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Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China


Dams have been a politically contentious issue in China since the 1950s, during which Mao’s effort to rapidly industrialize China resulted in the emergence of thousands of poorly constructed dams across the country, all of which had collapsed by 1980 [1].

The Three Gorges Dam Project (which began in the early 1990s) has entailed similarly disastrous ecological, social, cultural and humanitarian consequences. By 2003, the dam had flooded two cities, 11 county towns, 114 townships, and numerous villages and farms [2]. By the time the project was completed in 2009, 13 cities, 140 towns and 1352 villages [were] under water [3]. The large-scale inundation of human settlements associated with the Three Gorges Dam project has in turn resulted in the forced resettlement of “at least 1.2 million” people” (ibid), many of whom never received adequate compensation for their economic, social and cultural losses.

While there were many who opposed the central government’s plans to approve the dam project in 1992, only a few activists (such as prominent journalist Dai Qing) dared to publically vocalize their criticisms. At the time there were no environmental NGOs in China, and public opposition [to the dam project] was nearly impossible...[since] opponents [would simply be] identified as dissidents [4].

Fully functional as of July 4, 2012, the Three Gorges Dam is currently the world’s largest hydropower project and most notorious dam.

The project has been plagued by corruption, spiraling costs, environmental impacts, human rights violations and resettlement difficulties [5]. According to the China Three Gorges Project Corporation, funding sources include the Three Gorges Dam Construction Fund, profits from the Gezhouba Dam, loans from the China Development Bank, loans from domestic and foreign commercial banks, corporate bonds, and revenue before and after the dam is fully operational. Additional charges were assessed as follows: every province receiving power from the Three Gorges Dam has to pay ¥7.00 per MWh extra. Other provinces had to pay an additional charge of ¥4.00 per MWh. Tibet pays no surcharge.

The environmental impacts of the project are profound, and are likely to get worse as time goes on. The submergence of hundreds of factories, mines and waste dumps, and the presence of massive industrial centers upstream are creating a festering bog of effluent, silt, industrial pollutants and rubbish in the reservoir. Erosion of the reservoir and downstream riverbanks is causing landslides, and threatening one of the world’s biggest fisheries in the East China Sea.

The weight of the reservoir's water also has many scientists concerned over reservoir-induced seismicity. Critics have also argued that the project may have exacerbated recent droughts by withholding critical water supply to downstream users and ecoystems, and through the creation of a microclimate by its giant reservoir (ibid). In May 2011, China’s State Council – the highest state organ – admitted in a statement that “while the Three Gorges Dam has brought great benefits, there are still urgent issues with relocations, environmental protection and the prevention of geological disasters; and it has had a certain impact on navigation, irrigation and water supplies" [6].

When a landslip destroyed the Lifengyuan Hydropower Station in Hubei province's Zigui county in September 2014, it was the first time the Three Gorges region had seen one of its electricity-generating dams wiped out. But the collapse forms part of a growing nationwide trend as dam reservoirs and construction destabilise the terrain around China’s hydropower stations [7].

The Three Gorges Dam has created a giant 600-kilometre reservoir, the water level and expanse of which change throughout the year, and this has two worrying consequences, said Yang. First, the banks of the reservoir are subjected to frequent changes, increasing the chances of landslides. Second, the huge lake influences the local climate, making extreme weather events — particularly cloudbursts and heavy rain — more likely. Add in disturbances from construction for relocation of residents (1.13 million were moved for the Three Gorges dam project), road-building and quarrying of stone and earth for hydropower projects and, he believes, all the conditions for geological disaster exist (ibid).

The Three Gorges region has already become disaster-prone, according to Fan Xiao, chief engineer to the Regional Geological Survey Team of Sichuan province's Geology and Mineral Bureau. He told chinadialogue that over 5,000 danger points — collapses, landslides, dangerous cliffs and banks — have been identified (ibid).

A long series of international companies and consortia have had and are still having stakes in the project; Probe International tracked them and included for example Acres International, a Toronto-based engineering consulting firm, one of five companies and utilities that formed a consortium, Canadian International Project Managers Yangtze Joint Venture (CYJV), to conduct a $14-million feasibility study for China’s Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, which gave the green light to the Three Gorges dam. The consortium GE Canada-Siemens-Voith Hydro consortium supplies turbine-generator units, while Hydro-Québec International (a wholly owned subsidiary of Hydro-Québec) signed a $2.85-million (US$1.9 million) contract in June 1999 with China Power Grid Development Company to supervise installation of a 900-kilometre transmission line from the Three Gorges dam to Changzhou, 80 kilometres northwest of Shanghai. Many foreign finance instiotutions and banks provided loans for their companies.

The full list is available at the Probe International webiste [11].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China
State or province:Hubei
Location of conflict:Yichang
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Electricity

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The Three Gorges Dam is the world's largest capacity hydroelectric power station with 34 generators: 32 main generators, each with a capacity of 700 MW, and two plant power generators, each with capacity of 50 MW, making a total capacity of 22,500 MW

Annual generation in 2014: 98.8 KWH of electricity [9]

Level of Investment for the conflictive project23,000,000,000 (official estimate)
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:1.2 million displaced
Company names or state enterprises: China Yangtze Power from China
Power Grid Development Company from China - The company is responsible for the transmission work
Siemens from Germany - supply electrical system equipment through its subsidary Voith Siemens Hydro Power Generation
Alstom from France
China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG ) from China - Responsible for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam
Relevant government actors:The National People's Congress
International and Finance InstitutionsChina Development Bank (CDB) from China
China Construction Bank (CCB) from China
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:International Rivers; Weng Lida, the secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum; Dai Qing, prominent Chinese journalist; Zhou Peiyuan and Lin Hua, prominent Chinese scientists

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLATENT (no visible organising at the moment)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Media based activism/alternative media


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Global warming, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Soil contamination, Noise pollution
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:In an unexpected statement, China’s government has just acknowledged the serious problems of the Three Gorges Dam. “The project is now greatly benefiting the society in the aspects of flood prevention, power generation, river transportation and water resource utilization,” the government maintained, but it has also “caused some urgent problems in terms of environmental protection, the prevention of geological hazards and the welfare of the relocated communities" [10].

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Shapiro, J. (2012). China’s environmental challenges. Cambridge, U.K., Cambridgeshire: Polity Press.

[2] Jackson, S. & Sleigh, A. (2000). Resettlement for China’s Three Gorges Dam: socio-economic impact and institutional tensions.

Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 33(2), 223-241.

[3] Jing, J. (1997). Rural resettlement: Past lessons for the three Gorges Project. The China Journal, (38), 65.

[4] Lin, T.C. (2007). Environmental NGOs and the Anti-dam movements in China: A social movement with Chinese characteristics. Issues & Studies, 43(4), 149-184.

[5] Three Gorges Dam

[6] Floods test Three Gorges Dam

[7] China's Enormous Three Gorges Dam Could End Up Being A Huge Mistake

[8] Three Gorges Dam

[9]Chinese Government Acknowledges Problems of Three Gorges Dam

[10] Articles Landslide destroys dam in Three Gorges region

[11] Probe International - Who is behind China’s Three Gorges Dam

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Is the Three Gorges Dam a Ticking Time Bomb?

National Geographic

Meta information

Contributor:EJOLT team at School of Geography and China Centre, University of Oxford
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:1795



Three Gorges Dam