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China Admits Facing Environmental Threats from Three Gorges Dam

May 24, 2011

photo credit: digitalglobe

China’s Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze is a truly impressive feat of engineering. It was designed to be a large capacity hydroelectric power station and to reduce the potential for downstream flooding. However, it may be doing more harm than good. China’s State Council has admitted that the $23 billion dollar project faces “urgent problems” including potential geological disasters, pollution and the secure resettlement of the 1.4 million people that had to move.

photo via flickr / the alleytree

Some of the ecological problems stem from the mass of water in the dammed up reservoir. Some scientists are worried that there is an increased risk for landslides and earthquakes in addition to the profound changes in the river’s ecology. And now, downstream, they are facing one of the worst droughts the area has seen in awhile. The water that does make it downstream is more polluted and is diverted for irrigation, farming, industry and household needs. They have let more water through the dam to try to compensate but this causes the reservoir to dip below optimum levels for electricity production.

In a country already pushing the outer limits of resource use, how does China find the balance between a need for energy and a need for water?

I thought one of the most interesting things were the comments readers left in response to The Guardian’s article about the dam. Many people believe that this is a better solution than CO2 emissions, and I don’t know? It may be better on some level than the emission of greenhouse gases, but we really don’t have any idea what the effects are of changing an entire ecosystem? What would happen if the dam was disassembled — could the ecosystem recover and what would that recovery look like? And what other energy sources can we look to? Solar?

I do find hope in the transparency of this admission and hope that with the information, we can respond intelligently and learn lessons moving forward.

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