Progress and the Yangtze River
National Geographic’s Rivers and Life is a four part program focusing on the changing character of four of the world’s most important water ways; the Rhine, Amazon, Nile, and Yangtze Rivers. Each of these waters is being changed by human development and changing environmental conditions. They also provide a case study of the effects on local ecological systems as well as the populations that rely on them for food and water. Communities cannot survive long if the waters on which they rely fail them and environmental change may cause such failures to come faster than we can possibly prepare for.
The Yangtze runs through the heart of China, 6000km from the plateaus of Tibet to the shores of Shanghai, and is the key to the country’s survival and prosperity. The powerful waterway has a love-hate relationship with the Chinese; the river is the most trafficked river in the world but its annual flood have killed over 300,000 people in the last century alone. Mega-engineering projects have been put underway to control the massive water flows and to protect the populations downstream. Projects like the Three Gorges Dam generate enormous quantities of hydroelectricity and control the river, but the impacts on river environments are catastrophic. Rising water levels upstream of the dam have forced more than 2 million Chinese citizens to flee their homes and the lives they have known. Downstream, the rivers banks are being eroded at alarming rates and the sediment that once restored then is trapped behind the still waters of the dam. In particular, the river delta in Shanghai is receding due to the millions of tons of silt that fails to pass through the Three Gorges Dam.
The mentality of changing the land and controlling rivers through engineering projects owes its roots to Europe and much of its recent history to the United States, but the work of engineers in China is a revolution. Rapid economic growth and the focused resources created by the communist regime have allowed China to build at a rate that surpasses any in human history. To China’s government, progress knows no limit and will stop for nothing and no one, not even the Earth itself, but it would be foolish to believe the Yangtze is willing to cooperate.
The river provides the water and natural nutrients that sustain the world’s largest population. Like many rivers around the world, the Yangtze keeps its flood land fertile by depositing sediment, making for rich farmland and ideal for rice production. But just as the river gives, it takes away with a brutal vitality. The energy driving sudden floods is great enough to destroy one town after another. The damage of a 1997 flood left thousands homeless and cost an estimated $30 billion. In this light, it is not unreasonable for the government to respond by damming the river to control its flow to prevent such catastrophe from destroying so many lives again.
The damming of the Yangtze began in 1994 with the approval of the Three Gorges Dam. Few argue that the dam will fail to control the flow, but many opponents to the project have raised the alarm regarding the dam’s location along a seismic fault line. Dams on fault lines pose two major risks: firstly, that if the dams fails as a result of an earthquake, populations downstream will be simply wiped out without warning, and second, that the weight of water trapped behind the dam will exert such force on the earth that many geologists argue an earthquake is exponentially more likely to occur. Engineers assert that the dam will withstand a 7.0 earthquake, but we cannot fully understand how the soil will behave under these conditions. Also, it is already estimated that so much water is trapped behind the world’s dams that the earth is more asymmetrical (and thus changing its inertia), causing the rotation to slow (slightly) much like an ice-skater coming out of a tight spin. As the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam will certainly add to this effect.
Ultimatly, the dam has achieved its goal of taming the wild Yangtze River, preventing major flooding and providing a boom to commercial traffic. Also, small upstream towns have been turned into bustling metropolises; places that were once isolated are now connected to the modern world and powered by the dam’s generators. But to praise such progress as triumph is to ignore the loss. To date, 13 cities, 140 town, and 1,300 villages have been washed away by rising waters. The communist government has to do little more than reclaim the land from the Chinese citizens that are renting it; there is no private land ownership in China. Though the government has put millions of dollars into efforts so save important building, many historic, architectural, and cultural lands now reside on the river floor.
The Chinese are quickly learning another lesson from their rapid progress; that industrialization is synonymous with pollution. Water and air pollution from transportation and factories is unprecedented in these newly formed cites. The populations producing the pollution are threatening themselves as well as smaller communities that still rely on the Yangtze’s waters to drink, cook, and fish. Most residential sewage, shipping waste, and manufacturing waste is dumped into the river untreated. More than 40% of all China’s waste ends up in the Yangtze. The presence of the Three Gorges Dams only exasperates the problem by preventing waste from readily flowing to the sea. The conditions look grim as polluted water accumulates with no hope of being washed away as it once was. In other words, the problem will continue to worsen as long as the dam exists.
The Yangtze is a dying river. Aggressive industrialization and the Three Gorges Dam have enabled unprecedented growth and unstoppable pollution. The fish are dying off; previously staple food sources are dwindling and many species are on the verge of extinction. The river’s future is in question and only time will tell its fate. Of course this isn’t an isolated incident. Rivers around the world are being dammed and the energy they produce is being praised as green and clean. In reality, this is an oversimplification. The only way large rivers have ever been able to cope with human pollution is by flushing themselves. Dams remove that one natural mechanism.
Perhaps China has stumbled upon a new form of population control: destroying the homes, killing the food, and polluting the water supply of its central vein. The Yangtze River cannot take much more before it will cease to provide life to the Chinese altogether.
Respect the waters of life.
Source: National Geographic – Rivers and Life, Yangtze RiverThis entry was posted by in Conservation, Environment, To Learn, Water Resources and tagged china, development, environmental degradation, floods, pollution, three gorges dam, water pollution, water resources, Yangtze River, yangtze river dolphin.