me want to look at the project a little more in depth to address some of those negative comments. From my background in the electrical trade, and in relation to the series of posts I made regarding the implications of the Kyoto Protocol in respect of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas production, I mentioned that China is proceeding to construct vast numbers of power plants, and just what the effects of doing something like this could produce, so what I wanted to do in this series of posts was to look at this project from that aspect. The more I looked, the more it became obvious that the project was more than just for the  generation of electricity.

Satellite image of Three Gorges Dam. NASA Commons image. Click on image to open in a larger window.

The long history of this project.

Even though construction of the project is only a relatively recent thing, this huge project has a long, and interesting, history.
It was first actually mooted by Sun Yat Sen way back in 1919, almost 90 years ago. Under the later Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, it was again proposed that a dam be built here. In 1939 during the Sino Japan conflict when Japan invaded China and nearly won that war, the Japanese proposed to construct the dam, and plans were actually drawn up for construction following the hoped for victory.
It is interesting to note that as early as 1944, the US actually became involved and assisted China in surveying the area, and also assisted with some detailed plans to build the dam at this same site. A large number of Chinese engineers were actually sent to the US for training. Further surveying, economic studies, and planning was well underway, but the Chinese Civil War saw work halted in 1947.
During the Communist Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong again tried to revive the project, but other more pressing things consumed the Country. The smaller Gezhouba Dam was constructed downstream from the Three Gorges Dam.
In the 1980’s, plans were again revived under Li Peng, and these plans were finally approved for construction in 1992, with the actual construction beginning in December of 1994.
It was proposed that the Dam be opened in 2009, but increasing the number of shipping locks, and then increasing the hydro generation production have blown out the time until the whole project becomes fully operational until 2011, a further two years.

Some concerns addressed.

The main thrust of the 60 minutes piece was that this was an environmental disaster on a monumental scale just waiting to happen. Taken like that, and in isolation this might actually seem to be the case, but in fact the opposite might just be the truth of the matter, when all the facts are looked at.
The main reason for construction, and the concept behind the dam itself has little to do with the production of electricity, which can now be seen as a welcome bonus, but when the dam was first proposed back in 1919, Hydro electric power would not even have come into the equation.

The single main purpose of the dam is for flood mitigation. Downstream of the dam are three monster cities, the biggest of which is Shanghai at the mouth of this river, the Yangtze, the third longest river on Planet Earth. This dam will mean that instead of a major and disastrous flood causing horrendous and disastrous damage every ten years, as is the case now, this will be reduced to one in every hundred years, and in the event of a one in a thousand year flood, this dam will considerably minimise the disastrous effects of that. There was one of these floods in this area in 1998 during construction of the dam, and more than 1500 people died when the flood waters covered a huge area of farming lands, causing billions of dollars of damage and displacing 2.3 million people.
However, one of those ‘super’ floods occurred in 1954. This disaster flooded over 75,000 square miles, and more than 30,000 lives were lost. Huge cities were flooded , and one, Wuhan, a city of 8 million people was completely covered and remained that way for three months. More than 18.8 million people were forced to move. This dam won’t stop a flood a those proportions, but it will dramatically minimise the after effects when taken in conjunction with the better way disasters are managed in modern times.

What I draw issue with in the 60 Minutes report was some of the things the environmentalist said with respect to those concerns for the environment.
Think about this for a minute. That environmentalist was a woman from the US. She flew from the US to Beijing, and then south to Shanghai. Then she made her way inland and proceeded to preach to the Chinese about the environment. Then she flew off home. Her carbon footprint for this exercise alone would have been greater than for a thousand Chinese families for a year. I don’t take issue with the fact that she was from the US. She could have been from England, Europe, or even Australia. It just seemed to me as hypocritical, when to those Chinese people she was lecturing, her position was perceived as coming from a background where she lived in a house that had access to electricity, lived in a society that the access to reliable and constant electricity making her life considerably easier, she had access to be able to shop when and where she pleases, and to buy things that society provides.  She probably drives a car. She probably has a well paying job. She actually can get on an aeroplane and fly half way round the World. Then she proceeds to tell the Chinese people that for the sake of the environment, they should not be constructing this dam for the sake of the environment.

