Introduction to the Dam

Three Gorges Dam, China is the world’s largest hydroelectric facility. In 1994, work on the project started with the goal of not only creating power to fuel China’s rapid economic expansion but also controlling the country’s longest river, protecting millions of people from deadly floods, and elevating the project to a point of great technological achievement and national pride. Initially, the entire project took about two decades to complete, Construction on the Three Gorges Dam was completed in 2008 it cost 200 billion yuan ($28.6 billion). The dam is significantly larger than Brazil’s 12,600MW Itaipu facility, standing 185 meters tall and 2,309 meters wide as one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world.

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The Yangtze River and the hydropower development in the main stem_©

NSPD: Water Quality, Ecosystems

Stakeholder Types: Federated state/territorial/provincial government, Sovereign state/national/federal government, Local Government, Environmental interest, Community or organized citizens.

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The Yangtze River with dam layout_©​​

Sun Yat-sen first stated his plan to construct the dam in 1919. In addition to endorsing the project to mitigate the ongoing threat of flooding, Mao Zedong also revealed his plan to construct the dam in one of his most well-known poems, “Swimming” (1956). At the end of the first phase, two Chinese equipment vendors were crucial. 

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master layout of the dam_©

Working with the two foreign groups, Harbin Power Equipment and Dongfang Electrical Machinery benefited from stringent technology transfer rules. Dongfang collaborated with the Voith General Electric and Siemens consortium, while Harbin worked with the Chinese company Oriental Motor and the Alstom, ABB, and Kvaerner grouping. Nearly the construction of the final two units of the first phase took place in China. Chinese groups were given construction chores. Contracts totaling $800 million were awarded to Gezhouba Share Holding, Yichang Qingyun Hydropower Joint Management, and Yichang Three Gorges Project Construction 378 Joint Management just before the equipment announcements. The powerplant and dikes were constructed as part of the work.

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construction at Three Gorges Dam project_© ​​Chris debode

Time of Construction 

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construction at Three Gorges Dam project at 135 meters_© ​​Chris debode

Because the Three Gorges Project needed to manage flood discharge on a massive scale, if a typical architecture of the flood-discharge orifices had been used, a large leading edge would have been needed for the discharge sections. The length of the flood-discharge dam sections had to be as short as possible while still meeting the requirements of energy dissipation and anti-scouring due to the large installed capacity of the power station and the large number of installed units. In addition, construction diversion and navigation needed to be considered.

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construction at Three Gorges Dam project at 135 meters_© ​​Chris debode

Excavation and earth-filling 

To build the plant, 102.83 million cubic meters of rock and soil had to be excavated, and 31.98 million cubic meters had to be filled in.

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excavation at Three Gorges Dam project at 135 meters_© ​​Chris debode

Concrete and metal placement 

Additionally, 27.94 million cubic meters of concrete had to be placed, and a 256,500-ton metal frame had to be installed. 

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workers on shiplocks _© ​​Chris debode

Hydro turbine generator 

Production of hydroelectric power started small in 2003 and grew steadily as more turbine generators were added over the years until 2012 when all 32 of the dam’s turbine generator units were in use. With those units and two more generators, the dam could produce 22,500 megawatts of energy, making it the world’s most productive hydroelectric dam. With an annual power generating volume of 111.88 terawatt hours in 2020, the hydropower project set a new world record.

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Longitudinal section along the waterway system of the Three Gorges Underground Power Station _©

The Three Gorges Dam is a gravity structure made of concrete that is straight-crested and spans 2,335 meters (7,660 feet) with a maximum height of 185 meters (607 feet). Its design calls for 463,000 metric tons of steel and 28 million cubic meters (37 million cubic yards) of concrete. Large portions of the Qutang, Wu, and Xiling gorges are submerged by the dam for around 600 km (375 miles) upstream. 

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Construction of the underground power station placed on top of the generators. ©

This creates a massive deepwater reservoir that enables oceangoing freighters to travel 2,250 km (1,400 miles) inland on the East China Sea from Shanghai to the inland city of Chongqing. The complex’s five-tier ship locks, which let vessels weighing up to 10,000 tons pass the dam, and ship lift, which enables vessels weighing up to 3,000 tons to bypass the ship locks and pass the dam more rapidly, aid in the navigation of the dam and reservoir. The lift was the largest ship lift in the world when it was finished in late 2015. It measured 120 meters (394 feet) long, 18 meters (59 feet) broad, and 3.5 meters (11 feet) deep.

