How the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Plant is Bad for the Environment

three gorges dam

When the Three Gorges Dam construction came to an end in 2006, it was the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. 

Promises came from the Chinese government about controlling disastrous flooding, the generation of much needed power and the facilitation of inland trade. 

However, the profound environmental impacts ended up being negative and are predicted to become even worse as time goes on.

And this problem is not unique to China.

Around the world, similar large hydroelectric plants are causing environmental ruin while greater alternatives are being ignored.

China’s Hydropower Journey

Three Gorges Dam Construction
SOURCE: International Rivers

China’s intentions for secure energy independence fueled enormous investments in hydropower but their affection for hydro has been costly. 

Dams have had social and environmental impacts. 

The Three Gorges Dam has recently been acknowledged by the government as:

  • being a cause of landslides, 
  • destruction and distortion of ecosystems, 
  • harm to delicate wildlife, 
  • the forced relocation of over a million people, 
  • an increase in waterborne diseases, 
  • and risk of catastrophe in the event of a significant earthquake. 

The promise of clean energy and energy independence despite pre-stated environmental concerns has left China suffering and has soured the taste for hydro. 

Chinese hydroelectric plants are typically operating at a very low proportion of their capacity – only around 30% – furthering dependence on coal. 

In the wake of coming out of lock-down, China is eager to make the power available needed to fuel their economy

China has always claimed that the dam has played a crucial role in intercepting floodwaters.

However, in a turn of events, Chinese officials at a forum in 2007 confessed to the numerous ecological ramifications caused by their dam.

Whereas the USA scaled back on building dams in 1994, and even removed some, China steamed forward.

By 2019, China had a total of 23,841 large dams.

A staggering 41% of the world’s total number of dams.

More countries recognised the environmental impacts did not surpass the cheap renewable energy that they provided.

However, climate change is predicted to bring more frequent and heavier flooding.

Meaning China will have no choice but to look towards other solutions in the future.

More Frequent Landslides

A landslide ext to China's Daning River that was super close to the 3 Gorges Dam Environment
SOURCE: Quartz

The first in a series of ecological disasters happened in 2003 when the dam was filled for the first time.

It was when the water reached 115 feet (135 meters) that the landslides started to happen.

Only a matter of weeks after this, a large chunk of mountainside slid into the river.

The result was 24 lives lost, 346 houses destroyed and 20 capsized boats. 

"The huge weight of the water behind the Three Gorges Dam had started to erode the Yangtze's banks in many places, which, together with frequent fluctuations in water levels, had triggered a series of landslides."

Destruction of Ecosystems

Three Gorges Dam Ecosystem and Environment Politics. Lets Solve This Together
SOURCE: Council on Foreign Relations

The dam is so large that it has created its own microclimate that has threatened the entire region’s ecosystem.

Over 6400 plant species, 3400 insect species and 300 fish species exist within the environment surrounding the dam.

The Three Gorges Dam not only has directly impacted these species, but also the environment they exist in.

For example, aquatic ecosystems have been negatively affected by a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water. 

The dam disrupts the natural process of aeration and diffusion.

Both are needed to get oxygen into the water.

Harming of Delicate Wildlife

Photo of a Chinese Dolphin
SOURCE: Ecofriendly

The Baiji dolphin species that lived in the Yangtze river for over 20 million years was declared extinct in 2006.

It has not been declared as a sole direct result of the Three Gorges Dam, but its demise was put down to wide-scale habitat destruction and pollution.

The building of the dam further reduced its habitat and the resulting increase in ship traffic are thought to be contributing factors to their extinction.

Not only has the Baiji dolphin been affected, but many animals and plants have had their habitats severely damaged or completely destroyed.

It has been estimated that the Three Gorges Dam threatens over 400 plant species.

Increasing Risk of Earthquakes

Overlook of the Three Gorges Dam Earth Quake - Environment and Politics
SOURCE: Asia Times Financial

The Three Gorges Dam sits on two fault lines and geologists have warned of reservoir-induced seismicity. 

This is caused by the rapid change in water pressure when the reservoir water levels are changed during flood season.

The result is the activation of already shaky ground and this triggers an earthquake.

The dam has been directly blamed for the increase of earthquakes in the region.

3,429 earthquakes were recorded between 2003 and 2009. 

Whereas, only 94 were recorded between 2000 and 2003.

What Can We Learn From China?

The technological accomplishment of the Three Gorges Dam became a blazing point of national pride for China.

Chinese rulers for centuries have harnessed the power of rivers to give their reign legitimacy.

If a ruler is able to prevent natural disasters, they are considered to have secured their mandate with the heavens. 

When the proposal was raised in the 1970s, China’s top scientists detailed the human and environmental costs that such a project could have.

They were ignored.

And following the political oppression within China following the Tiananmen Square massacre, top environmentalists were jailed.

Along with the banning of books that criticised the Three Gorges Dam project.

Every country is responsible for promoting a healthy science community.

And it’s each of our responsibility to be aware of their warnings.

With their help, we can avoid disastrous outcomes like the Three Gorge Dams.

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