The magazine of the art-form of the photo-essay
Apr 2016 back issue
The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River Valley
by Steven Benson
A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous! Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film & documentary maker
The desire to build a dam across the Yangtze River 610 feet high and 1.3 miles long - creating a reservoir 50 miles longer than Lake Michigan in a densely populated area struck me as an example of how flaws in our perceptual system, concerning space and time, can cause immeasurable harm.  If the political officials that supported this project lived anywhere near the dam they would not have voted for it – space; if they believed something tragic would go wrong with the dam during their lifetimes they would not have voted in favor of it - time. One politician stated to her colleagues that if the dam failed we will, ”be remembered as criminals for a thousand years.”  The largest concrete object on the planet will ultimately force more than 2 million people to vacate their ancestral homes and disrupt the lives of the 30 million people living in the reservoir region. Half of the more than two million people being forced to relocate are farmers and only 40 percent 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 in Wushan said to me, “The government thinks we can survive on eating rocks and mud soup.” The government said the dam would help to control the devastating flooding problems during the rainy season, allow ocean going vessels to travel to the heart of China - one of the poorest regions of the country and generate much needed electricity.  Tragically, none of these goals were realized.  The dam cannot prevent flooding 1,500 miles downstream to the East China Sea caused by the tributaries;  the largest ocean going vessels cannot travel up-stream of the dam because several bridges were not built high enough for safe passage; the dam was so expensive to build the government has to subsidize the cost of the electrical power or it would not be affordable. What stood out to me were the recommendations of engineers from inside and outside of the country who informed the Chinese government that everything they wanted the Three Gorges Dam to do can be accomplished with four smaller dams constructed on tributaries of the Yangtze River avoiding the social and environmental disaster which was sure to follow.  But, if the government chose this method they couldn’t say they have built the largest hydro-electric dam in the world.  In the end, like the Pharaohs and their pyramids, the collective ego of the Chinese government wanted to build a monument honoring themselves no matter the cost. In addition to this social cost, the reservoir has covered 250,000 acres of China's most fertile farmland which until now has produced 40 percent of China’s grain and 70 percent of it’s 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 it’s borders. 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 time the reservoir was filled in 2003 only 20 percent of the residential and industrial waste entering the Yangtze River system is treated. Professor Lu Jianjian, at East China Normal University and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, has stated in March 2006 that the Yangtze River is 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.  Now ten-years after his prediction the Yangtze River has never been more polluted.  The Yangtze River Dolphin has already disappeared.  Seventy-five million people depend on the river for fishing and farming to survive. This photo essay represents a story about one individual’s experience traveling the 400 miles of the Yangtze River valley in 1999, documenting the way life was before the reservoir buried 13 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.
New Harbor, Chongqing.
Flooding, Chongqing.
Smoking, Chongqing.
Bamboo Factory, Changshou.
Welders’ Assistant, Li-Dou.
Friends, Fuling.
Gate Guard, Fuling.
Boat Captain, Son Fengjie.
Farmers House.
Rain, Daning River.
Water Depth, Wushan.
Farming, New City, Zigui.
Under New Bridge, Sanxia City, China.
Workers on Break, Three Gorges Dam.
Three Gorges Dam.
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