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Three Gorges of the Yangtze River Dam Project

Three Gorges Is Major Controversial Construction Project To Be Completed in 2009


Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China.

Three Gorges Dam Photo (c) Linda Garrison
The Three Gorges Dam has become a symbol of China's efforts to join the modern world. Dr. Sun Yat Sen first suggested the dam in 1919, but it was not begun until 1994 and will not be completed until 2009. When completed, the Three Gorges Dam will be the world's largest at 7.575 feet long and 594 feet high. The reservoir behind the dam will reach 410 miles (about half the length of California) up the Yangtze to Chongqing. Workers numbering between 20,000 and 30,000 have been working in shifts on a 24-hour schedule since 1994. A rough estimate of the total cost of the projection (including inflation) is as high as $70 billion.

The dam's main purpose is to improve flood control and navigation on the river. In addition, the dam will increase electric power production in China by 20% in central China where it is really needed. The dam will yield the same amount of electricity as 20 nuclear power plants! Finally, the dam will boost fisheries, tourism, and recreational activities in the area, and may be able to be used for irrigation for the drought-prone provinces north of the Yangtze. However, the dam has been controversial since its inception because of the 1.5 million people who will need to be resettled from over 1,000 towns and villages and the loss of precious farmland, endangered animal species, and historical sites. Some opponents also fear that the reservoir will quickly become polluted from the waste that will continue to be dumped directly into the river, with no outlet. The Yangtze also carries a large amount of sediment, so the area will have to be constantly dredged.

The river was blocked in June 2003 at the end of phase 2 of the construction project, and the waters started to rise. In 2004, the water was 443 feet above sea level, but will eventually reach 575 feet above sea level in 2009. There are markers along the cliff faces of the Yangtze showing the current and ultimate depths of the river. Some of the cliffs over the river will be dynamited to prevent causing future problems to navigation.

Cruising the Three Gorges
The Three Gorges stretch upriver from the dam 118 miles towards Chongqing. Qutang Gorge is closest to Chongqing and at 5 miles is the shortest and most dramatic with 500 foot cliffs that have Mesozoic limestone peaks topping out at over 4,000 feet. The Wu Gorge is also noted for its sheer cliffs and 12 cloud-covered mountains. The third gorge and the one closest to the dam is the Xiling Gorge. It stretches over 41 miles and its cliffs looks much like an elegant Chinese painted scroll. Passengers on cruise ships usually leave their ships behind and board smaller vessels to tour the Lesser Three Gorges in one of the Yangtze's tributaries. The rising waters have made this area more accessible.

Yangtze River cruise ships leaving Chongqing usually stop in Fuling to allow passengers to ride a hydrofoil up the Wu River to see the beautiful Lotus Cave limestone rock formations. The river cruise ships also stop at Shibaozhai (the Stone Treasure Stockade) on the northern bank of the Yangtze. This stone temple is a 12-story wooden structure built on a huge rock bluff. The Stone Treasure Stockade was built during the Qing dynasty (1662-1722). Fortunately, the temple is high enough that it will survive the rising waters, although its bluff will become an island in the new lake.

Passengers cruising the Yangtze get to stop at the construction site to see the thousands of workers toiling away. The project has an information center with photos and graphics demonstrating the status of the construction and explaining what you are seeing. After cruising the Yangtze for a week, passengers disembark at Wuhan for the flight to Shanghai. Note that cruises also run from Wuhan upstream to Chongqing.

Sailing the Yangtze at any time has to be a memorable trip. However, with the ongoing construction, visitors today can return in the next decade to see how the scenery has changed!

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