Three Gorges Dam, China

Three Gorges Dam, one of the most impressive energy-related projects undertaken by the Chinese government in the last decades, has caused a great amount of controversy because of its environmental and socio-cultural impacts. Some of the issues caused by this massive hydropower plant include land degradation, an increased risk of flooding, and the resettlement of 1.27 million people[1].

Pedro Vásquez Colmenares, Three Gorges Dam. July 18, 2007, Digital Image. Available from: Flickr, (accessed November 28, 2014).
Pedro Vásquez Colmenares, Three Gorges Dam. July 18, 2007, Digital Image. Available from: Flickr, (accessed November 28, 2014).


Despite governmental attempts to censor criticism through the Chinese Propaganda Department[2], journalists and scientists were active in expressing their concerns over the project’s negative effects on its natural setting and on the large populations it displaced. Less opportunity to speak out has been given to those who were affected, rural women in particular. Within the sea of commentaries on the Three Gorges Dam, the voices of displaced rural women are difficult to find, an inkling of the consistent marginalization they have had to face.

Rural resettlers, a social group already marginalized by China’s hukou system[3], were greatly impacted in the process as many of them experienced an unequal distribution of compensation for resettlement. At the beginning, they were guaranteed fair compensation by officials, who optimistically stated that relocation would go smoothly[4].


Linda Butler, Carpenter's Home in Ruins. February 2, 2011, Digital Image. Available at (accessed November 28, 2014).
“Carpenter’s Home in Ruins” (Butler 2011)

In reality, rural resettlers were deliberately allocated only 20% of the total compensation funds from the outset of the project[5], even though they represented 42.7% of the total migrant population[6]. Moreover, they were allocated lands of low quality, often situated on slopes angled at more than 25 degrees and composed of largely infertile soil, which made their principal occupation, farming, exceedingly difficult[7].

Their participation in the decision-making process was also often inconsequential and mostly restricted to men: an overwhelming majority of 85% of family representatives addressed by the officials in the resettlement process was male[8], while the voices of women often remained unheard.

Another form of discrimination affecting female rural residents in the resettlement process was their “restricted entitlement to ‘resettler’ status,”[9] specifically in counties given insufficient funds. These women without ‘resettler’ status were not offered any reimbursement for their losses.

In spite of China’s equal laws for both genders[10], social conventions which enforce disempowering gender norms have led to the continued oppression of women in rural areas like those affected by the Three Gorges Project.

Many rural women are affected by the “feminization of the agriculture,”[11] a social pressure enabling men to take jobs in non-agricultural industries and forcing women to undertake agricultural professions. In rural regions like the Three Gorges, jobs in agriculture are predominantly reserved for women and even young girls, who are pushed to withdraw from school in order to participate in farming activities. This results not only in lower incomes but also in lower levels of education.

Therefore, due to their lack of education, rural women are more likely than men to suffer from impoverishment post-resettlement. They encounter greater obstacles in finding non-farming jobs[12], thereby facing severe disadvantages in their readjustment to their new locations, particularly in non-agricultural territories[13].

Jonathan Kos-Read, View From My Hotel Window. December 3, 2012, Digital Image. Available from (accessed November 29, 2014).

The Three Gorges Dam is in fact part of a long history of social injustice embodied in the hukou household registration. According to this system, every citizen is assigned to one of the following two pairs of categories – rural versus urban and agricultural versus non-agricultural – which embody the systemic oppression of rural agricultural populations in two ways:

  1. Urban populations enjoy social benefits their rural counterparts have no access to: welfare, medical care, pensions, education for children, lower prices for basic items, cheap assigned housing, jobs in the secondary and tertiary sectors, and others.
    • For example, in Shanghai and Quingdao, people of rural origins are prohibited from exercising as many as 23 professions like managers, telephone operators, cashiers, hotel attendants, etc.)[14].
  2. Farmers face extreme difficulties if they desire to change their hukou status. Although many rural dwellers have migrated, many of them forced by the Three Gorges resettlement process, their registration status was not changed which has made urban life hard and costly.
    • For example, rents for rural migrants are much higher than for urban residents, forcing people with rural hukou status to move to bad neighborhoods and live in dubious conditions below sanitary standards[15].

Beyond financial and institutional difficulties, rural migrants also struggle with the prejudiced attitudes of permanent urban residents whose perspective on migration is distorted by negative stereotypes portraying rural people as “the major source of crime and violence, (…) causing crowding and violating family planning policies.”[16]

These policies effectively preclude the proper integration of rural populations into an urban setting and perpetuate an intentional and sharp urban-rural segregation through institutionalized inequalities and governmental constraints on social mobility.

NASA Earth Observatory, Three Gorges Dam China. June 8, 2009, Digital Image. Available at (accessed November 28, 2014).


The resettlement process is very tightly linked to the environmental changes triggered by the dam’s construction, particularly to the issue of land erosion. The initial policy for relocation allocated lands on the mountains and hills surrounding the river to most of the rural residents, in order to avoid changes in the hukou of farmers.

Rough terrains occupy most of the territory around the reservoir, 74% of which is mountainous and 21.7% hilly[17], a feature which rendered the lands quite inappropriate for the original near-relocation plans. The area was already highly deforested and overused – 34% of it was already cultivated, much more than the 10% national average[18] – which made it particularly prone to phenomena like landslides.

Massive deforestation was necessary to improve the lands’ usability for agriculture and availability for resettlement. However, it was also highly problematic due to the area’s tectonic predisposition to earth movements.

International Rivers, Three Gorges Landslide. July 2, 2009, Digital Image. Available at (accessed November 28, 2014).
“Three Gorges Landslide” (International Rivers 2009).

