Ethical Analysis of The Three Gorges Project


The Three Gorges Project is the development of the largest hydroelectric dam in the world: the Three Gorges Dam. Since its conception, the project has remained the focus of controversy due to its long construction duration, significant social and economic impacts, and broad environmental implications. The ethicality of the dam’s construction will be determined through an examination of its impacts from a utilitarian perspective. 

About the Three Gorges Project

The Three Gorges Project (TGP) has a significant and far-reaching impact on China’s energy supply as well as the livelihood of many people throughout the region. Located in Yichang City, Hubei Province, China, the dam provides surrounding areas with power, flood control, and shipping facilitation [1]. 

The massive scale of the Three Gorges Project influenced the duration of its development process. After decades of exploration and research, construction began on December 14, 1994. Twelve years later, it entered the initial operation stage with a water level of 156 meters. In 2008, it began to carry out experimental water storage, and in 2010 it reached the target level of 175 meters. In July 2012, the TGP’s final generator unit was connected to the power grid. This marked the completion of the construction process and the beginning of formal operation [2]. At the time of writing this paper, the Three Gorges Hydropower Station is the largest hydropower station in the world and the largest engineering project ever constructed in China. The total size of the Three Gorges Dam is about 3335 meters long and 185 meters high, with an operational water level of 175 meters and a reservoir length of 2335 meters [1]. 

The most significant benefit of the TGP is its contribution to the power supply of several provinces. The Three Gorges Hydropower Station is located at the center of the national power grid. It optimizes the power supply between provinces while improving the security and economy of those on the grid. Electric power from the TGP has been exported to Hubei, Shanghai, Guangdong, Chongqing, and other provinces and municipalities under the Central Government [3]. In 2018, the annual power generation reached a record of 101.6 billion kWh [4]. The Three Gorges Hydropower Station has replaced many thermal power stations, reducing the annual combustion of standard coal by 35.28 million tons and thereby reducing coal emissions [5].

Another important task of the TGP is to reduce or prevent damage caused by flooding. The uneven distribution of rainfall in the basin of the Yangtze River has been the source of a high incidence of floods. Flooding on the Yangtze River is the result of high-speed water flow caused by a large amount of precipitation at the high elevation of the river’s upper course [6]. The location of the Three Gorges Dam enables it to control floods effectively in approximately one million square kilometers of the Yangtze River basin above the dam. It has formed a flood control system in the middle and lower course of the Yangtze River by serving as a storage and detention area for floods. 

The TGP also improved the shipping condition of the upper course of the Yangtze River. The channel from Chongqing to Yichang has massively improved; 139 rapids, 24 shoals, and 46 one-way channels from the dam site to Chongqing were eliminated with its construction. The main channel of the Three Gorges reservoir area has been upgraded from its Grade III pre-construction rating to its post-project rating of Grade I, and the annual shipping capacity has increased from 18 million tons to more than 100 million tons. After impoundment, the number of accidents, shipwrecks, and direct economic losses decreased by 72%, 65%, and 20%, respectively [7].

In conclusion, the TGP affects a large population due to its power supply, flood prevention functionality, and improved shipping conditions. Additionally, the establishment of the TGP has benefitted aquaculture, shipping, and tourism industries in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. The TGP has undoubtedly improved the living quality of the people in the Yangtze River basin.

Ethical Concerns

The TGP can be analyzed using a utilitarian ethics approach. Utilitarianism states that the most ethical choice is one that benefits the largest amount of people [8]; in other words, maximum gain for minimum pain. The development of the TGP benefitted most of the population in China, but people living upstream and the wildlife in the upper basin of the Yangtze River were affected negatively in the process.

Societal Impact

The mainstream of the Yangtze River basin passes through 11 provincial-level administrative regions such as Qinghai, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Jiangsu, all of which are home to dozens of ethnic groups. These groups have lived here for a significant amount of time and have formed unique living habits and cultural customs. These habits and customs are an essential part of Chinese culture and of great significance to China’s artistic development and progress. The TGP has resulted in the migration of millions of people that belong to these ethnic groups and has caused a cultural loss in the ancient towns in which these people lived.

A total of 1,256,500 people were relocated when their homes were submerged due to the rising water level directly caused by the construction of the TGP from 1994 to 2009. The impact caused by the TGP affected 19 administrative regions in Chongqing and Hubei province, covering 56,000 square kilometers of land [9]. Studies have shown that, like international or urbanization migrants, TGP immigrants often suffer from additional economic, social, cultural, and physical health difficulties due to resettlement [10]. 

Many of the TGP immigrants resettled to nearby towns or cities that were not affected by the construction of the TGP [10]. Even though they were compensated for the loss of their land, a lack of income following migration made the immigrants more vulnerable to financial hardship. Prior to relocation, TGP immigrants were largely reliant on agriculture for their survival and development. TGP immigrants were also more likely to encounter employment problems due to their skills differing from local employment demands. After the resettlement, immigrants with lower education levels and lack of relevant experience and skills found it difficult to adapt to the pace of urban life, and the difficulties in re-employment also caused unstable income. As a result, these immigrants have a high demand for financial aid such as low-interest loans and subsidies, prompting them to rely on help from the government.

