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Why the World's Biggest Hydroelectric Dam Is Still an Environmental Disaster

It's worth wondering if Three Gorges Dam can ever really be a net positive.

by Ben Richmond
Aug 1 2014, 6:00pm

Wikimedia Commons/Dan Kamminga

Its construction displaced 1.24 million people, flooded hundreds of ancient archeology sites, and could be filtering out sediment to the detriment of people downriver, but the Three Gorges Dam's upside is finally showing up: it's taken a big chunk out of China's coal consumption. Even so, Three Gorges is still an environmental disaster.

According to an article published by Bloomberg today, "At full power, Three Gorges reduces coal consumption by 31 million tonnes per year, avoiding 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, millions of tonnes of dust, one million tonnes of sulfur dioxide, 370,000 tonnes of nitric oxide, 10,000 tonnes of carbon monoxide, and a significant amount of mercury."

But there's another set of superlative statistics haunting the Three Gorges Dam. "The massive project sets records for number of people displaced (more than 1.2 million), number of cities and towns flooded (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages), and length of reservoir (more than 600 kilometers)," the NGO International Rivers's website states

It's the world's largest hydroelectric power station, but environmentalists and other NGOs have objected to the project since plans for the dam were approved in 1992 due to the large numbers of people it would displace, and the pollution that comes from flooding a bunch of industrial towns. Chinese officials even admitted that it was causing earthquakes.

As much as it hardly seems to offset all of these concerns, Three Gorges is weaning the world's largest consumer of coal off the stuff, ever so slightly. That 31 million tonnes of coal Three Gorges replaced pales in comparison to China's coal usage, which totaled 3549 million tonnes in 2012. With energy demand growing, coal isn't going away any time soon.

In the first half of 2014, China's hydroelectric capacity grew by 13 gigawatts, the equivalent of 26 million tons of coal. More than enough new power to light a whole Hong Kong, Bloomberg said that it's the biggest expansion since "at least 2009." Along with Three Gorges on the Yangtze river, China built two more big dams on the Jinsa river, which add 20 gigawatts of capacity to the country's total.

The coal industry isn't really sweating it yet, as trade in the stuff is still going to grow this year. Even as the amount of coal that China imports is projected to be cut in half by 2018, China's neighbors—India, South Korea, and Japan—are going to keep importing and burning it.

Three Gorges is up and running, and after ten years it's going to pay off its staggering $39 billion price tag, once its produced 1,000 terawatt hours of power. But after triggering landslides, altering entire ecosystems, and causing other serious human rights and environmental problems, it's worth wondering if Three Gorges Dam can ever really be a net positive.

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