Thoughts on the Three Gorges Dam

It’s the construction project so large that it supposedly slowed the Earth’s rotation: China’s Three Gorges Dam.

I wrote numerous papers on the Three Gorges Dam in grad school, so when I learn it is one of the stops on the Yangtze River cruise I am taking, I’m intrigued. The hydroelectric dam eases deadly flooding downstream and provides about 3% of China’s energy. Its construction also forced the relocation of more than a million people and took an enormous toll on wildlife, while its location—straddling the banks of the Yangtze—is in prime earthquake country. I’m curious to see it and wonder what I will think of it in person.

The dam helped make the river’s gorges more traversable, raising the water level and widening out the river. This supposedly had the unintended consequence of making the gorges less attractive. That’s news to me, as I’m deeply impressed as we float along. China is bursting with people, and yet the river is lazy and almost lonely with its sheer gray cliffs and rolling fog. The majestic scene slips into the distance, and I’m not surprised that the Yangtze Valley has served as inspiration for poets for generations. And yet, I also wonder how many people used to move along these waters, before the dam forced them away.

We pass through the dam’s locks at night. Everyone gathers on deck to watch the giant metal gates close and the boat start to sink. It is a laborious process, and I rapidly lose interest.

The next morning, it’s time to visit the dam in person. I don’t know what to expect as we board the bus that will take us there. It’s rainy and dark, the mist blocking nearly everything from view. There’s a visitor center—gushing with information on the hallowed dam—and a garden with scenic views.

I can barely glimpse the behemoth through the trees and settling fog. It’s not a visually interesting concave lens like the Hoover Dam, nor is it really visually appealing at all. Rather, it’s a Soviet-style slab of concrete, completely unremarkable if not for its size. (The BBC has a slideshow of pictures much clearer than any I took.) My friend and I look at it for a few moments, take a few pictures. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.

We swing by the gift store—naturally, there’s a gift store—so that I may buy a Three Gorges keychain for a fellow dam aficionado. And then we board the bus, return to the ship, and leave the massive construction project behind us.

The cruise itself ends not too long after. For all my anticipation, the dam is but a blip on the river, something I no doubt would have immediately forgotten if not for all those school papers. Its only real lasting impact on me is the relief I secretly feel when we are altogether done with the Yangtze: one strong earthquake, and the dam could fall, sending a tidal wave of destruction with it.

Have you seen the Three Gorges Dam? Is it a different experience in better weather?

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