China, day 12: The Three Gorges Dam

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Saturday, April 25

The ship elevator, with the dam in the background

The ship elevator, with the dam in the background

China is like Texas in one way: Everything here is big. One of the best examples of that is the Three Gorges Dam, which we toured today.

The dam is the largest hydroelectric facility in the world and holds more than 100 world records. It used 35 million cubic yards of concrete and 463,000 tons of steel (equal to 63 Eiffel Towers) and required moving about  134 million cubic yards of earth. It is 7,661 feet long and 594 feet high. With its 32 main generators (weighing 6,613 tons each) and two smaller ones running, it generates enough electricity to light four Las Vegases for a year. The reservoir created by the dam is twice as big as the Great Salt Lake. And so on.

The locks, seen from above

The locks, seen from above

The dam has been a mixed blessing. China had three goals for the dam: better flood control, increased power generation in a country that desperately needs sources of energy that do not pollute, and easier navigation of the river.

Arguably, it has achieved those goals. Flooding has been eliminated in cities like Wuhan. The increased traffic on the river is evident in the constant stream of barges that we saw, and Chongqing has become a major port. The dam certainly generates a lot of electricity, though it was supposed to generate 10 per cent of China’s need and actually generates less than 2 percent because of increased demand.

The dam has also had some serious consequences.

A riverside town

A riverside town

Increased geologic instability has produced earthquakes and landslides — as many as 97 landslides in one four-month period.

Serious damage to the environment and endangerment of species. It is estimated that 57 percent of plants and 27 percent of fish are endangered and 20 percent of the forest has been lost. One of the endangered species is the Chinese sturgeon, which can no longer migrate up river to spawn.

At least 1.4 million people whose homes were flooded by the rising water had to be relocated. In fact, about half of the $28-billion cost of the dam was in relocating people. People were given three choices: (1) be moved somewhere else; (2) have their town rebuilt at higher elevations, as was done in Shibaozhai; and (3) a cash payment.

Boats on the river and a man washing his clothes

Boats on the river and a man washing his clothes

There are mixed views about this relocation. Some people, especially the young, welcomed moving away or getting new homes. Others, especially older residents, understandably miss their former lives.

The tour itself was kind of disappointing. You only get to view the outside of dam. Getting a look at all the turbines and the rest of the inner workings would have been much more interesting.

We did get a look at the outside the ship elevator, the last part of the dam to be completed. The elevator will raise and lower ships in one step rather than the five required by the locks. It is only for smaller boats, up to 3,000 tons, while the locks can handle up to 10,000 tons. And while the locks are free, users of the elevator — presumably yachts and such — will have to pay.

A Yangtze River buoy

A Yangtze River buoy

After the dam tour, it was back to the ship to make our way down the river. We generally eschewed the shipboard activities, which today included a tea ceremony and a demonstration of dumpling making. But in the late afternoon I did go to the ship’s library, where Matthew taught us how to play Mahjong. (Chinese joke: What is in the national sport of China? Mahjong!) It turns out to be sort of like gin rummy.

In the evening some members of the crew put on a cabaret show with traditional costumes, singing, and dancing. It was a lot of fun.

Tomorrow is our last full day on board and we visit a Chinese school.

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