She also mentioned that the dam was in an area subject to earthquakes, and the implications behind that offends me somewhat. When perceived in isolation that may seem to be the case, but the possible sinister underlying tone of that bland statement worries me. The inference might be taken that this is a second rate construction that will fall like a deck of cards under the first sign of pressure.
Surely, after so long in the making, Chinese engineers would be positively certain that the dam could withstand anything possible that might happen, might being the word of emphasis here. This is not just a few sticks of bamboo across a puddle. Upstream work sees the banks being strengthened to withstand the increasing depth of water. Flood mitigation being the main thrust, surely it would also be engineered to withstand that pressure as well.
The environmentalist also showed peasants who had been displaced, as if it was almost okay for her to come from a position of seemingly great wealth, (as perceived by those ‘peasants’) and that it’s okay for her to live as she does, and that these peasants should be allowed to stay as peasants. These relocated ‘peasants’ are not just lined up against a wall and shot. They are relocated to a more civilised place, and the electricity produced by the hydro scheme will see them having access to something that we have as a staple of life.

So who gets relocated then?
1.4 million people have been relocated, a huge number of people. The context here is this. It amounts to just less than 1.5% of the people in that province numbering 60 million. (This last number is one fifth of the total population of the US, and just living in this Province alone.) Again, these people are moving from a position of what in the US might be considered abject poverty of subsistence level to a better position, so it’s not the real case put by the environmentalist as, ‘Those poor peasants. They should be allowed to stay where they are.’

So, think back to the last time in recent history when a dam collapsed. Can you remember yet?
Are there any worries about the Hoover Dam, which is considerably smaller. In World War Two, the English wanted to destroy Hitler’s capacity to increase his weapons production and a plan was devised to blow up those dams, to actually bomb them to smash them, and flood the war machine factories in the Ruhr Valley. Of the five dams attacked, and it took precision and great effort, and only two of them were breached, but not badly enough that they could be fixed up after the war.

Dams are not just fragile and flimsy things that fall apart with the first pressure put on them.

Technical aspects.

The wall itself is 7600 feet long, (that’s a mile and a half long) and just stop and consider that for a minute. No other dam on the Planet has a wall structure that long. From the base, the wall stands 330 feet high, one quarter of the Empire State Building. At the base, the thickness of the wall is 380 feet, and at the top it is 130 feet thick. It’s not just pressed earth of some dam constructions, but concrete reinforced with steel. They used nearly half a million tons of steel alone, enough to construct 63 Eiffel Towers. The concrete alone was thirty five and a half million cubic yards. These numbers are in themselves astronomical.
The water backed up behind the dam when it reaches its peak later this year will extend for 410 miles and even though it will only hold a fraction of the water, this distance is 50 miles longer than the length of Lake Superior.

The above satellite image I have purposely left large, because no image of the dam can show you the scale of the size. After you open the image, click on it again to open an even larger image. For those of you with smaller monitors, you will need to scroll across the screen to see some parts, but the wall is in mid screen. You will see a small town to the left of the image at the shore of the upstream side of the Dam, and the closer you look, the more the scale of the construction will be sheeted home. When you look a little closer at the image, to the north of the dam, (above it as you see the image) you will see a series of locks, so shipping can move up the river past the dam. The size of these locks enables ships of 10,000 Tons to move up and down the river. In much the same manner as the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are national seaways in the US, so to is the Yangtze for China, and this series of locks means that cargo in large amounts can be transported along the river, something that has not been possible before. As part of this project a further series of locks have also been constructed on the Gezhouba Dam, downstream from this project. This now allows those much larger vessels to navigate a lot further up river than previously, so the economic value of this should also be taken into account.

Financial aspects.

The total cost of the project will come in at around $US30 Billion. This figure alone sounds huge, but it is actually 10% less than the amount budgeted for at the start of the project, mainly because of lower interest rates during the period of construction. This cost needs to be put into further perspective. A large nuclear plant will have an up front cost of around $8 Billion so for this amount, around four large nuclear power plants could be constructed. This hydro plant will produce the equivalent power of ten of those large plants, so the costs are indeed not as huge as might be seemed. After all that is taken into account, that $30 Billion will be completely recovered from the sale of electricity in ten years.

So, when everything is taken into account, it would seem that the good far outweighs the bad when considering any aspects about the dam.
Maybe, just maybe, we could look at what has been done here and learn something.
There may be some environmental concerns, but who are we to preach to the Chinese. They are the ones actually biting the bullet, and doing something about it. They could just as easily not constructed the hydro electric part of the project and just built ten or more coal fired plants.

In the next post, I’ll go into some of the electrical aspects of the hydro scheme.