The involuntary migration caused by the construction of the TGP became a social governance problem that restricted the overall development of affected regions. Resettling immigrant groups led to a series of economic and social issues such as social network reconstruction, residential space differentiation, and social welfare changes. Further, too much emphasis was placed on short-term resettlement relief policies rather than long-term planning. For example, there was investment in economic compensation but not enough in support programs that would offer skill training. As a result, many immigrants entered a life of poverty and became marginalized in their new residential area. The incumbrance of poverty combined with social adversities prompted immigrant-led protests and even escalated into conflicts between immigrants and residents. The irreversible and destructive nature of these conflicts on the social environment violated the project’s original intention.

The central government set up a development fund for both the enterprises and immigrants in the TGP-affected areas and established an official plan named “Master plan for follow-up work of the Three Gorges Project.” Since 2011, more than 1,800 projects have been arranged to help immigrants in the Three Gorges Reservoir area secure their livelihood and develop their economy, with a total of 29 billion RMB of special state subsidies approved [9]. Overall, the living standards of most TGP immigrants improved, reached, or even exceeded the average level in the settlement area. The infrastructure and many other public service facilities in towns and cities close to the TGP received a massive update due to the economic development brought by the TGP. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the development fund was weakened by corruption within local governments in the towns and cities that accepted TGP immigrants. So far, nearly 240 officials from the Three Gorges Reservoir area in Chongqing have been investigated and punished for job infringement, embezzlement, and bribery [11]. 

Many new infrastructures were constructed after TGP immigrants moved in. Although the construction process was relatively fast, the industrial development in these towns and cities could not keep up. This caused many enterprises to go bankrupt, resulting in slow economic growth and an increased unemployment rate. Rural areas have also been affected by TGP-related economic development stagnation and decreased income for farmers. These economic issues can lead to social unrest as we saw during the “Wanzhou Incident” a few years ago, in which tens of thousands of people surrounded the Wanzhou City Hall.

Environmental Impact

As the mother river of China, the Yangtze River is of great value to regional ecological stability, economic development, and scientific research. It is considered an environmental and cultural treasure to China and the world. As an unprecedented water conservancy project, the TGP has an inevitable impact on the ecological environment of the Yangtze River Basin. However, environmental friendliness and resource protection should always be regarded as the ethical criteria of a project in the early planning, construction, and later resettlement. 

The construction of the TGP had a significant impact on ecology. Dams have large impacts on river health and the living quality of river organisms [12]. The construction of TGP had many effects on the river’s ecological system: It separated the natural living environment, disrupted the food chain of aquatic, half aquatic, and terrestrial organisms, destroyed vegetation and soil, caused water loss in the Three Gorges Valley region, and threatened the living conditions of some rare species [13]. Specifically, the spawning ground of the Chinese sturgeon became unreachable because of the dam. Since Chinese sturgeon only lay their eggs within these spawning grounds, the population of the Chinese sturgeon was greatly reduced [14]. The population of four Chinese food fish also decreased due to a change in water temperature and quality following the dam’s construction. Additionally, the impounding of the Three Gorges Reservoir separated fish populations between the Yangtze River and many mountain streams, resulting in loss of genetic diversity [13].

The impact of the TGP on the Yangtze River is different upstream of the dam than it is downstream. Upstream, the TGP slowed down the speed of water flow, reduced the river’s self-cleaning ability, and worsened the water quality. Downstream, the TGP reduced the amount of sand that the river carries, resulting in a lowered riverbed that affects lakes that are connected to the Yangtze River [15]. Dongting Lake is a large lake that is downstream of the TGP and is a natural flood basin of the Yangtze River [16]. The lowered riverbed reduced the amount of water that flows into Dongting Lake during the rainy season and increased the amount of water that flows out of the lake during the dry season. Combined, these effects led to a decrease in the size of Dongting Lake [15].

To reduce the impact on the environment, many environmentally friendly measures have been made in recent years. These measures include setting up nature reserves along the Yangtze River basin, restocking fish fry, and adjusting the downstream water flow to maintain the water level in lakes connected to the Yangtze River [13,14]. Since there are still unknown long-term effects on the environment caused by the TGP, additional efforts will need to be made to minimize the impact of future effects.

Economic Impact

The two main economic advantages of the TGP are electricity generation and shipping facilitation. The TGP has created significant economic and environmental benefits by generating clean energy to meet electricity needs. Clean energy production by the TGP hydro plant saves around 10 million tons of coal annually, promotes energy conservation, and reduces the emission of harmful gasses including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. This electricity is then transmitted to industrial provinces that have a high electricity demand. The profit that the TGP earned in 2017 from selling its generated electricity reached 743 million U.S. dollars [17]. Counties located in the TGP reservoir area saw a 259% increase in their gross domestic product from 1996 to 2007 [14].

