NASA Images of China’s Three Gorges Dam Reveals Flooding

China’s infamous Three Gorges Dam is the largest hyrdoelectric project in the world and potentially the biggest environmental tragedy. It has been criticized by environmentalists and human rights advocates since its inception in 1992. The Three Gorges Dam was completed in 2006 on the Yangtze River, and NASA has released images of the flooding reservoir behind the dam which has displaced 1.2 million people.

NASA image of Three Gorges Dam reservoir flooding

NASA image of Three Gorges Dam reservoir flooding / Image by NASA Earth Observatory

Taken by astronauts at the International Space Station, images of the Three Gorges Dam reveals “the river is filling up its valley behind the dam to form a narrow reservoir extending more than 600 kilometers.” NASA images from 2000 and 2006 show the changes that have occurred to the Yangtze, especially when compared to the current photographs of the flooding taken in April 2009. The reservoir was filled in three stages, with the last stage occurring in 2009.

After many years of denial, the Chinese government is expressing concern about the environmental consequences of the dam. Scientific American reports:

Chinese officials staged a sudden about-face, acknowledging for the first time that the massive hydroelectric dam, sandwiched between breathtaking cliffs on the Yangtze River in central China, may be triggering landslides, altering entire ecosystems and causing other serious environmental problems-and, by extension, endangering the millions who live in its shadow.

International Rivers warns the environmental impact will be severe and cumulative:

The environmental impacts of the project are profound, and are likely to get worse as time goes on. The submergence of hundreds of factories, mines and waste dumps, and the presence of massive industrial centers upstream are creating a festering bog of effluent, silt, industrial pollutants and rubbish in the reservoir. Erosion of the reservoir and downstream riverbanks is causing landslides, and threatening one of the world’s biggest fisheries in the East China Sea. The weight of the reservoir’s water has many scientists concerned over reservoir-induced seismicity.

Unfortunately, even though the Chinese government recognizes the environmental concerns of the Three Gorges Dam, they are “replicating this model both domestically and internationally.” From earthquakes to landslides, the increase in water pressure from flooding the Three Gorges resevoir to its full capacity in 2009 could have devasting consequences. Already, relocated villagers have to be moved again because “officials failed to foresee the full magnitude of the dam’s effects.” To move forward with other dam projects is irresponsible of the Chinese government without learning lessons from Three Gorges.

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Author: Jennifer Lance

  1. Rachel Carson wrote about ecology, and the relationship between the earth’s living things and their environment. The Three Gorges Dam is an example of how people tend not to think of themselves as participants in ecological systems. When mistakes like this are made, we are not only indirectly impacted by lost ecosystems. Our own health and our own livelihood are damaged.

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