Dams have long been the strategic card for China. However, they are collapsing before China can have a chance to play them.
China has about 94,000 dying dams. So, the crisis isn’t about a single dam.
However, when the problem involves the world’s biggest hydroelectric plant, there is every reason for China to worry about it. Not only China, but also the entire world is waiting with baited breath regarding how the country will tackle this issue of mammoth stature.
The difference between other dams in China and the Three Gorges dam is that most of the other dams were built during Mao Zedong’s era while the Three Gorges dam is a recent build. So it seems believable that the Mao era dams must be decaying and on the verge of collapsing.
However, what’s surprising is that a dam that cost China a whopping $31 billion dollars and became operational fairly recently, could collapse.
The Three Gorges dam’s foundation was laid in 1994 and its construction was formally completed in 2006. Apart from the hefty costs involved in building the world’s largest dam, the country had to face the more severe issue of displacing 1.4 million people to free up the land area and construct the dam.
One of the key incentives to build this dam was to lessen the risk of devastating floods that the river Yangtze is prone to. The flooding of this river has remained a perennial problem for China since ancient times.
The river’s basin accounts for around half of the country’s agricultural output while it crosses through most of its major cities including Wuhan that boasts over 10 million residents.
Built on the Yangtze river located in central China’s Hubei province, the Three Gorges dam power project is undoubtedly the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam. It is a 2.3 kilometer long concrete gravity dam designed primarily to control massive floods particularly in the Yangtze river’s flood prone upper sections by diverting them downstream.
This dam is equipped with as many as 34 turbo generators while its power plant has an installed capacity of generating 22.5 gigawatts. The dam features a staggering 483 meter long spillway and there’s a powerhouse at its left and right sides.
It has been operational since 2003 and happens to be a significant source of electricity in Central China, East China, and the Guangdong province in South China.
It is owned by China Three Gorges Corporation. Interestingly, this dam created a world record for the highest annual power production by a single hydropower station in 2020 after generating 111.8 billion kilowatt-hours.
It helped China switch from coal-based power plants to hydropower plants as the country avoided using 31.7 million tons of coal. Moreover, China successfully eliminated 86.7 million tons of Carbon dioxide, 20,600 tons of Sulphur dioxide, and 19,000 tons of Nitrogen oxide.
The three Gorges dam helps the country produce cleaner power and reduced its reliance on coal which it previously used in significantly large quantities for power generation.
But, this powerful dam has remained controversial because of its weak capability of withstanding heavy floods. And the current floods in China around the region just showcase the imminent threat.
The dam received its largest flood peak in August 2020 when torrential rains increased the dam inflows to alarmingly high levels. Though, the Chinese government has denied any possibility of the dam posing any danger and passed all power generation and flood control tests in November 2020, experts doubts its efficacy.
What are those problems?
In 1994, when the dam’s construction officially began, it was touted as the largest ever engineering project in China and it became the world’s largest dam structure upon completion. It went on to symbolize the country’s bold attitude and confidence in undertaking risky technological ventures.
However, even with so many different records that the Three Gorges dam holds, we cannot overlook the various issues that became part and parcel of the project.
The biggest issue that hinders the survival of the nearby population and surrounding areas, is that of flooding. If heavy flooding occurs at the Yangtze river, it is bound to cause trouble to all as it may flood some of the most scenic areas in the world.
It will drown farmland and more than 1,000 cities, towns, and villages that submerge over there. Nearly 1.3 million people will have to be relocated to higher ground.
Moreover, critics of the dam state that the river may not flow fast enough to keep its turbines running so the Three Gorges dam might become inoperable within a few years due to sitting.
Another serious issue is that this dam is plagued by floating archipelagoes of algae carpets, garbage, and landslides on the riverbanks, though a 1.5 mile long barrier was built around the reservoir, still, the problems of pollution and algae persist.
Given the extra water weight, it can cause many other serious issues like erosions of slopes and tremors apart from landslides.
There are ample of natural gas reserves around the Yangtze region. Environmentalists claim that the dam may benefit outsiders more than the locals as over 40% of its generated electricity will go to coastal areas and Shanghai.
Experts point out this dam is built in an earthquake zone. So, its breakwaters would floor one of the world’s most populated areas.
Scientists agree that the sheer weight of water stored in the 410 mile long reservoir situated behind the dam has twofold the region’s risk of earthquakes.
Another issue that we cannot overlook is poor water quality which environmentalists are most concerned about. The reservoir has gradually become a repository for industrial and city waste.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, Vice Minister Zhang Lijun, ”Algae blooms have become a lot more common lately due to the stagnation around the reservoir. Treatment plants should have been built over the dam to address water quality issues, but there are none so far. Perhaps due to lack of funds or other unknown issues, the dam is in dire need of water treatment plants.”
From here, we come to the main question:
Is The Three Gorges Dam In Danger Of Collapse?
At the moment, nearly 500 million people live close to the Yangtze river. It is China’s largest river and where the country has built its most controversial dam. The river swells after months of reigns which are commonplace across China while the dam can handle no more than 84 million liters of water per second.
Recently the water inflow reached 61 million liters per second which the dam handled efficiently. But heavy rainfall multiple times in a year and consequential flooding can pound the river with water. That’s not a favorable thing to happen because if it does happen, there will be unimaginable collateral damage. The crisis is therefore real.
The rising water level due to the amount of water discharged has been cut back to limit flooding downstream but another round of torrential rain alongside the Yangtze river basin will prove detrimental for the dam.
In China, rainfalls are generally lighter during winter so the dam can accumulate a maximum of 175 meters of water for efficient power generation and transportation.
During the summers, this limit drops to 145 meters for effectively controlling flooding which is expected during the rainy season.
Nevertheless, the growing burden on this dam has generated doubts over its potential to withstand natural disasters and its failure would have disastrous consequences.
Chinese authorities have evacuated nearly 38 million people downriver. The dam can hold back up to 175 meters of water above sea level but rain tend to be unpredictable in China.
If the country receives more rain as it is experiencing currently. And if smaller older dams upriver from the overflow of the Three Gorges dam fail, the pressure will become overwhelming for the main dam and will threaten its capacity and its structural integrity.
Rumors’ aside, the reality is that the Three Gorges outright failure may not happen since it is a sustainable project. But it could be China’s Chernobyl or a black swan for the country if it fails or collapses. A tsunami like wave from the breached dam can wipe out millions of acres of farmland and could lead to famine-like conditions in the region.
And how can we forget that it is the world’s largest hydroelectric power station. Its failure would cause massive power outages. Low-lying cities along the Yangtze banks may become uninhabitable and the subsequent death toll would be staggering.
It is a big deal and China has to address this issue by demolishing smaller decaying dams and rebuilding them especially those holding back the tributaries feeding into the Yangtze. It can also open spillways on upstream dams, but that’s not going to solve the issue.
Water is currently flowing into the reservoir at around 60,000 cubic meters a second and released at about 38,000 cubic meters a second due to the fear of flooding. Regular cleaning of troughs, increasing freeboard and constructing sediment traps to save the dam during peak rainy season can help the government save the dam that’s a symbol of national prestige.