Harnessing the power of the ‘mother river’

Inside the Three Gorges complex, a stream of tourists heads for elevations to get the best view of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam. Most of them have bussed their way through Yichang, a city nearly 43 km away. The complex produces a jaw-dropping 22,500 MW of clean electricity — the key to powering factories, homes, farms and cities downstream.

The sprawling structure has been strategically located on the upstream of the Yangtze River — China’s “mother river”. For several decades, the construction of the dam had been the dream of Chinese leaders, who understood that a barrage built on the confluence of the Yangtze and the three famous gorges — Xiling, Wu and Qutang — would be a game-changer. Not only would such an ambitious undertaking help provide surplus power to industrialise central and southern China, it would also arrest catastrophic flooding downstream. For centuries, the Yangtze was the cause of heartbreaking deluges — water levels would swell around May and taper around late autumn.

It was well-comprehended that the construction of a massive barrier would deepen navigation channels. This would allow big trading ships to sail between Chongqing — a charming city along the river’s upper reaches — and coastal Shanghai, China’s glittering gateway to the world. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of Republican China, had envisioned the construction of a large dam across the Yangtze. The thread was picked up by his successor Chiang Kai-shek.

A common dream

The seductive promise was not lost on Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China. But there were three major distractions that blocked the early fruition of the project. Mao’s ill-fated campaigns — the Great Leap Forward and the Hundred Flowers Campaign, followed by the Cultural Revolution — prevented the project from becoming a reality. Mao did write a poem titled ‘Swimming’, underlying the importance of harnessing the Yangtze, following the catastrophic floods of 1954, but it was his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who revived the project in the 80s. Construction began in 1994, and the Three Gorges Dam was ready within the next two decades.

From the perch within the complex, where visitors throng, it is possible to see perceptible difference in water levels on either side of the dam. “The reservoir is 660 km long. During the rainy season the water level can go up to 175 m,” explained Maggie Wang, an official with the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGC), which runs the project.

She pointed out that the large capacity of the reservoir is central to flood control. “In dry season, we bring down the water level in the reservoir to 145 m by releasing water that is required by the farming community downstream.” Consequently, she said, the reservoir can accommodate the larger flows during the rainy season. “More than 15 million people living in the farmland are protected when we hold the flood in the reservoir,” she said. The dam has also enabled more efficient ship-borne trade along the Yangtze. “Because of the dam, the travel time of the ships sailing between Chongqing and Yichang has been reduced by six hours. The costs have been reduced by one-third,” she observed.

The Three Gorges Dam has had its downside as well — like the displacement and environmental damage caused by it. However, on balance, the positives of the project, including massive job creation and saving lives in flood-prone areas, arguably outweigh the negatives.

Atul Aneja works for The Hindu and is based in Beijing.

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