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The Three Gorges Dam

China has begun construction on the main section of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest public works project undertaken in modern China.

Beijing officials say that when the project is completed in 2009, the flood-prone Yangtze, third-longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon, will be tamed. The government says the dam and its hydroelectric plant will provide one-ninth of China's electricity, and large freighters will be able to navigate far upriver via the dam's locks and ship lifts, spurring economic development in central China.

Opponents claim the project will be an ecological and economic disaster and point to the social costs of resettling 1.2 million people from the areas the new reservoir will flood.

The dam's components

The Engineering Job

3.6 billion cubic feet of rock and soil have to be excavated and 1 billion cubic feet of embankment fill moved.

900 million cubic feet of plain and reinforced concrete have to be poured.

About 300,000 tons of metal structures have to be installed.

Each turbine to be installed will weigh about 400 tons.

The Dam Site

Size of Completed Project

Dam: 1.24 miles from bank to bank, 610 feet high

Electricity production: 26 turbines with a capacity of 18,200 megawatts that can produce 84 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

Cost: $29 billion to $75 billion

The Result

A lake more than 400 miles long (the length of Lake Superior) and 3,600 feet wide (twice the width of the natural river) in many places.

A maximum depth of 574 feet. This is expected to allow 10,000-ton ocean-going cargo ships and passenger liners to navigate 1,500 miles inland to Chongqing.

To Be Submerged

Dozens of cities and towns, hundreds of villages, 650 factories.

More than 200,000 acres of cropland and forests.

Archaeological sites dating from before 2000 B.C. to 1900.


  • Stage 1 (1993 to 1997):

    1993: Start of construction of river diversion berm.

    1994: Resettlement program begins. Construction begins on the foundation for the main dam and temporary locks so ships can go up the river during construction.

    November 1997: Opening of diversion dam; this lays bare the Yangtze's main channel for the construction of the dam and hyropower plant and locks.

  • Stage 2 (1998 to 2006):

    Construction of the dam with the flood discharge system and the hydroelectric plant.

    First 14 generators to go on line between 2003 and 2006.

  • Stage 3 (2004 to 2009):

    Construction of the two five-stage locks and ship lifts on the river's north bank.

    An additional 12 generators to go on line in 2009, reaching full capacity.

    Facts about the Yangtze and Three Gorges

    Sources: China's Three Gorges Construction Committee, Probe International, International Rivers Network, World Bank

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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