Removing forests destabilized the soil and thereby led to a steep increase in the threat of landslides. Currently, 90% of the reservoir area is affected by soil erosion and, according to a 2002 study, more than 100,000 people inhabit lands endangered by landslides and mud-rock flows[19], a disturbing proof of the intermingling of the environmental and social impacts of the Three Gorges Dam.


According to Mohai et al., environmental injustice can be explained from three points of view: economic, sociopolitical, and racial[20]. Each of these offer a different interpretation of the fact that most of the burden of energy-related projects falls disproportionately on population already marginalized (due to its class, socioeconomic status, race, gender, etc.).

  • Economic explanation: Injustice is caused unintentionally by the industry in its quest for minimizing cost and maximizing profits
  • Sociopolitical explanation: Injustice results from the industry’s interest in placing power plants where they can least be opposed and where people essentially have the least means to resist such decisions
  • Racial explanation: environmental injustice stems from blatant and historically-produced racism.[21]

However, the setting of the Three Gorges project can hardly be explained as the result of any of these three types of discriminatory reasoning.

In fact, the dam and reservoir are situated in an area inhabited by both privileged and marginalized populations (in China’s case, urban dwellers and rural residents, respectively), within the culturally and touristically significant Three Gorges where the Yangtze River carves its way into breathtakingly beautiful mountains.

Andrew Hitchcock, Dusk on the River. July 30, 2002, Digital Image. Available at (accessed November 29, 2014).
“Dusk on the River” (Hitchcock 2002).

This project therefore does not fit in the pattern of energy power plants deliberately placed at the margins of society. The decisions behind its setting were based on considerations different from the aforementioned types of discriminatory motives that factored in the construction of many power plants in the U.S. and around the world: it seems most likely that the choice to build the Three Gorges Dam at that spot was driven by technical reasons of engineering, efficiency, and water control.

In this case, then, the injustice lies not in the project’s siting, but in its management. The detrimental effects of resettlement yielded from practices of discrimination enforced through the hukou system of social regulation which, deeply embedded in China’s authoritarian regime, has marginalized rural populations.

Nevertheless, unjust approaches to the compensation of those affected by the inundation of dam areas are not unique to China. They have also occurred in other developing countries such as Panama, at the Chan 75 and Bonyic dams[22], or India, at the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada Valley[23]. These instances of mishandling relocation and reimbursement of involuntary resettlers indicate that development energy-related projects perpetuate environmental injustice regardless of the economic and political systems that serve as background.

Therefore, while initiatives to steer developing economies towards renewable forms of energy production are certainly admirable, their management causes inestimable harm due to the dangers inherent to artificially rapid economic growth.

Marshall Segal, Three Gorges Dam in 2008. September 1, 2008, Digital Image. Available at (accessed November 29, 2014).
“Three Gorges Dam in 2008” (Segal 2008).


China continues to build mega-hydropower plants in its quest to increase the country’s hydro capacity beyond the target of 290 GW set in the latest five-year plan as part of its “war against pollution.”[24] Hydroelectricity has its advantages compared to fossil fuels, but hydropower plants also have their own flaws, as the Three Gorges Dam demonstrates.

This project can teach us valuable lessons for the future. The Three Gorges Dam could and perhaps should be taken as a precedent for the changes to come as China and the world slowly move toward renewable sources of energy.

To view the entire paper, click here.


[1] Xi, J., Hwang. S.-S. (2011). “Relocation Stress, Coping, and Sense of Control Among Resettlers Resulting from China’s Three Gorges Dam Project.” Social Indicators Research, 104(3), 507-522.

[2] Salazar, J. G. (2000). “Damming the Child of the Ocean: The Three Gorges Project.” The Journal of Environmental Development, 9(2), 160-174. [See also Qing, D. (1993). “The Three Gorges Dam Project and Free Speech in China.” Chicago Review, 39(¾), 275-278.]

[3] Tan, (2008). Resettlement in the Three Gorges Project. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

[4] Ren, Q. (1998). “Discussing Population Resettlement with Li Boning.” In Qing, D. (Ed.), The River Dragon has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China’s Yangtze River and Its People (pp. 39-62). Armonk, NY: Probes International, 1998.

[5] Tan (2008).

[6] Tan, Y., Yao, F. (2006). “Three Gorges Project: Effects of Resettlement on the Environment in the Reservoir Area and Countermeasures.” Population and Environment, 27(4), 351-371.

[7] Tan (2008).

[8] Tan (2008).

[9] Tan (2008).

[10] Tan (2008).

[11] Tan (2008).

[12] Tan (2008).

[13] Tan (2008).

[14] Heming, L., Waley, P., Rees, P. (2001). “Reservoir Resettlement in China: Past Experience and the Three Gorges Dam.” The Geographical Journal, 167(3),195-212.

[15] Tan (2008).

[16] Tan (2008).

[17] Tan & Yao (2006).

[18] Tan & Yao (2006).

[19] Tan & Yao (2006).

[20] Mohai, P., Pellow, D., Roberts, J.T. (2009). “Environmental Justice.” Annual Review of Environment and Resource, 34, 405-430.

[21] Mohai et al. (2009).

[22] Finley-Brook, M. and Thomas, C. (2011). “Renewable Energy and Human Rights Violations: Illustrative Cases from Indigenous Territories in Panama.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101(4), 863-872.

[23] Tan (2008).

[24] Stanway, D. (2014, March 10). “China falling behind on 2020 hydro goals as premier urges new dam building.” Reuters. Retrieved from


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