Satellite Photos Raise Fears About Condition of Three Gorges Dam

The satellite images’ comparison of Three Gorges Dam in 2009 and 2018. (Image: Google Earth / Leng Shan)
The satellite images’ comparison of Three Gorges Dam in 2009 and 2018. (Image: Google Earth / Leng Shan)

Long questioned for its safety, the massive Three Gorges Dam in China has once again gained public attention. 

In recent weeks, Chinese Internet users have circulated Google Earth photos showing the condition of the dam in 2009 and in 2018. The dam appears straight in the earlier photo, but seems to have warped in the image from nine years later, suggesting that it has suffered some kind of damage. 

“A Chinese independent economist who posts on Twitter under the pseudonym Leng Shan shared two satellite images side-by-side on June 30: one taken 10 years ago shows that the dam structure is in a straight line; the other, taken in 2018, shows the dam has slight curvatures,” The Epoch Times reported on July 8. 

The Three Gorges, located in the southeastern province of Sichuan, is a geologically active region, with frequent earthquakes and landslides. The dam was completed in 2009 — construction began in 1994. It is considered to be politically linked to the late high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official Li Peng, who died on July 22. 

On July 8, the dam’s state-owned operator addressed public concerns by issuing a statement assuring that the dam was safe. But the company has kept the dam closed to visitors since July 5, only adding to the concerns. 

Hundreds of millions of people live in the Yangtze River Valley, China’s longest river, which flows downstream of the Three Gorges Dam. 

Hundreds of millions of people live in the Yangtze River Valley, China’s longest river, which flows downstream of the Three Gorges Dam. (Image: Michael Gwyther-Jones via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Hundreds of millions of people live in the Yangtze River Valley, China’s longest river, which flows downstream of the Three Gorges Dam. (Image: Michael Gwyther-Jones via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The Paper, a state-run media outlet, tried to assuage public fears in an article published July 2, featuring a July 2 interview with Cao Yi, the hub operation director in charge of drainage at the Three Gorges Dam. Cao claimed that the photos were inaccurate due to the variations in elevation in the region, which affected their appearance. 

The Paper later deleted the report, but it is preserved elsewhere. And on July 8, the China Three Gorges Corporation, which runs the dam, admitted via social media that the dam had suffered deformities, but that these were within safety margins. 

“By April 2019, the vertical movements of the dam foundation had cumulatively moved 1.45 to 26.69 millimeters (0.06 to 1.05 inches)… the horizontal movements cumulatively moved -0.24 to – 4.63 mm,” the state-run company said in its statement. 

Based on the warping seen in the satellite images, Chinese-German hydraulic engineer Wang Weiluo, who has studied the Three Gorges Dam for years, predicted that the dam would not last more than half a century from its construction. 

“Someday in the future, the Three Gorges Dam will break,” Wang wrote, his comments translated by The Epoch Times. “The deformity will shorten the dam’s lifespan and weaken its safety.”

Politics over reason

Construction of the dam was controversial from the outset, as its feasibility and safety had been severely questioned by experts since the project was first proposed in the 1950s. Even Mao Zedong, the dictator who founded communist China, reportedly opposed building the dam as it would create a military target for the regime’s enemies. 

But politics won out in the early 1990s, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Freshly appointed CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin, in an effort to curry favor with his colleagues, gave Li Peng, then Chinese premier, the green light for the project. 

According to many China watchers, Li wanted to take on the project as a way to boost his profile and perhaps repair his reputation, since he had played a major role in engineering the bloody events at Tiananmen. 

The Three Gorges Dam, in addition to being structurally unsound, also flooded 129 towns, forcing the relocation of 1.2 million people and the destruction of many ancient sites. 

The Three Gorges Dam forced the relocation of 1.2 million people and the destruction of many ancient sites. (Image: Hugh Llewelyn via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Three Gorges Dam forced the relocation of 1.2 million people and the destruction of many ancient sites. (Image: Hugh Llewelyn via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wang Weiluo said in his recent analysis that because the dam is composed of dozens of concrete blocks over a length of about a mile, but are not connected to the bedrock, the whole dam “has been moving since day one.”

“While some blocks moved toward the upstream direction due to the force of the water, others were moved toward downstream. But the vertical and horizontal movements are not at the same levels,” Wang wrote, explaining the cause of the deformity. Erosion due to rainfall was another factor. 

Wang analyzed all recently published satellite pictures released by Chinese state-run media — which showed the dam from different angles than Google Earth — and said: “These photos cannot certify that the dam was not deformed.”

Liu Chongxi, a prominent Chinese dam expert, pointed out in a 1994 article published in the official newspaper of the Yangtze River Academy of Sciences that the Three Gorges Dam could only be used for about 50 years. 

In the official obituary for Li Peng, who died aged 90, the Communist Party outwardly praised him. But China watchers noted that the obituary held Li responsible for both the Tiananmen Massacre, which was praised as a resolute action against “political disturbance,” and also “credited” him with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. 

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