Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

The Day the Earth Slowed Down: The Three Gorges Dam is damn big, and that’s not all

It is of mythical proportions, impossible to truly grasp. It makes mountains look like molehills and molehills look like very small piles of dust. That’s right, I’m talking about China’s 3 Gorges Dam, astride the Yangtze River in Hubei Province. More than just a mouthful.

Whence came the 3 Gorges Dam?

It is the year 1919 (not really, but in the story). FOMC Sun Yat-sen (that’s FOMC as in father of modern China, not fear of mad cows, or f*ck off mister chicken) sits atop his yak-wool cushion, admiring the earthenware tidbits that adorn his little non-imperial alcove. An idea strikes him, like a bullet to the ear. Holy moly, he thinks: I’ll build a dam.

He puts pen to paper, humming with ambition. Words are written: big, small, medium, all humming. Soon enough he has written a full article, the like of which has never been seen in all of contemporary China. In English, it is called ‘A Plan to Development Industry’, which is a bit clunky but gets to the point. He publishes it in The International Development of China which, again, clunky, but clear.

The gist is, he wants to build a great big dam to control the flooding of the Yangtze River and embody the ‘new might’ of China. Brilliant idea, they all said. Well, no they didn’t. Did they get to work on it straight away? Did they fuck.

Outsiders with bigger dicks

It was actually the Japanese who moved the thing along when, in 1939, they occupied Yichang and surveyed the area. They were so excited about the prospect of owning all of China that they commissioned and completed the Omani plan in anticipation of the big day.

Then, obviously, the United States weighed in with a my-dick’s-bigger-than-yours in the shape of John L. Savage, who did his own surveys and came up with his own proposals. This, he called the Yangtze River Project. 54 Chinese engineers went to the States for training. Unfortunately, however, the Chinese Civil War had other plans, shittier plans, and the project was put on hold in 1947.

Mao liked the dam, but wanted to do a different dam first. Then, in 1956, he (Mao Zedong, “Little red cook book, little red cook book!”) wrote a poem about dams and called it ‘Swimming’…

The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

A not so gorge-ous episode

When, soon after, some engineers spoke out against the project (and in so doing pooh-poohed his poem), Mao had them sent to labour camps. The government did not look favourably on those who dissented the dam. Jump forward to the Tiananmen protest of 1989, and journalist Dai Qing publishes ‘Yangtze, Yangtze’, a book of essays opposing the project.

Criticism of the project had as its backdrop a string of disasters that took place in Henan Province during a typhoon in 1975. A series of catastrophic structural failures caused the release of 600 million cubic metres of water — a wall of water 6 metres high and 12km wide. It was the third-largest flood in history, affecting a total population of over 10 million people. 3 million acres were inundated, 6.8 million houses collapsed, and as many as 240,000 people drowned or died in the wreckage.

Survivors became sick from contaminated water, and were trapped without food for many days. It was a sore point for quite some time.

But not too long! The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, and was finally approved in 1992.

It is not visible from space

We have a propensity to mythologise Chinese construction projects. Even the most gargantuan cannot be seen from space.

But it is motherflippin’ big

When the quantity of concrete is written down, it merits the use of standard form. It is more fun to use objects than measurements. Example: it took 63 Eiffel Towers worth of steel. Fun!

Clone the longest known animal ever to have lived on the earth (average female blue whale = 25m) and place 93 of them end to end, and you have the length of the dam. Fun!

The concrete used to construct the dam wall itself weighs approximately 6.5 million tons, which is about one and a half times the weight of the world’s heaviest civilian building.

But it is still less than half the reservoir flooded by the Itaipu Dam. Props, South America.

How well does it work?

The Three Gorges Dam is not the perfect dam. It is one of those things that arguably serves the greater good but means a lot of little people get ignored and really pissed off. A third of its budget was spent on relocating 1.2 million people out of its flood zone.

But it also provides energy to lots of people. The Three Gorges Dam has an estimated power output equivalent to a regular power station burning 25 million tons of crude oil a year. It generates 11 times more power than the Hoover Dam, Nevada. It could power the entirety of New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, Costa Rica, The Bahamas and Rwanda, combined (which, incidentally, is just 1.5% of China’s total energy consumption).

Well done on that count, but it could also be doing a lot of harm, causing a different kind of pollution. The region surrounding the Three Gorges Dam is home to thousands of plant, insect, fish and terrestrial vertebrate species. Landslides and water pollution threaten (read: throw into disarray) the interrelatedness of a bunch of unique ecosystems. The eco-stability of the region is, in a word, shat on by a heck ton of dirty water, which is good for business, but not so good for maintaining that which is cool.

So what’s all this about the earth slowing down?

Here’s the rub: when the Dam closes its doors to fill its reservoir, it accumulates a total of 38 trillion kg of water. While this is only a teeny proportion of the total weight of the earth, it is enough to have an effect… on the earth’s rotation. The maths has to do with moments of inertia and angular velocity. If you’re spinning on ice and you tuck your arms in, you’ll spin faster, and vice versa. Collecting such a weight of water in one location on the earth’s surface literally makes the earth spin slower. The crux is, it’s really damn big.

It increases the length of each day by 0.06 microseconds. Can you feel it? If you add up all those microseconds over a human lifetime, you’ll have approximately one and a half seconds to contemplate dams!



This article also appears on ONURBICYCLE,

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Bruno Cooke

UK author/journalist writing about long distance cycle trips, cultural differences and global politics. Visit