10 Trillion Gallons of Water Should Drown China’s Yangtze Gorges World Heritage Application

The Three Gorges Dam Main Wall, 2006. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Yangtze River begins in the Tibetan Plateau and flows eastward into the East China Sea at Shanghai.  At 3,915 miles, the Yangtze is the longest river in Asia and the third longest river in the world.

The Three Gorges Dam (TGD) is located on the Yangtze River in the Hubei province in central China.  The dam was built to generate electricity, control flooding, and improve navigation.  The TGD is over 7,500 feet long and 600 feet high, and the resulting reservoir is approximately 410 miles long, 3,600 feet wide, and 575 feet deep.  Construction began in 1994 and was completed in 2006.  Construction cost figures range from $37 billion to $88 billion.

The TGD has been harshly criticized by environmentalists and human rights activists.  The former have observed that the dam has caused erosion, landslides, and seismic tremors as well as the destruction of fragile ecosystems in which large numbers of plants and animals live.  The latter have shown that the submersion of at least 1,500 cities, towns, and villages has displaced between 1.3 million and 1.9 million people, most of whom received little or no compensation and minimal resettlement assistance.

In addition to raising environmental and human rights issues, the Chinese government recognized that the TGD would destroy, primarily by covering them with 10 trillion gallons of water, vast numbers of unique and irreplaceable cultural artifacts and heritage sites.

Three preservation strategies were implemented during the dam construction process: in situ protection, relocation, and observation and documentation.

The first preservation method involved safeguarding cultural sites and objects at their original locations.  For example, Shibaozhai, a 12-story temple on the south bank of the Yangtze, was protected in situ by a massive coffer dam.  Baiheliang, which is a rock outcrop on the Yangtze that houses thousands of ancient characters of Chinese poems and carvings and has served as one of the world’s oldest hydrometric stations, was partially preserved by means of an underwater museum.

The second preservation method involved moving cultural relics and buildings to new locations, typically at higher elevations.  The 1700 year old Zhang Fei Temple was abandoned to the dam waters, but many of the monuments held inside, including the large statue of Zhang Fei and the ornate front gates, were saved and relocated to a new temple out of harm’s way.

The third preservation method involved hurriedly and haphazardly collecting data about threatened sites and relics before leaving them to be submerged by dam water.  This method, which was by far the least useful, was also the most common.

Notwithstanding the preservation efforts made by the Chinese, many hundreds of sites and many thousands of artifacts have been destroyed.  The importance of these lost sites and artifacts cannot be overemphasized.  For example, fossilized remains and stone tools found in the Three Gorges area suggest that Homo erectus lived along the now flooded banks of the Yangtze as early as 1.7 million years ago, and that humans arrived in Asia almost a million years earlier than previously believed.  In more recent times, the areas now impacted by the TGD were the home of, or important to, the Hemudu, Majiabang, Liangzhu, Yue, Ba, Chu, Qin, Han, and Song cultures, dynasties, and empires.

Carefully and methodically studying all known sites and artifacts along the Yangtze would have taken years that the government did not allot for in its construction schedule and, unfortunately, all that is left of these sites and relics is the rushed and fragmentary data and materials collected by anthropologists and others before the completion of the dam.  And what of those wholly unexplored sites and undiscovered artifacts?  Many of the world’s greatest cultural and archeological finds have come about by accident, but with the filling of the dam the Chinese government has obliterated the opportunity for potential discoveries here.

Countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention (WHC) are entitled to nominate properties within their territory for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  China signed the WHC in 1985 and in 2001 it submitted a proposal that the Yangtze Gorges Scenic Spot (YGSS) be added to the World Heritage List.

The basis for China’s nomination of the YGSS to the World Heritage List is described in its proposal.  Among the points noted are the “panorama of lovely scenery,” the numerous plant and animal species, and the evidence of prehistoric cultures.

It is unclear whether YGSS meets the criteria established by the WHC for inclusion on the World Heritage List.  But, even if it does, there is good reason for UNESCO to deny the application.

Signatories to the WHC pledge to protect their natural and cultural heritage.  Despite the fact that China signed the pledge in 2001, its TGD project resulted in the destruction of massive amounts of unique and irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage between 1994 and 2006 in precisely the same region that the YGSS, its nomination for the World Heritage List, is located.

The YGSS nomination proposal was submitted by China to the World Heritage Centre for consideration over 14 years ago, and as of today it is remains on China’s Tentative List as a pending request.  UNESCO should take affirmative action; instead of simply leaving China on the temporary list, they should issue an outright rejection of the application.  To do otherwise would be to send the wrong message to China and other countries facing similar choices about the priority to be given to the protection of cultural heritage having universal human value.

Whitney Carter will receive her BA in Cultural Anthropology and Criminal Justice from Boston U in May 2016.  As an undergraduate, she completed a directed study entitled “The Destruction of Cultural Artifacts by the Islamic State” and an archeological internship in Menorca, Spain that focused on excavation and the protection of cultural resources.  Upon graduation, Whitney’s objective is to obtain employment in the field of cultural heritage management.  She can be contacted at w.carter@sbcglobal.net or through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/whitney-carter/a6/78a/189.

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