Context and debate surrounding the Three Gorges Dam

The concept for the Three Gorges Dam was first floated by Chinese Nationalist Party leaders in the 1920s. However, it gained fresh momentum in 1953 when Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader, ordered feasibility assessments of several locations. In-depth project planning started in 1955. The dam was not without its critics, despite the claims of its supporters that it would prevent catastrophic floods along the Yangtze, ease inland trade, and supply much-needed electricity for central China. The Three Gorges project was criticized from the moment the designs were put forth until they were completed. 

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China’s national observatory restored a yellow alarm for rainstorms as unremitting deluges would keep on unleashing devastation in tremendous stretches of the nation. Three lower floodgates of the Three Gorges Dam opened to discharge the floodwater ©

The threat of a dam collapse, the 1.3 million people (some critics claimed the number was closer to 1.9 million) who were uprooted from over 1,500 cities, towns, and villages along the river, and the devastation of numerous unique architectural and archaeological sites along with breathtaking landscapes were among the main issues. 

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Residents play in the flooded Jiangtan Park as daily life for residents gradually returns to normal ©getty image

In addition, there were worries—some of which came true—that the reservoir would become contaminated by industrial and human waste from towns and that the massive volume of water it contained may cause landslides and earthquakes. Several smaller, far less expensive, and less problematic dams on the Yangtze tributaries, according to some Chinese and foreign engineers, could produce as much electricity as the Three Gorges Dam and regulate flooding almost as effectively. Building those dams, would, they claimed, allow the government to fulfill its top priorities without taking unnecessary chances.

An Environmental Catastrophe?

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Residents and soldiers helping to clean gorges ©

Chinese officials assert that the Three Gorges Dam has been successful in preventing floodwaters from spreading, despite the destruction. China Three Gorges Corporation, the dam’s operator, informed China’s official news agency Xinhua that 18.2 billion cubic meters of potential floodwater had been caught by the dam. 

The dam “effectively reduced the speed and extent of water level rises” on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, an official from the water resources ministry told the state-run publication China Youth Daily. However, some geologists claim that the poor effectiveness of the Three Gorges Dam in preventing flooding has been exposed, given that numerous gauging stations monitoring river flows in the Yangtze basin are witnessing record-high water levels this summer it involved uprooting over a million people along the Yangtze River.

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due to overflowing of rivers villages across the Yangtse basin have experienced flooding ©Reuters

Furthermore, the government’s claim that the dam could shield the nearby villages from a “once-in-a-century flood” has been contested on multiple occasions. The Yangtze basin experienced its highest average rainfall in over 60 years since June, which led to the river and its numerous tributaries overflowing, reinforcing those fears. Over 158 persons have lost their lives or disappeared, 3.67 million residents have had to relocate, and 54.8 million individuals have been impacted, resulting in horrifying financial losses of 144 billion yuan ($20.5 billion).

Satellite images comparing the Yangtze river in 1987 and 2006 ©

Concerns about sustainable development and proper water management have surfaced internationally due to the project’s far-reaching effects. All of the measures as mentioned earlier place a strong emphasis on cooperative fact-finding, mutual benefits discussions, technical expertise, inclusion, transparency, and collaborative adaptive management, all of which are progressively enhancing Chinese governance in the areas of water management and dam construction.


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Hvistendahl, M. (2013) China’s Three Gorges Dam: An environmental catastrophe? Scientific American. Available at: (Accessed: 28 December 2023). 

Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric power plant, China (2021) Power Technology. Available at: (Accessed: 01 December 2023). 

Three Gorges Dam (2023) Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: (Accessed: 01 December 2023). 

Gan, N. (2020) China’s Three Gorges Dam is one of the largest ever created. was it worth it? CNN. Available at: (Accessed: 01 December 2023). 

 (2022)The Three Gorges Project. Available at: (Accessed: 01 December 2023). 


A recent graduate, passionate about learning tangible and intangible concepts and ideas relating to space, time and people, is mostly interested in looking at how built spaces is a medium of cultural and social identity. Architecture for her is constant search. she is interested in representing built designs better with graphics,drawings and writing.