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Record Floods Test the Three Gorges Dam

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Photo by Wishnick and Robertson

August 10, 2020

The reservoir of China's Three Gorges Dam filled up to within 11 meters (36 feet) of its capacity of 175 meters (574 feet) as record floods afflicted Hubei Province in June and July 2020. The dam reached a peak reservoir level of 164.18 meters (538.64 feet) on July 19, 2020, exceeding its 2012 record of 163.11 (535.13 feet). Chinese officials claim that the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest, has been serving as an effective and stable flood barrier during the unprecedented rainfall. They made the unusual admission, however, that the dam experienced deformities and seepage, but displaced "within the normal range." Certainly the policeman below looks unfazed.

The prevention of flooding has long been a preoccupation for Chinese leaders. The Three Gorges Dam was constructed to protect economically important downstream Yangtze areas from devastating floods as well as to generate renewable "green power." Once it became fully operational in 2012, the dam has produced 85 terawatts/hour a year - nearly 1/10th of China's annual electricity usage.

Where's the Risk?

Risks to China

Official estimates acknowledged that the floods in June and July 2020 caused 158 deaths, displaced 3.67 million people, and resulted in $20 billion in damage, which may lower China's economic growth this quarter by as much as 0.8%. Dam authorities announced three releases of water, which officials claimed contained 1/3 of the floodwaters. Some foreign observers questioned whether the priority was protecting downstream areas from flooding or the upstream dam from damage, and alleged that floodwater was released earlier than Chinese authorities announced. Taiwan News reported that the water release led to flooding in nearby downstream cities such as Yichang, but also crucially relieving pressure on the dam.

The nationalistic tabloid Global Times rejected such analyses as anti-China slander and claimed that the megastructure will stand for 100 years. After the third flood, Xinhua posted this photo of a beautiful sunset over the dam, while a viral video from regime critic Miles Guo, simulating the potential consequences of the dam collapse, made the rounds on social media.

The dam may still be largely intact, but academic analysts question how effective it has been in protecting downstream areas from flooding. Instead of one mega-dam, several smaller upstream dams may have been more effective, according to a South China Morning Post editorial. The Three Gorges Dam, which required massive resettlements involving 1.27 million people, as well as the flooding of ancient towns and cultural heritage sites, has been especially controversial. Unusually, one-third of the National People's Congress, China's typically rubber-stamping legislature, voted against the dam or abstained, even though Prime Minister Li Peng was its chief promoter at the time. Although the dam got the go-ahead in 1992, the project continues to attract scrutiny due to the allegations of corruption, as well as concerns about the dam's potential to damage the environment and provoke land erosion and earthquakes.

Global Risks

The areas most affected by the June-July 2020 floods are located near Wuhan, where the COVID-19 pandemic originated, complicating WHO investigations. Floods also may interrupt production in factories producing personal protective gear, also located in the Wuhan area.

China is a leading investor in hydropower plants worldwide and the Three Gorges Corporation itself is investing in large overseas plants projected for Pakistan, Burma, and Congo, among others. China accounts for 41% of the world's large dams, and now that it is shifting to smaller hydropower plants at home, Chinese power companies are searching for new overseas markets for their technologies.

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