Three Gorges dam: the costs of a green energy giant

At the beginning of July,  after nearly twenty years of development and 9 years of partial operation, China witnessed the colossal Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River, working at full capacity for the first time. As the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, producing more than 22.5 million kilowatts of energy, the Three Gorges dam promises to be one of the most imposing symbols of renewable energy for our generation. Yet, while it helps to care for the environment in one way, critics have also jumped on more localised environmental impacts that could have disastrous consequences for towns, villages and agricultural land that flank the world’s third longest river.

The main environmental concern for the Three Gorges Dam is the polluted water that the structure holds back then releases through the electricity- generating turbines.  The pollution levels of this water was remarked upon by the China Digital Times, which, when referring to an article concerning the water quality of nearby lakes, pointed out that Yangtze waters in some regions was classed as unfit for human consumption.  The water therefore poses a risk as a major carrier of many water-borne diseases, as waters are allowed to accumulate in the dam and the bacteria are able to multiply further.

Additionally, concerns over flooding, the destruction of agricultural areas, towns and villages on the river banks, including the city of Shanghai, have also been raised. According to The Guardian, 1.3 million people have already had to move as a result of the dam’s construction.  Being situated in a seismic zone also means that the dam is at risk of exacerbating the effects of natural disasters such as landslides and earthquakes.

The controversy surrounding the dam’s construction does not appear to have an easy solution. On one hand, the dam shows China’s committal to producing renewable energy on a large scale, which in the light of environmental impacts of global fossil fuel consumption, can only be encouraged. However, at the same time the project has had severe social and environmental consequences, with the threat of more catastrophic impacts lurking in the background. As always, the cost that such a project may have on the quality of human and animal life is crucial to assess, yet in the case of renewable energy, which works towards a cleaner and more environmentally- friendly means of generating power, the criteria that this assessment is based on becomes cloudy. It is a true that a big change is needed in order to revolutionise our energy networks, yet at the same time a project aimed at improving the quality of human life on this planet in the future, cannot ignore the damaging environmental impacts it may have today.


News sources: The New Scientist, China Digital Times, The Guardian Online, BBC news website, Wikipedia.


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