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Ethical Issues of The Three Gorges Dam

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 2401 words Published: 27th Aug 2021

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The role of an engineer in modern day society to respond to the needs of the general public by applying science and modern day engineering methods to follow a certain set of guidelines or specifications to deliver the customer needs. Most importantly, that the device, plan or creation should work up to guidelines and function without fail, and reach its level of performance. Hence, the engineer must work hard to design in such a way to avoid failure which could result in damage to people and to the environment, loss of property, injury or even death, that’s sometimes how dangerous engineering can be if safety precautions are taken and abided by to maintain the wellbeing of you and your fellow species. With every project taken upon by an engineer, they will learn more and more from past mistakes, every day so that they will come up with better designs which are more economical and beneficial in the long run. All engineers must accept their jobs involve a wider responsibility than simply application of their skills. Engineers must act in an ethical and morally responsible way if they are to be treated as professionals.

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All engineers should uphold normal standards of honesty and integrity. They should not use their skills and abilities to act in a dishonest or selfish way or in a way that will harm others. Confidentiality should also be respected by the engineer irrespective whether to a formal confidentiality agreement has been signed or not with the client. The code relates to the behaviour of the decisions made by professional engineers, it is their responsibility to point out flaws or errors to their fellow work mates and bosses to ensure projects are finished to the top possible standard. There will be situations when people have different views and objectives, so you are likely to be faced with an ethical dilemma. It is up to you as an engineer and a person to solve the problem and try to understand the other people’s views and come out with the correct solution. Most cases will be minor ethical dilemmas and can be solved without too much difficulty.

Three Gorges Dam

The three gorges dam and all the surrounding infrastructure is the largest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in history, but because of the ethics of the build , the project was under continuous scrutiny and controversy, due to the monumental economic, social and environmental impacts.

In 2007 there was report released into the growing threats from landslides and flooding, on top of that the social and political unrest and discontent from having to move millions of people from where they were born and grew up. The project is so controversial that even some Chinese officials are beginning to be very frank on their opinions of the project.

To be able to judge the significant cost and benefits on the projects cannot just get a price tag but if something went wrong it would cause never before unheard of chaos in that region and in china in general.

The Project

The project itself stretches across the 3rd largest river in the world by 2km the Yangtze river. The name of the dam three gorges comes from the massive canyons that are formed by the towering limestone cliffs. The idea of a dam in the Chinese province of hubei in a small town called Sandouping, was first proposed 80yrs ago by Sun Yat-sen, but because of the technology wasn’t there 80yrs ago nothing went forward, but then again in the 1950’s by chairman Mao Tse Yung proposed that the construction of the project would be speeded up but nothing significant happened till 36yrs later in 1986 when the Chinese government asked a syndicate of Canadian business to finance a feasibility study.

In 1992 The Chinese government approved the construction of the dam two years later the build began and after 9 years hard work the first electricity was produced. The dam itself is 200m high with a volume of between 39-40 million cubic metres and the reservoir is 600km long with a capacity of 40 billion cubic metres, the dam is set to produce 10% of the electricity usage in china. In early 2008 the installation of the last generators was completed bringing the total capacity to 14,800 MWe in 2010 when the project is set to be completed it will have the capability of producing more than 22,000 MWe eight times more than Hoover dam in Colorado.

Hydro Power

Hydro power is a water powered phenomena which uses the force or energy of high speed or high energy water to harness its power to generate electricity. Gravity plays a big part in hydro power, as the water falls from a height it turns blades which are specially designed in the dam to catch the flow of the oncoming water which then turn a turbine to generate the power.

In the image above, we are shown a typical hydro electricity dam. The dam holds back a large scale amount of water behind its walls, there is usually a reservoir behind the walls so that the water can be few through the gate in whatever quantity they desire. The water is then fed from the height it is at down through the intake pipe trough to the generator to turn the turbine which turns the generators and creates the electricity and then the electricity is directly fed to people’s homes and factories for use. The water then continues on down the river as it was before after generating green energy.

It is a big advantage to use hydropower rather than coal. The three gorges dam is replacing a coal fired station which would consume 50 million tonnes of coal a year which is equivalent to what is now being produced by the dam. This reduces annual carbon dioxide emissions by 150 million tonnes a year. This is a great environmental achievement.

Environmental effects

The constructions of large scale hydroelectric dams often have a detrimental effect on the environment. The Three Gorges Dam is no exception. The three Gorges Dam areas is a very diverse region with many different animal and plant species some of whom are only found in this part of the world. The dam and the large reservoir it created behind it have had a damaging impact on the local environment. With the creation of the dam the probability of earthquakes in the area has increased due to the extra stress the weight of water puts on the two major fault lines in the region the Jiuwanxi and the Zigui-Badong. In the seven months after September 2006, there were 822 tremors recorded after the water level was raised. So far none have been strong enough to cause any significant damage.

The local wildlife has suffered greatly due to the dam including many endangered species such as the Giant Panda, Baili Dolphin (Chinese River Dolphin) and the Chinese Tiger. In total there are 47 endangered species in the Three Gorges Dam area. With the flooding of the land behind the dam the wildlife is being forced to higher ground. This higher ground are being turned into small islands forcing the animals to compete for whatever little food there is on these small islands.

