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The beautiful and the dammed in China

By Matthew Knight for CNN
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(CNN) -- The Chinese have long dreamt about taming the Yangtze River.

As far back as 1919, Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic proposed the dam as a way of providing energy for China's industrial development and to stop the constant flooding which had claimed thousands of lives over the years

Attempts to revive the project were tried throughout the 20th Century but it was only in 1993 that plans were approved and construction began at Yichang in the Hubei Province.

The scale of the project is breathtaking. When completed in 2009, at a total cost of $25 billion, the Three Gorges Dam will be the world's largest hydroelectric dam, generating almost a third more power than the Itaipu Dam -- currently the largest in the world -- on the Brazil-Paraguay border.

China's creation will churn out a massive 18,200 megawatts of power. That's as much power as 18 nuclear power plants.

To stem the flow of the Yangtze -- measuring 6,245 kilometers, it is the world's third longest river after the Nile and the Amazon -- engineers had to construct a barrier over 2,300 meters wide and 180 meters tall.

In all, over 27 million cubic meters of cement were used. To put that in perspective, when completed in 1936, the Hoover Dam required a mere 3.2 million cubic meters.

The resulting reservoir which stretches 600 kilometers upstream, will allow much larger commercial freighters (up to 10,000 tonnes) to penetrate deep into China's interior providing a further boost to trade.

But the monumental task of constructing the dam has come at a cost.

Ever since the reservoir began to fill up in 2003, the rising water levels have submerged more than 100 towns and thousands of acres of farming land along the Yangtze's banks leading to the displacement of over one million people.

New settlements have been provided by the Chinese Government but these have been beset by delays and criticized for being sub-standard.

As tens of thousands of home sink without trace, so to do more than 1,000 archaeological sites, including the homeland of the ancient Ba people.

The project had also been plagued by allegations of corruption and claims that the environmental impact on the area will be disastrous.

No attempt has been made to clear submerged industrial sites and their toxic materials, which has led to fears of water pollution. And when the water levels are lowered for five months each year, to accommodate the rainy season, it is feared that noxious fumes will consume the surrounding countryside.

Furthermore, Chinese meteorologists expect the dam will instigate a change in the climate, raising the local temperature by a third of a one degree Celsius.

American scientists have gone further, suggesting that it may even alter the climate as far away as Japan.

What cannot be denied though is that the Three Gorges Dam is a staggering engineering achievement and a potent symbol of Chinese ambitions to become the dominant economic superpower in the 21st Century.

Nearly 400 years after the Great Wall was completed, China has another wonder which is visible from space.

China's Three Gorges Dam will open in 2009.


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