The world’s biggest hydropower project may be causing giant landslides in China

A landslide close to China’s Three Gorges Dam in Chongqing.
A landslide close to China’s Three Gorges Dam in Chongqing.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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A giant landslide near China’s Three Gorges Dam last night sent six meter waves crashing down on a fleet of fishing boats, leaving five people injured, and killing one. Dozens of residents near the Daning River, where the landslide took place, have been evacuated.

The incident is only the latest natural disaster that critics believe the $59 billion mega-dam has caused, twelve years after it was built on the Yangtze River to provide hydropower to China. The world’s largest hydroelectricity operation, an engineering feat and point of national pride, is also another reminder of the risks Chinese policymakers take when it comes to huge infrastructure projects.

Chinese scientists and other experts have long warned that the 600-kilometer-deep reservoir created by the dam increases pressure on the surrounding land, in a region already prone to landslides and earthquakes. After a series of landslides throughout the 2000s, China’s ministry of land resources finally admitted in 2012 that there had been “70% more landslides and bank collapses in the area than had been predicted.”

Officials said then they would not be able to prevent geological accidents caused by the dam over the next three to five years and that 100,000 residents, in addition to the 1.3 million that were initially moved, would have to be relocated. Last year, a landslide on the Yangtze wiped out one of the Three Gorges hydropower stations.

China is still installing more dams and hydropower operations as part of a campaign to wean itself from fossil fuels—by the end of last year, installed hydroelectricity capacity was over 300 million kilowatts, accounting for about 20% of China’s electricity and almost a quarter of the world’s total hydropower. But progress is moving more slowly now. China’s goal, to raise capacity to 420 million kilowatts by 2020, has been hampered by a slower approval process, perhaps because of incidents like this week’s land slide.