The Three Gorges Dam Debate

9 Mar

In 1992, the Chinese government agreed to the building of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. It was completed in May 2006 and is the world’s largest hydropower project. However, despite the fact that the dam supplies more than ten per cent of China’s electricity needs (Jackson and Sleigh, 2000) and reduces the need to burn fossil fuels, which is very important given the rapid industrialisation of China, it came with vast social disadvantages. Whilst this report will consider the advantages of the dam, it will primarily focus on the negative social impacts, which have occurred on an unprecedented scale, and determine whether China was right to pursue this particular development at the expense of social unrest.

Although the most widely discussed are the negative impacts of the dam, it is also important to consider the advantages of the scheme. The importance of dams on a general, global scale cannot be questioned, particularly with regards to human and infrastructure development in capitalist and communist countries (World Commission on Dams, 2000).  

 As already mentioned, the dam supplies more than ten per cent of China’s electricity needs, and this is clearly the biggest advantage of the dam. This is extremely important as China has the world’s fastest growing economy and has rapidly urbanised and industrialised. The dam has particularly aided towns and cities along the Yangtze River, as an energy supply has been created to encourage industrial development of a previously rural region. One area which has benefitted is Chongqing, as large ships can now reach the city, which previously lacked development due to poor communications and navigation. Additionally, the dam is able to control flooding, reducing the number of damaging floods, which is important given the monsoon climate of the area. Furthermore, as Jackson and Sleigh (2000) argue, there are cross-regional benefits as the dam is able to conserve water on such a large scale that water shortages in the north of China are alleviated.  

However, although the Communist Party see the construction of the Three Gorges Dam as a success (Patience, BBC, 2012), there have been resulting widespread social impacts, which the government often mask. Nevertheless, given the context of the dam and its construction, it can be argued that these impacts were inevitable. This is because, when the construction of the dam was approved in 1992, the government transiently returned to the Maoist, authoritarian method of decision-making, despite being more than ten years into economic liberalisation (Jackson and Sleigh, 2000).  Therefore, this essentially meant that the needs of the 400 million people living in the Yangtze Valley were not taken into account, which would cause social instability. The region was already disadvantaged and was poor and ill-prepared for economic upheaval arising from uncertain property rights, lost farmland and new health hazards.

The large scale of the dam also led to inevitable social impacts. A reservoir 600km was created, which led to the flooding of 13 cities, more than 150 towns and 4500 villages, displacing more than 1.3 million people. This led to a magnitude of interlinking problems, which will now be discussed in order to determine the scale of the social impacts and whether they were worth the economic gain. The first problem is a very obvious one – the loss of farmland. Nearly 34,000 hectares of farmland have been flooded (Brown et al. 2008) and this has meant that many of the displaced population have had to resettle in urban areas, due the loss of their livelihood. This has led to various problems, including the urban populations not accepting them (due to the migrants being allocated land that once belonged to locals, and putting a strain on social services) and a disadvantage when competing for employment, due to a lower standard of education in rural areas. Furthermore, the relocation has meant that there has been community disarticulation as many close communities have been split up. For the farmers who were provided with new land, there has been a reduction in income due to the majority of the fertile soils being flooded.

Linked to the all of this is the inadequate compensation that the displaced people received for their homes and land, due to debates over their property rights.  Property reforms which had occurred in some urban areas had not yet reached rural China, and so there was not a market for rural land (Jackson and Sleigh, 2000). Therefore, compensation for rural land and houses was inadequate. In addition, the politics surrounding the Three Gorges Dam was plagued by corruption and so many did not receive their compensation at all. This led to the majority of the relocated population being considerably worse off than they were before.

Health risks are also a problem arising from the Three Gorges Dam project, as is with the construction of any large dam (Lerer and Scudder, 1999). In particular, malaria and schistosomiasis increased due to the founding of a stagnant reservoir as opposed to a once fast-flowing river. Due to a lack of health services, the risk was worsened. As a result, disease undermined economic development in relocation areas.  

Therefore, it is clear that vast social problems arose as a result of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. However, at the same time, its contribution towards China’s industrialisation and consequently economic development cannot be questioned. This therefore leaves us with the question as to whether the country was right to go ahead with the project knowing the implications it would have on such a large number of people? It can be argued that had China already been out of the phase of economic transition, then the project would have no doubt been managed more efficiently and the resulting social problems would not have occurred as, for example, property rights would be firmly established in rural areas allowing people access to fair compensation. However, then, in this case, the dam would not have contributed as greatly towards the economic development of the country. It can also be argued that the dam was necessary in order to open up industrial development away from the east coast, which had been the area where the majority of foreign direct investment (FDI) was located. Therefore, this presents a complex argument, which will inevitably be viewed differently by different sectors and so I will end with my own views. I believe that the dam was necessary in order for development to become more widespread in China, and that in future generations; the benefits of the dam will be felt by the local population, as living standards rise. However, I also believe that had there been no corruption in Beijing, then the social impacts of the dam would not be as severe, and so the fact that so many people faced problems cannot be overlooked.  

Reference List

Brown, P.H. Magee, D. and Xu, Y. 2008, ‘Socioeconomic vulnerability in China’s hydropower development’, China Economic Review, vol. 19, no. 4, pp.614-627.

Jackson, S. and Sleigh, A. 2000, ‘Resettlement for China’s Three Gorges Dam: socio-economic impact and institutional tensions’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 223-241.

Lerer, L.B. and Scudder, T. 1999, ‘Health impacts of large dams’, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 113-123.

Patience, M.2012, Chinese affected by Three Gorges Dam, BBC. Available online: [accessed 07/03/2014]

World Commission on Dams. 2000, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making, Earthscan, London.



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