Freshwater fish are affected most by the dam due to the fact that they cannot cross the dam therefore reducing their habitat and stop them from getting to their spawning grounds upstream. The change of the temperature of the water and the change of the flow regime have had a damaging effect on the fish population. Also with the reduced water flow downstream seawater has started to flow up the river resulting in jellyfish coming into the river and competing for food with the indigenous fish population.

The Three Gorges Dam area is home to 20% of China’s plants, about 6,400 different species of plants. 57% of these plants are endangering. Many of these are used in Chinese medicine.

The reservoir created behind the dam is having an effect on the local climate. The reservoir is having a ‘lake effect’ i.e. when already moist air picks up moisture as it crosses a warm body of water and rains it out when it gets to land. It is also reducing the temperature of the area with the increase in the cloud cover.

Social and Economic Impact

The three Gorges Dam project has had a severe social effect of the people of the Hubei Provence of China. The dam has flooded 13 cities, 110 towns, 1350 villages and 100,000 acres of the most fertile land in all of China in total an area of 632 km2 was flooded. The farmland lost to the reservoir produced 40% of China’s grain and 70% of their rice. All this flooding has resulted in more than 1.2 million people having to be relocated. Many priceless archeology and cultural symbols of China have been lost including the Ba civilisation that settled in the Three Gorges Area over 4,000 years ago.


The number of people relocated by the dam varies from 1.2 million to 5 million. Many of them were forcibly evicted from their homes “They come, like devils, to knock down our homes,” said villager Fu. “Why are they so hard on us?”? Most of the people displaced were moved to urban centres around Chongqing with insufficient compensation to buy or build a new home, or were moved into new cities built for the displaced locals in the mountains on steep sloops. The farmers that were relocated and remained farmers were not able to produce enough crops on their new land because it is not fertile enough to survive, those who moved to the cities received no training for industrial job and found it hard to get work.

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Many of the resettled people feel that their basic human rights have been ignored and have started to speak out against the government’s handling of the relocation. Corruption and embezzling accusations are rife, with 46% of the total budget for the project being spent of re-housing and compensating the local authorities have been accused of embezzling fund and not spending enough money on housing resulting in poor workmanship and unsafe construction of the new houses.

Economic Benefits

The economic benefits of the construction of the dam are huge. The dam will produce as much power as. The dam enables large cargo ships to travel further up the river.

Hidden Truth

Some recent reports concerning the dam that an increased amount of cracks was discovered in the concrete have been appearing which, is a worrying truth. The first crack was discovered in 1999 and even today there are cracks as large as from the top to the bottom which is 200m, when the waters start to rise to the max. In the largest dam in history, many towns and a lot more cultural treasures will be lost, but a much greater concerns that the dam might fail, unleashing a great mass of water for miles, possibly killing millions of people and causing billions of damage.

The cracks in the dam are starting to become between 3 and 4 inches wide and 2m deep. Engineers also fear that the buildings built to relocate the millions of people affected by the project could also be at risk. The buildings where built on unstable ground where landslides are capable of occurring. There have also been fears of possible health hazards from the unrelated waste dumped into rivers every year.


The three gorges dam is one of the world’s biggest gambles, the Chinese government have placed millions of lives on the line and millions of dollars. As well as putting endangered species at risk in their won environment, just because they thought it would save more lives from flood prevention and produce clean energy.

Government official in charge, Wang Xiaofeng said during a meeting of Chinese scientists “we simply cannot sacrifice the environment in exchange of temporary gain”

The long term implications of the three gorges dam will not be understood fully until over the next few decades when engineers and scientists recognise the implications, some of which are already appearing. The sheer size and importance of the dam in china is leaving it a prime target for a military strike, which was threatened by the U.S. pentagon in 2004. A blow to the three gorges dam would be catastrophic, it would kill millions of people, destroy homes and towns as a mass wall of water are unleashed out of the reservoir. The Chinese military guard the dam in case of such an attack.

The issues faced today are far more than was previously predicted, despite efforts by the engineers and scientists it cannot be guaranteed that landslides can be controlled or when and where they might take place.

In my opinion this project was put forward, not only for economic or environmental gain, but for china to be portrayed as a force to be reckoned with and for the three gorges dam to be recognised for its greatness in modern day engineering.

The three gorges dam may well be the biggest and best engineering project ever undertaken in this lifetime but it may also get the title for the biggest engineering failure in history thanks to third world work.


The project deadline is 2010, starting in 1994, the project has spanned over 16 years and is nearly coming to completion. As one of the largest engineering projects in world the three gorges dam undoubtedly has its cost tag, among the most substantial costs were to re locate 1.2 million Chinese natives to the lands whose houses and land were flooded to build the dam. The most important factor of the hydro dam is the reduction of the greenhouse gases as hydroelectricity is a completely green energy, also it has potentially reduced risks of floods.

Over the next few decades, the projects aim will become more obvious of the work it is doing for the environment but before these benefits are delivered, the environmental, social and economic costs are beginning to show. Some officials now in china are moving towards new massive projects in water energy, which could be costly and without having learned lessons from the three gorges, while other officials question the substantial human and environmental costs of the project.

Chinese official said “if a decision was undertaken on undemocratic and unscientific then the laws of nature will mercifully punish us and we will pay even more dearly”.


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