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China: Progress and Preservation


Part of the visitors' center at the Three Gorges Dam. You can't actually see the main part of the dam from here; it's behind the island in mid-stream.

Cathy Stripe LesterI was impressed by the locks at the Three Gorges Dam on the Shanghai River, though I hadn’t expected to be. After all, I’ve seen the Soo locks, haven’t I? Plus innumerable canal locks in England, and the Welland Canal that stair-steps ocean ships past Niagara Falls. But like so much in China, there’s a difference in the sheer scale: The gigantic problems of controlling floods and seeking gigantic amounts of electricity have brought forth a gigantic solution.

Looking up from the ship, at one of the monster lock gates.

At this point in the tour we were on a river cruise ship for four days. After our ship glided in and was moored to the sliding bollards at the side of the lock, there was quite a bit of room left over. Then a giant, bumbling barge came along. First it hit the side of the lock , then straightened itself out and, with a liberal deployment of old tires for fenders, scootched in next to us (while I imagined the captain of the shiny new cruise ship was having kittens). From the stern of the cruise ship I could touch the wall of the lock on one side, then walk across and touch the rail of the barge.

Tight fit!

After that a dredger and a scow with a huge mound of sand came in behind us. Just as I was wondering idly if a smallish aircraft carrier was going to show up, the gates closed and up we went, through five linked locks, over 300 feet to the reservoir.

Dredger and scow

There was a lot of controversy when the dam was built, because it was going to drown a lot of archaeological sites and displace over a million people, and also because the Three Gorges area was such a beauty spot. However, as China and the rest of the world become more aware of air pollution, we have to admit that a dam causes a lot less pollution than coal-fired plants. And I didn’t see the Yangtze before the dam was built, so I can’t assess the loss of the scenic wonders. But wonders are still there.

The little dot near the base of the cliff on the right is a cargo ship.

The Yangtze was always notorious for floods.  Traditional houses were built on stilts, but  thousands of people still died. In 1954, flooding killed over 30,000 people. I’m all for archaeological treasures, but I don’t have the heart to dismiss the deaths of that many people for the sake of the past.

Traditional stilt housing of the Tujia people.

Some traditional housing remains in the “Three Gorges Tribal Scenic Area.” This is up a beautiful side stream below the dam, so it wasn’t flooded by the rising dam waters. And because the dam controls the amount of water that’s released, there’s much less danger of seasonal flooding downstream.

Side Stream below the dam.

The people who live there belong to one of China’s tribal minorities, the Tujia. Their work has always been as farmers and fishermen, but because this side gorge is now a Protected Area and has a 5A tourist classification, a lot of the villagers now work as historical re-enactors.

Singer standing in a sampan near traditional fishing nets.

A shore trip takes you to their settlement, where people sing, pose in picturesque spots, and as a highlight at the end, stage a tribal wedding.

Cameras (foreground) record colorful dress for a Tujia wedding. Red is the color of celebration, so Chinese brides usually have red dresses.

I asked one of the guides if she minded dressing up and repeating the same thing to group after group of sightseers. I expected a guarded response, along the lines of, “Tell the foreigner what the foreigner wants to hear.” To my surprise she was very enthusiastic. She’s glad they can preserve their culture, and proud that visitors appreciate it.

The instrument he is holding is a haidi, which is related to the oboe but has a much louder, somewhat raucous sound. It's a good instrument for outdoor celebrations because it carries very well, you can hear it all down the valley!

About a million and a quarter people were displaced by the dam. The government built housing, provided better access to schools, and promised jobs for all. However, there have been widespread reports of mismanagement, “disappearing” funds and discrimination against tribal people who move elsewhere. One woman did tell me she has a better job now and her life is easier. However, tourists don’t get taken to any of the new villages, so I didn’t hear what any of the people there had to say!

As you’d expect, a lot of people were heartbroken and angry over the move at the time. It’s hard to find out what happened to them because the government generally doesn’t report on what displaced people are doing nowadays. Presumably a fair number had to move to industrial areas where they now produce Christmas lights for us. Oh, lucky them.

It's hard to imagine the water here was once a couple hundred feet lower! Some people still live on slopes where it isn't so precipitous.

The guide on our little tourist boat pointed out a few houses, set on hillsides, where people refused to move into government quarters. I can sympathize with them. There are people in America who have chosen a beautiful environment over roads, schools and electricity, even though the average American (me included) wants to be able to flip that ol’ light switch!

  • CathyStripeLester

    Addendum: In re-writing I left out the fact that I made two trips up side streams. The first was the Tribal Scenic Area, which is below the dam and NOT flooded; the second, where they have the hokey yellow-roofed tourist boats, is above the dam, and it IS flooded. Sorry for any confusion.

  • John S. Porter

    Another great blog post. I was coming and going to China when this was built. The Chinese government asked for public input. They had hearings for a fixed period of time and then did what they planned to do. Very efficient. The environmentalists said that the dam would create a sedimentation problem, with soils falling to the bottom of the lake, rather than flowing out to the ocean. Also, the dam would flood toxic dumps and contaminate the waters. The environmentalists didn’t seem to appreciate all the coal heaters that would be replaced by electricity. The sedimentation would encapsulate the toxics, in my thinking. These are at least partially offsetting factors.

    Environmentalists in China seemed to give no credit to flood control created by power dams either. It’s a small world. I don’t think that the people who advocated removing the dams on the Boardman River gave adequate consideration to the flood control aspects of power dams. We’ll see.

    In China, life goes on. It’s off to the next mega-project.

    China is still building a lot of coal plants, but at least there is some appreciation for hydro power. Hydro power, with it’s renewable energy aspect, doesn’t seem to have much credibility in the USA.

    • CathyStripeLester

      Thanks, John. Yes, asking for public input and then doing just what they planned anyway sounds typical of governments! (Including some closer to home, may I dare say?)

      America seems to have put in hydroelectric plants on nearly all the rivers that were good candidates for it, back in the last century. Then we forgot about it. I think we should re-evaluate. With new thinking and new technologies, we might have more hydroelectrics without the dams that shut off fish migrations, etc.

  • CathyStripeLester

    A couple that was on the trip with me pointed out that I called it the “Shanghai River” instead of “Yangtze River” … that’s what I get for writing in a hurry! My apologies!

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