China completes Three Gorges Dam

Hubei Province, China
July 24, 2012
Xiangru Chen and Wenxin Zeng



The Three Gorges Dam project is one of the largest scale and the most expensive construction in China in the past several years, and it also causes one of the largest social disputes in China: whether it is worthy to achieve economic development at the price of environmental and humanistic cares. Just as many other large constructions, it was proposed to solve some social problems, but it caused many new problems in the society. The Three Gorges Dam project was began in 1994, finished in 2006, and after several checking and testing, it was finally put in use in 2012; but the debates around it has continued for years: since the time it was proposed, until today. The Three Gorges Dam project is a representative example of the fact: architecture is always built to serve certain purpose that benefits its user, but the construction also almost inevitably causes changes in social, natural, and historical environment.

The perspective view of Three Gorges Dam.
The perspective view of Three Gorges Dam. (Quinn, 2013)



To build this dam, Chinese government has loaned much money from the bank, has hired many labors, and has spent 12 years since the plan was passed. The reason for such a huge project to be proposed is the concern of preventing flooding, hydroelectric power that is 18,000 megawatts, easing the difficulty of shipping, diverting water from the south to the north, and so on. Among all these reasons, the most essential and irreplaceable one is protecting people and property from the annual flooding. Yangtze River is the ‘mother river’ for Chinese people, as it is the cradle of Chinese Central Plain civilization with the water and the fertile soil along river bank. However, because of the Monsoon climate in the drainage basin of Yangtze River, the precipitation is abundant and concentrate, flooding happens very frequently.

The Location of Three Gorges Dam in a broad view.
The Location of Three Gorges Dam in a broad view. (NASA, 2002)

Moreover, because of the overcut of trees in riverbank, for the recent decades, the flooding happens almost every year. The Three gorges dam can stands in flood peak of 98000 cubic meters per second, and can hold 22.15 billion cubic meters (39.3 billion cubic meters in total) of water in order to discharge the floods. The Three Gorges Dam is not a unilateral spending, but be rewarded with huge amount of energy: the power of the flood is transformed into energy that equals 3% of Chinese total need of electric power. Such a huge amount of energy can not only promote the economic development in China, but also reduce the cost of fossil oil and discharge of carbon dioxide (CO2). Moreover, the construction project provided the society with many working opportunities, even during the economic depression. Also, among the migration caused by the construction, with the support of government, most people have the chance to move into safer and more prosperous places for living. After all, since the Three Gorges Dam is a costly project, China cannot rely on the foreign lending because money from International Finance Corporation (IFC) is limited. Therefore, China had to build its own powerful dam without international help, this pushed China to develop its fiscal capability, technology, organizing ability and maintenance operation ability.


However, each coin has two sides: such a big project inevitably causes huge influence to local social, ecological, and historical environment: millions of people were forced to leave their hometown, breeding of plants and animals were influenced because the changes in their living environments, many historical landscapes and cultural relics were under water now, and so on. Though the threat from flooding is alleviated, the safety of the Three Gorges Dam became a new threat, since once it collapses, the central part of China will be directly attacked and damaged. Besides, even though the government helps local residents to move to better living conditions, it is still criticized too unsympathetic to forced people leave hometowns that their families have lived for generations. It is indeed difficult for people to suddenly shift their lifestyle, to abandon their old friends and neighborhoods, as well as to learn new dialects and customs. The water storage by the Three Gorges Dam also causes landslide, obstructs water cycle, damages local vegetation, and weakens the steady states of local earth plates. The water quality is also harmed because the construction causes water to submerge not only many field, landscapes, and relics; but also many dumping sites with toxic and harmful substance inside. Moreover, as one of the main project for China in the past ten years, the Three Gorges Dam costs about 8.18 billion dollars to construct (15.6 billion dollar in total) and sacrifices about a hundred workers; Chinese government paid more attention on it and spontaneously gave less support to some minor projects in education, medical management, food safety, and so on.

The construction process of Three Gorges Dam
The construction process of Three Gorges Dam (Sigurjónsson, 2010)


Three Gorges Dam as a landscape to be visit by tourists.
Three Gorges Dam as a landscape to be visit by tourists. (Wu, 2011)

Noticing the non-negligible disadvantages of the Three Gorges Dam, Chinese government has introduced a series of policies to alleviate the pressure on environment by the project, such as the sewage treatment and forest planting project along the Yangtze River Region, but nobody can tell whether these projects are adequate, just as nobody can tell exactly how much damage the construction will actually create to the environment. Today, people are still waiting to see the outcomes. Chinese people are ready to make any required amendments to the dam and the local environment in the future, but absolutely wish that such requirement will not happen.


