The flight to Yichang brought us to within two hours of the Three Gorges Dam. After a drive by the dam we reached Maoping where we boarded the ship that would be our home for the next four nights. On the first morning we toured the dam and then started the cruise in the afternoon through the longest of the Three Gorges, Xiling, which was lined with sheer cliffs and many smaller gorges and caves.
The Three Gorges Dam is truly an engineering marvel. It is the largest project in the world and has been in planning for decades. The main goal is flood control. Floods have killed large numbers of people in China over the years and the area has so much rain and so many rivers that it has always been vulnerable. By damming the "big river" it is possible to control the flow and divert excess water. In addition to flood control, the $30 billion Three Gorges Project provides power generation and improved navigation. Each of the parts — dam, bridge, dike, locks, ship lift, scenery, tourist facilities, museum, working models, etc. — are quite impressive to say the least.
The 84.7 billion kilowatt hours produced by the turbine generators is ten times bigger than a nuclear power plant and currently is producing 5% of the electrical needs of China. In spite of the enormity of the project, the growth of the Chinese economy will also demand constructions of forty nuclear plants. Hopefully, these will reduce the dependency on the coal-fired electrical production which now accounts for 70% of the country’s electrical needs but brings a lot of pollution along with it.
The dam itself is not the tallest in the world (the Hoover Dam is) but it is the widest by a long shot — 1.4 miles. Standing at more than 500 feet tall, 80 feet wide at the top and 320 feet at the bottom, the dam will ultimately (by 2009) cause the river to permanently rise by 370 feet and create a lake of nearly forty billion cubic meters of water. The amount of concrete used to build the dam is amazing but even more amazing is that while it was being poured the concrete had to be mixed with ice in order to overcome the 120 degree temperature and allow the concrete to cure.
Five locks allow ships up to nearly 1,000 feet in length to traverse the river in about four hours. For ships that may need to make it in a half-hour the Chinese are building a ship "lift". It is not completed yet but it will literally work like an elevator in which a ship will be lifted along with the water it is floating in. It is similar to a giant bath tub with a ship in it and then the bath tub being lifted to the higher elevation.
The most complicated aspect of the Three Gorges Project is the relocation of more than a million people. Various incentives were provided to encourage people to leave their homes and farms and move to a new location. In some cases cities were rebuilt nearby but in other cases people had to relocate a considerable distance. The younger people liked the deal. One young tour guide told us that for him the relocation meant going from living with three generations of family in less than 400 square feet to getting a 1,200 square foot apartment with just his wife and child. Instead of waiting in a long line for a public bathroom he would have a bathroom of his own. Walking up to the ninth floor to get to his new apartment did not phase him. In some cities elevators are provided if there are more than seven floors. Overall, it appears the Chinese government has done a masterful job of planning and implementing incredible changes to continue to fuel their economy which is the fastest growing in the world. At the current rate China will overcome the U.S. as the most powerful country economically in ten years or so. Time to move on to the cruise on the Yangtze.