Ship locks on the TGP allow a 10,000-ton level freighter to reach Chongqing directly [18]. Thanks to the Three Gorges Project, the Yangtze River is now a powerful tool in coordinating economic development in regions along the river. However, the TGP ship locks have reached their designed capacity. Although the TGP ship locks allow direct shipping to Chongqing, it takes a long time for a fleet of 10,000-ton freighters to get to there. As a result, the dam became a bottleneck for Yangtze River shipping and is responsible for an increase in shipping time and cost. 


The benefits from the completion of the Three Gorges Project are enormous, but these benefits are a result of environmental and societal sacrifice. Despite these sacrifices, the Three Gorges Project satisfies the requirement of a utilitarian approach as it brings the most benefit to the largest number of people. The electricity generated by the TGP supplies many industrial provinces. As a result, these industrial provinces no longer need to build their own thermal power plants, thereby reducing the provinces’ pollution production. The TGP also prompted economic growth such as increased GDP in counties within the TGP reservoir area. An additional advantage of the TGP is the TGP’s flood control capabilities that benefit millions of people who live along the lower basin of the Yangtze River. However, all these benefits came with damage to the environment and the involuntary migration of 1,256,500 people. There are also unknown long-term impacts to the environment that researchers have yet to discover. Overall, the TGP can be considered a beneficial project for China, but the rights of the immigrants that suffered from the resettlement process deserve better consideration.

By Tianhua Lyu, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, Tianhua Lyu was an undergraduate senior in computer science. He is interested in motorcycles, machinery, and computer hardware. During the pandemic, he could usually be found either in front of his work desk or in the garage working on his motorcycle.


[1] J. Wu, J. Huang, X. Han, Z. Xie, and X. Gao, “Three-Gorges Dam: Experiment in habitat fragmentation?,” Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), vol. 300, no. 5623, pp. 1239–1240, 2003, doi: 10.1126/science.1083312.

[2] “The mechanical and electrical equipment of the Three Gorges Underground Power Station was fully handed over and put into operation,” (in Chinese), China Three Gorges Corporation, Apr. 5, 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 27, 2021]. 

[3] Z. Liu, “Design features of Three Gorges-Changzhou ±500 kV HVDC Project,” in 2000 IEEE Power Engineering Society, Conference Proceedings, 2000, vol. 1, pp. 12–16. doi: 10.1109/PESW.2000.849915.

[4] J. Zhang, “Three Gorges Dam generates record amount of power,” China Daily, Dec. 12, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 26, 2021]. 

[5] “2006 operation analysis and 2007 trend forecast of electric power industry,” (in Chinese), National Development and Reform Commission, Mar. 7, 2007. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 26, 2021]. 

[6] Y. Gao and Y. Zhang, “Effects of the Three Gorges Project on runoff and related benefits of the key regions along main branches of the Yangtze River,” Water, vol. 11, no. 2, p. 269, Feb. 2019, doi: 10.3390/w11020269.

[7] “The cargo volume of the Three Gorges Ship Lock exceeds 1 billion,” (in Chinese), China Three Gorges Corporation, Aug. 28, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 26, 2021]. 

[8] “Utilitarianism,” Ethics Unwrapped, Jan. 25, 2021. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Dec. 12, 2021]. 

[9] Y. Tan, B. Bryan, and G. Hugo, “Development, Land-use Change and Rural Resettlement Capacity: a case study of the Three Gorges Project, China,” Australian Geographer, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 201–220, 2005, doi: 10.1080/00049180500153484.

[10] Y. Tan, “Displacement and Resettlement in the Three Gorges Project: Issues Confronting Women Migrants,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 1–31, 2008, doi: 10.1177/011719680801700101.

[11] “Exclusive restoration of the Three Gorges Group’s interest transportation chain,” (in Chinese), Times Weekly, Mar. 3, 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 26, 2021]. 

[12] J. S. Fencl, M. E. Mather, K. H. Costigan, and M. D. Daniels, “How big of an effect do small dams have? Using geomorphological footprints to quantify spatial impact of low-head dams and identify patterns of across-dam variation,” PloS ONE, vol. 10, no. 11, pp. e0141210–e0141210, 2015, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141210.

[13] B.-J. Fu et al., “Three Gorges Project: Efforts and challenges for the environment,” Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment, vol. 34, no. 6, pp. 741–754, 2010, doi: 10.1177/0309133310370286.

[14] X. Liu, J. Qin, Y. Xu, S. Ouyang, and X. Wu, “Biodiversity decline of fish assemblages after the impoundment of the Three Gorges Dam in the Yangtze River Basin, China,” Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 177–195, 2019, doi: 10.1007/s11160-019-09548-0.

[15] X. Wang, X. Li, Baiyinbaoligao, and Y. Wu, “Maintaining the connected river-lake relationship in the middle Yangtze River reaches after completion of the Three Gorges Project,” International Journal of Sediment Research, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 487–494, 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.ijsrc.2016.12.001.

[16] W. Ming, “Dongting Lake,” in Famous Lakes in China. Huangshan City, China: Huangshan Publishing House, 2013.

[17] “Three Gorges project builder posts surging profit in 2017,” Xinhua. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Dec. 12, 2021]. 

[18] “Ship lock and lift help ships climb over Yangtze River dam,” People’s Daily Online, Aug. 2, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 27, 2021]. 

Links for Further Reading