The Three Gorges Dam was hailed as one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th Century.
In a show of raw power to China’s 1.3 billion people, the Communist Party, led by President Jiang Zemin, would tame the mighty Yangtze River, build the largest Dam in the world and displace 1.5 million people.
Translated as “Long River”, The Yangtze is over 6000 KM long. The longest in Asia and the third longest worldwide, and home to some of the highest bio-diversity on the planet. The river basin covers 1.8 millon sq km, some 18% of China’s landmass.
The unprecedented Dam project would prevent the flooding that frequently devestated central China. It would also create the world’s largest and most productive hydo-electric dam and open-up Central China to shipping.
Behind the 175-meter-high Dam a 600 kilometer-long ribbon-lake was created all the way to the “megacity” Chongqing, the capitol of Sichuan, and China’s most populous city.
Constuction required the displacement of one and a half million souls to make way for the project.
Thousands of traditional villages and towns along the fabled Yangtzte, and it’s tributaries were flooded. Large ominous signs were erected along the hillsides. Buildings below the 175-meter mark were ear-marked for evacuation.
In order to force the people away for good, entire towns were destroyed. Every building torn down. Inhabitants were not given compensation until their home was flattened.
New modern towns were built higher up the hillsides.
Some, myself included, concluded that the Communist Party wanted to flush away the traditional way of life that persisted in the Chinese heartland.
Several temples, including the 1700 year-old Yang Fei Temple, were re-built on higher ground but thousands-upon-thousands of historic buildings, and precious archeological sites, were destroyed and flooded.
I started visting the Three Gorges project in 1999 and returned several times including in 2006, when the flooding started, and again in 2010 when the flooding was complete. I travelled the 570 kilometrs from the Dam site, to Chong Qing, in both directions, hopping on and off ferries and later hydrofoils.
I witnessed farmers and locals rioting in protest at their land being confiscated, I saw farming dynasties forced from their centuries old land and bore witness as ancient townships were destroyed.
The Yangtze is now so polluted and the ecosystem so altered that the 200 fish species have all but vanished. With fishing now banned along most of the river, in an attempt to recover stocks, the 280,000 fishermen are jobless and destitute.
Locals were encouraged to move from their anscestoral home to other parts of China to look for work. Many, especially the old, returned penniless.
Twice I gained access to the Dam site itself, posing as a foreign engineer. It was then the largest construction site on the planet. More than 100 men died during contruction of the dam.
During my final visit, when the water had risen, I witnessed, the man-made, landslides and “mini-quakes” that cracked roads and buildings. Frequent landslides often destroyed farm and homes re-built on higher but unstable ground.
Environmentalists had been warning that the Three Gorges Dam project that was ill-suited for the Yangtze River basin for years before the project started.
In 2011 China admitted the Dam had caused widespread social and ecological damage.
Recent reports claim that the Dam itself is threatened as it struggles to cope with especially heavy seasonal rainfall that is getting more unpredictable with global warming.
The Communist Party admitted in July 2020 that the Dam itself has started moving. – ends
The project was shot with a mix of 35 mm B/W film on Nikon SLR and (digital) DSLR.
The project was supported by the Sunday Times (UK), South China Morning Post (Magazine), Asia Week, Rex Features (London) and Agence REA (Paris).