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Three Gorges Dam

Shipping conditions on the formerly treacherous upper reaches of the Yangtze have improved considerably since construction work began on the Three Gorges dam. By summer 2009, when the project is completed, barge fleets of up to 10,000 dwt will be capable of sailing year-round all the way from Shanghai to Cuntan container terminal in Chongqing. The journey times between the two cities will be halved to a maximum of seven days.

The US$22bn project was originally conceived as a means of flood prevention, sparing the vast plains of China’s central provinces from the devastating annual bouts of flooding.

Another, secondary, purpose of the dam was the creation of a huge power-generating facility. By far the single largest electricity-generating facility in the world, the project accounts for 3 per cent of China’s current annual installed capacity. When it is fully completed, this clean source of power will be the equivalent of burning 50m tons of coal a year.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the importance now accorded it, the development of the new reservoir as a shipping channel and economic conduit to China’s interior took something of a backseat. As a result, early planners were rather neglectful when designing features into the dam that would allow ships to bypass it efficiently, a shortcoming that the central government is now struggling to correct.

The main problem lies in the design of the dam’s shiplock system. The dam’s 6.4km, five-step shiplocks lie in a narrow stretch parallel to the dam and drop 113 metres from the reservoir down to the lower Yangtze. The locks are slow to fill and already are incapable of satisfying existing shipping demand, let alone projected traffic flows. It takes an average of more than three hours for a vessel to pass the locks. As a result, a logjam of ships and barges regularly develops on either side of the dam.

When it goes into operation, the dam’s vertical hoisting shiplift will relieve pressure on the shiplocks by serving mainly passenger cruises. Believed to be the largest of its kind in the world, the shiplift will be able to lift two 3,000 dwt vessels at the same time.

When the Three Gorges Dam is fully operational, the water level will be manipulated over the course of the year to take account of fluctuating rainfall patterns. The level behind the dam was raised to 172.3 metres on 11 November at the culmination of a six-week trial storage operation. It will rise to its final operating level of 175 metres in 2009.

The building of the Three Gorges complex has had the greatest impact on the middle reaches of the river, between Yichang and Wuhan in Hubei province. This 624km stretch was famous for its many bends and some 20 major shoals. The regular storing and releasing of floodwater from the dam has changed the silting pattern of the riverbed, thereby exacerbating the difficult task of maintenance during the dry season.

Experts believe that the increasing incidence of earthquakes and landslides in the area may be caused by the rise of water levels in the dam reservoir, and that this could prove dangerous for shipping as well as for local residents.

In an attempt to address these issues, the authorities are seeking to improve operational management of the locks. The central government is pushing ahead with the vessel standardisation programme in the Three Gorges reservoir and the upper reaches of the river as a matter of priority, to facilitate the greatest number and size of vessels that can pass the locks at any one time.

Silting in the Three Gorges Dam itself is another danger. One of the world’s most silt-laden rivers, the Yangtze ranks number five globally in terms of sediment discharge. This raises concerns that, over time, silt accumulation will afflict the Three Gorges reservoir. The problem is set to worsen as China looks to build more hydropower stations in the water-rich southwest of the country.

More information on the Three Gorges Dam and its impact on shipping can be found in Chapter 5 of Yangtze Transport: Accessing China's Interior.
Three Gorges Dam, August 2006
Three Gorges shiplocks, August 2006
Shiplocks in operation, March 2007
Shiplocks by day, May 2007
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