In fact, The argument is not simply a choice between economic development and environmental protection, it is a debate between two different predictions: one believes that the Three Gorges Dam will leads to a great economic effects with effective methods to alleviate the pressure on environment; while the other side believes that the environmental damage is too negative to be overcome or afford. The difficulty in judging the values of the Three Gorges Dam is due to the unpredictability of the future social, economic, political, and natural environment. Most of time, architects cannot foresee every details that the architectures will have to endure in the future, but they have to make decisions quickly and responsibly. Thus, the way historical architects strived to keep a balance between the power of nature and human, the results of their work, and the reasons why their work failed or succeed, are valuable for today’s architects to study.





NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan.. “THREE GORGES DAM, CHINA.” ASTERRecorded July 26 2002. NASA EOS Project Science Office July 20 2000. Web,


Quinn, Brodie. “Three Gorges Dam.” China ShopRecorded 2013. BRODIE QUINN PHOTOGRAPHY. Web,


Sigurjónsson, Ketill. “three gorges three gorges dam project yangtze river” Recorded October 27 2010 2005. Web,


Wu, Rosie. “Shennong Stream on the Yangtze River.” Best Place to Go Recorded June 03 2011. China International Travel Service Limited. Web,



Ji, Yun-Fei. 2010. “Three Gorges Dam Migration.” Art Journal 69 (3): 73-78.

It is a description of the process that Yun-Fei Ji made “Three Gorges Dam Migration”, a painting that describes the migration during the Three Gorges Dam project. Migration of the local people is an essential event during this project because the dam was built at a town instead of a clear site. To build the dam, less people would be influenced by floods every year; however, it is not a easy adaption to suddenly change the life style.


Arifeen, Mohammed. 2011. “THREE GORGES DAM.” Pakistan & Gulf Economist 30 (44): 24-26.

It generally introduces the Three Gorges Dam projects, including the reason of building it, the disadvantages of it, and the advantages of it. As the largest dam in the world, it was built for flood control, power generation, and navigation improvement, but it also causes damage to the ecological environment and local sites. According to the article, the Three Gorges Dam project is controversial, and the decision of construction somehow reveals the social values in China: economic development seems more important than environmental protection.


Stone, Richard. 2008. “Three Gorges Dam: Into the Unknown.” Science 321(5889): 628-632.

It includes the problems that the Three Gorges Dam may cause, and the methods that the government have tried to solve those problems. The article realizes the huge changes that the dam project makes in both environment and society, believes that there will achieve an ecological equilibrium in the site area, but also admits the unpredictability of the long-term influence caused by the dam.


Encyclopedia Entries

It introduces the material, scale, context, history, as well as functions of the Three Gorges Dam project. As a controversial issue, this article argued how the dam brings the benefits to China and how people affected by the dam. According to this article, the project experienced and overcome various obstacles and indicates the determination in this project by Chinese government.


Scholarly Articles

Mara Hvistendahl, China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe? Last modified by March 25th, 2008.

The author of this article suspected that if the project of three gorges dam was an Environmental Catastrophe. The article come up with the information that this project forced many people to relocate their home, and the dam made less raining in that area. Also, it made a rise in waterborne disease and a decline in biodiversity. At last, it seems causing this area to have more earthquakes because the pressure the dam gave to the ground.


Tang Danlu, Three Gorges Dam migration ends, transition ongoing. last modified Jan 30th,2013.

This article shows that three gorges dam migration has already successfully ended. The relocated settlement is better, which can provide a more comfortable and more safe living condition for migrants. However, there are critics saying that there are pollution and geological threats in three gorges dam. The mayor of Chongqing said that although there are still some problems need to be solve in this project, all are under control, and government will continue to deal with it.


“Questioning Three Gorges Dam.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Mar 29, 1999.

This article describes the political stands in China around the Three Gorges Dam and the international attitude toward it. This article introduces different opinions that questioning against the construction because of the safety and environment consideration. This article was published in 1999, as a record of the obstacles that the Three Gorges Dam experienced, including the difficulty in collecting funds.


Orthographic Documentation

[Plan and upper level section of three gorges dam. It shows how complex the dam is. It is a costly and technique required project.]


Video and Audio

Three Gorges Dam Project

This video shows how much money and efforts to build this dam, the benefits of the three gorges dam project and the influence of the project to local people. It took millions dollars and several years to build, and forced million people leave their home to find new houses. However, it also brought a lot of advantages, such as energy saving, flooding decreasing and better economy condition.

Lost in China with the Hutchens Brothers – Three Gorges Dam

This video is a recording of Hotchens Brothers’ travelling in three gorges dam before the construction finished. Along the travelling, they interviewed some local people. Most people like the new town because it is more comfortable and convenience to live, but they also miss the old town because they grew up there, which is underwater now. Also, this video shows the culture and landscape around three gorges dam, and the change of people’s life.

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