Three Gorges Dam, China

FROM The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam
and the Yangtze River Valley
(Black Opal Press, 2006)


The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River Valley

The desire to build a dam across the Yangtze River 610 feet high and 1.3 miles long — creating a reservoir fifty miles longer than Lake Michigan in a densely populated area — struck me as an example of how flaws in our perceptual system can cause immeasurable harm. The largest concrete object on the planet will ultimately force more than four million people to vacate their ancestral homes and disrupt the lives of the 30 million people living in the reservoir region. All of this was decided in light of the fact that engineers worldwide told the Chinese government that everything they wanted the Three Gorges Dam to do could be accomplished by building four smaller dams on the Yangtze’s tributaries. But then, the Chinese government could not boast that they have built the largest hydroelectric dam in the world: like the Pharaoh’s pyramids, this dam was a monument to themselves — the rulers of China.

In addition to the social cost, the reservoir has covered 250,000 acres of China’s most fertile farmland which until now has produced 40% of China’s grain and 70% of its rice. The region is also an important source for citrus and fish. The Chinese military has expressed concerns about the rapid loss of farmland, noting that the country is becoming too dependent on food from outside its borders.

There was the distinct feeling of living in a Russian existential novel — watching people go about their daily routines all the while knowing that soon their lives will be forever changed as they are forced into an uncertain future.

There are 1,600 factories and manufacturing facilities in the reservoir area. Many of them have been burying toxic materials for the past 50 years. Scientists fear that lead, mercury, arsenic and dozens of other poisons (including radioactive waste), will leach out into the reservoir destroying aquatic life. At the present time only 20% of the residential and industrial waste entering the Yangtze River system is treated.

Lu Jianjian, a professor at East China Normal University and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, stated in March 2006 that the Yangtze River was becoming “cancerous” with pollution. He said if immediate action weren’t taken the river would be effectively dead in five years — unusable for drinking water or agriculture. 75 million people depend on the river for fishing and farming.

Half of the four million people being forced to relocate are farmers and only 40% of them are expected to receive new land. The problem is that all the good farmland is already in use. The land available for the relocated farmers is of poor quality. As one farmer said to me, “The government thinks we can survive on eating rocks and mud soup.”

This photo essay represents a story about the experience of an individual traveling the 400 miles of the Yangtze River valley in 1999, documenting the way life was before the reservoir buried thirteen cities, 140 towns and 1,342 villages. There was the distinct feeling of living in a Russian existential novel — watching people go about their daily routines all the while knowing that soon their lives will be forever changed as they are forced into an uncertain future.

It was very strange to imagine that the photographs I was making in 1999 would suddenly become “historic” records of a part of the world that would no longer exist as of June 10, 2003 when the reservoir filled. The disappearance of 36,000 square miles of our planet was not the result of an erupting Mt. Vesuvius — it was the result of the human decision-making process at its most destructive. It is my hope that this body of work, in conjunction with the photographs and written records of my colleagues, might somehow function as a warning to future generations to never make this mistake again.

— Steven Benson

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