Has the Three Gorges Dammed Us All?

Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydropower project and a globally notorious issue. Its benefits are that it offered 26,000 jobs during construction, it’s the largest single source of renewable energy and will reduce the risk of flooding for communities downstream. However, it forcibly displaced 1.3 million people during construction with inadequate compensation, will cause wide scale environmental issues, and there are concerns it cannot prevent flooding. Was the dam construction morally justified?

Three Gorges has Dammed Us All

The relocation figure of 1.3 million people is heavily criticised and could be up to 2 million, meaning government compensation is likely inadequate. The compensation relied on a lump sum method, with the quantity decided by the government. Issues with this method are  available houses could cost more than the sum provided and the citizens’ skills could be unsuitable to their relocated regions, (PH Gleick). The dam will lead to environmental issues such as flooding of industrial units causing water pollution, and an increase in landslides.

After construction, power from the dam is enough for 5.7 million homes while showing positive action versus climate change. 40% of the dam’s capacity is provided for flood control, improving the risk of flooding from 10 to 100 years (Mtholyoke). Flooding is a recurring and serious issue with 3650 lives in 1998 and 5.7 million homes lost in China (BBC). 

The stakeholders are the government who want to provide energy for their country and prevent flooding, and may desire to showcase their country’s power. The contracted companies want to be economically profitable and gain prestige for working on the world’s largest dam. The communities upstream require adequate compensation for being displaced. The communities downstream require protection from flooding, energy access, and economic growth.

Given the undemocratic politics of China, the government majorly drives the course of action. Instead of building the dam, Soft engineering techniques could have been used for flood prevention, or invoked greater discussion to identify and account for all resulting impacts. Another option could be to build several smaller dams and improve older dams. They could have taken better care over the relocation (PH Gleick) and ensuring the funds allocated were correctly distributed.

Using a virtue ethics framework, these authors propose that the Chinese government were not acting completely virtuous in the construction. Their desires to provide clean energy and prevent flooding were good because they acted to benefit  their citizens’ wellbeing via flood prevention and promoting sustainability. The dam protects 15 million people and 1.5 million acres of farmland and so act in their citizens’ best interests. However, their desire to display their power by discarding other low key options immediately and not taking care over the compensation allocation was not virtuous. The Chinese government also did not fully assess the construction impact e.g. landslides and increased seismic activity. These issues could have been planned for if the government showed virtue by being open to criticism and striving for quality during the design stage. The virtue of professionalism and honesty was also absent in compensation allocation as money was embezzled by government officials, causing families to suffer.  The dam therefore could have been built adhering to a virtuous ethic, but was not in an attempt to cut costs. 

Three Gorges was the Best Dam Thing to Happen

Three Gorges Dam reservoir has a capacity of 22.15×109 m3, which will control flooding in the Ching and Yangtze River. The dam helps agricultural irrigation, it has solved the drought problem that occurred in central China in 2009, and it has improved the yearly grain production. The dam provides around 84.68 billion kilowatt annually, which satisfies 1/9 of the domestic electrical demand. Additionally, the use of hydroelectric power dramatically reduces the consumption of coal therefore reducing CO2 and SO2 emissions.

However, ethical issues have been raised. Since the dam’s completion, geological disasters in the surrounding area have increased. 4719 landslides happened from 2003 to 2007, in which 627 were directly caused by the dam. 632 square kilometers of land, including 116 cities in Chongqing and Hubei Providences, were submerged. Approximately 1.2 million residents were displaced, which led to social problems. The compensation the residents received did not match their loss, and some coastal cities suffered a great economic impact. Furthermore, irreparable environmental impacts occurred in both the dam area and the Yangtze River basin. Animal habitats were destroyed, and the climate pattern changed after the construction of the dam. Deforestation and pollution also threatened the biodiversity of the dam area.

The stakeholders who have benefited from the project include the Chinese government, the builder of the dam, and hydro-power companies. Those who suffered include farmers who were forced to relocate and the Baiji Dolphin which became extinct because of the construction of the dam. Environmentalists are concerned about the problems caused by the dam.

Actions should be taken to minimize the downsides. Artificial reproduction of some species could help recover the ecological balance in Yangtze River. The government could build waste disposal plants to prevent pollution. Implementation of afforestation could help prevent flooding and landslides, as well as control the climate pattern in the dam area. The construction of some smaller dams in different areas of the river might have the same functionality as Three Gorge’s Dam but minimize the detriments.

What the government has done is built about 200 garbage disposal plants to deal with the pollution in the dam reservoir. This was due to the silt build up cause by the dam reducing the flow rate of the river.

