The River and the Dam: Partners in Changing China

It was almost a century in the making — Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen first conceived of damming the Yangtze in 1919 — and was hugely controversial even after the government gave the go-ahead in 1992 for construction to start.

In May 2006 the enormous dam was finally finished: At 7,660 feet (almost a mile and half) long and 616 feet high, it is five times larger than the Hoover dam in the United States. It cost a reported $23 billion and at the height of construction, there were 30,000 laborers working on the site. It is not the biggest dam in the world — that title goes to Itaipu in Brazil — but it is the biggest hydroelectric project in the world. When all 32 generators are up and running it will have a capacity of 22,400 megawatts.

The Yangtze that the dam holds back goes by a variety of different names as it makes its 3,964-mile journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the sea. It is called Drichu in Tibetan, which means river of the female yak.

The Chinese name for the river at its source is Dangqu, which is derived from the Tibetan for marshy river. As it plunges down from the plateau, it is called Tongtian river — the river that passes to heaven — and then it is named Jinsha Jiang, the river of golden sand, from the yellow silt it washes down from the steep gorges.

The Long River

The English name Yangtze comes from an old Chinese name for just one lower stretch of the river that was named for a ferry crossing, Yangzi Jin. When Western missionaries first arrived in China and heard that name they used it to apply to the entire river — hence the Yangtze River. In Chinese today the Yangtze is called the "Chang Jiang," which simply means long river.

Backers of the dam say it will provide clean electric power that would otherwise have to be produced by polluting coal-fired generators. They also argue that the dam can reduce the perennial risk of flooding in the lower reaches of the river and that by deepening the reservoir it will permit ocean-going ships to travel inland to the city of Chongqing, spreading economic development to China's poorer western provinces.

Critics say the dam, by slowing down the river's flow, has increased pollution — nitrogen and phosphorous levels have gone up tenfold in the last decade, and sewage has doubled since 2000.

They also say the heightened water level has been causing a series of landslides, some deadly, along the steep banks of the Three Gorges upriver of the dam, and that has resulted in an increasing number of population centers to be evacuated. Others bemoan the number of cultural and archaeological treasures that have been submerged by the rising water level.

The dam is a breathtaking construction. I walked out across the top of the dam — on the northern side are the enormous ship locks — and it is fascinating to watch container ships and large tourist cruise ships shunt into the narrow locks and creak as they rise up or down with the water level. Because of the huge height differential there are five separate locks to go through; it takes about four hours in total for a ship to get through all five stages and move on up or down the river.