The Socio-Political History of China’s Three Gorges Dam

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Caitlynn Lindsay Beckett


Around the world, the construction of large-scale dams has become a controversial environmental issue. A significant example of such a dam is the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. The Yangtze River, considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, has fundamentally shaped Chinese livelihood, culture, transportation, and agriculture. Despite international and local dissent, as of 2012, the Three Gorges Dam has become a reality. Having fundamentally altered the river system, the biodiversity of the area is now threatened by flooded habitats upstream, drought downstream and a change in nutrient distribution. However, to better understand the reasoning behind the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, a deeper historical, cultural and political basis needs to be recognized. This paper will investigate how the specific history of China has led to the construction of the Dam. Throughout the 20th century, political leaders envisioned the Dam as a symbol of Chinese industrialization and modernization. Ironically, it was considered the ultimate achievement in China’s development. Communist views of mastery over nature played an important role in such political views. These views are not limited to China; the idea that humans should control nature for economic benefit is still evident throughout the world. Beyond the context of China, the Three Gorges Dam is a symbol of the larger systems that value economic benefit and industrialization over a sustainable environment.