In conclusion, the Three Gorge’s Dam has created a large economic and societal impact to China. It has solved one of the most vital problems, and has also provided a solution to the electricity shortage in middle and western parts of China. Although there are issues with the construction, the Chinese government has taken steps to solve these issues and make the dam an even greater asset.

A utilitarianism approach was used to weigh the advantages and disadvantages to see whether Three Gorge’s Dam was the right decision.

32: David Michael, Starsky Kenneth Hutchinson, Muyi Pan, Dewei Chen


9 thoughts on “Has the Three Gorges Dammed Us All?

  1. Clearly that the human, environmental and societal impacts of the dam are huge. While it may have had substantial benefits in providing much needed low-carbon electricity and preventing flooding, I am sure there were other ways this could have been done without such disastrous environmental consequences and avoiding the mass eviction of communities. If the government had been more sensitive to the detrimental impacts of building the dam far more could have been done to prevent or remediate these through effective future planning and consultation. The construction of the dam should not have gone ahead as it did.


  2. On my view, it is a very good article. As a Chinese student, the most information and news released from the government are about advantage of Three Gorges Dam. However, it makes me treat this big project in a different perspective after reading. I hope the Three Gorges Dam will lead to a promising result in the future.


  3. On the side of initial purpose of Chinese government , Three Gorge’ s dam is a huge success. Considering the fact that the dam has been already constructed , I think what matters is how to solve the consequences caused by the dam and why Chinese government cannot see the potential problems when they made decision and take relevant actions before everything has happened.


  4. The Three Gorge’s Dam does have brought huge benefit to China,but aslo cause lots of negative impacts. For instance,some creatures could be disappeared because of this project. This articles can add some biological impacts.


  5. The Three Gorge’s Dam built with strong political issues, not totally proceed from reality. From my point of view, it is not a good case to be discussed. For this article, I couldnt agree more with you. But for project, it is not right or wrong.


  6. First of all, good job on doing such great research on the positive and negative effects from the Three Gorges Dam construction. Obviously from this article, I have got a thorough idea of how badly the dam has impacted the environment and citizens, as well as the existence of potential uneven government resource allocation. However, I see little analysis of the advantage of the dam — only one paragraph stating how beneficial the three gorges dam is. Every coin has two sides, and in the case of the three gorges dam, its benefits are definitely worth more attention. After all, the engineering behind the world’s largest hydropower plant is really phenomenal for a developing country.


  7. great blog post. a well-structured argument exploring the pros & cons in a consistently ethically-sensitive way. considering the social and environmental impacts of this project do show how ruinous it has been, but for sustainability’s sake we do need to start large-scale investments in non-fossil-fuel energy sources. interesting implications for how the Chinese government goes about its infrastructure & development policy.


  8. Good job on presenting a fairly well-balanced argument, taking into account the pros and cons more or less equally and also looking at the ethical side of engineering- because to me, it seems that the risks and problems caused by the construction of this dam have far outweighed the benefits .. as shown in these two sentences:
    “4719 landslides happened from 2003 to 2007, in which 627 were directly caused by the dam. 632 square kilometers of land, including 116 cities in Chongqing and Hubei Providences, were submerged. Approximately 1.2 million residents were displaced, which led to social problems.”
    116 cities submerged, and 1.2 million people displaced!!? Of course it is always easier to criticise and to look back in hindsight at a huge endeavour like this construction, and no doubt in the long term it may pay off to some extent but it just seems like a lot of people (and habitats etc.) lost out where the government gained.


  9. An interesting and well written article. Whilst I side with the benefits of the dam construction I do appreciate the environmental impact that it’s construction has caused. Submerging of land and loss of forestry and natural habitats leads to the disruption of ecological niches that will lead to effects we can only predict. The social disturbance is clearly evident, and I find the mention of the governments ideology of showcasing power and prestige may have led to this issue slipping under the radar. With my very limited knowledge of Chinese politics, I do wonder whether more would have been done in a different political system (or whether residents would have had more of a voice?). With the vast numbers of people affected not only in terms of resident but also vocation I think that this should be something that is more closely looked into. Nonetheless, I feel that the dam is a good idea. The fact that the dam would decrease flooding to a certain extent has to be a benefit and surely allow for more control and early warning systems for residents. Industrially, China will no doubt want to keep on growing. Whilst Western China remains less developed this provides the opportunity for it to grow within a renewable energy framework without having to consider using ‘dirty’ energy. I feel that the energy benefits that this will provide are the most pressing as from a utalitarian approach, the environment damages will be restricted to this region of China but the benefits should decrease China’s carbon emissions, and further reduce the burden on global climate change.

    Liked by 1 person

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