50 Facts About The Three Gorges Dam

Last updated on November 27th, 2022

The Three Gorges Dam demands superlatives. Its unprecedented scale makes it the largest in the world, leading some to call it “The Other Great Wall of China.” The country relies on the dam to tame nature, generate power, and boost trade. The controversial project entailed countless sacrifices, but proponents argue that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. You decide. Read on to learn 50 facts about the Three Gorges Dam.

The Three Gorges Dam at a Glance

1. What’s in a Name?

The dam is in the Hubei province, within a scenic area featuring canyons or gorges carved by the mighty Yangtze River. The elegant peaks, overlapping cliffs, and lush woods attract millions of tourists. The “Three Gorges” are called the Qutang, Wu, and Xiling.

2. Claim to Fame

It’s all about power. The Three Gorges Dam holds the world record for the highest installed generating capacity: 22,500 megawatts. That is 10x more than the capacity of Hoover Dam!

3. Annual Output

More rainfall equals more energy. In 2020, the active monsoon season helped it achieve a world record of 112 Terawatt-hours – enough to power the bustling New York City for over two years.

Three Gorges Dam
Three Gorges Dam, China. Photo © Klodien

4. Project Timeline

You can’t rush greatness. Construction started on December 14, 1994, and work on the dam body continued until 2006. Meanwhile, the power plant became fully operational in 2012, and the ship lift opened in 2015.

5. Dam Type

Gravity is the dam’s best friend. The Three Gorges Dam relies on the weight of the concrete structure to hold the water back. Gravity dam design requires independent stability for every section.

6. Construction Cost

Nothing compares in size and complexity. Naturally, the Three Gorges Dam cost a fortune. Estimates have it at roughly 203 billion yuan or US$31.765 billion.

7. Dam Dimensions

Imagine a building 60 stories high. Now stretch that structure for over two kilometers. That’s the scale of the Three Gorges Dam: 2,335 m long, 181 m high, and 40-115 m thick. Incredibly massive.

8. The Reservoir

The water parks here. The Three Gorges Reservoir is 600 kilometers long with an average elevation of 175 meters. It has a capacity of 39.3 cubic kilometers.

9. The Spillway

During torrential rain, the spillway will release water to prevent overtopping. The maximum release rate is 116,000 cubic meters per second – that’s 27 times higher than that of the flawed Oroville Dam spillway.

10. The Power Station

The Three Gorges Dam turns the energy of moving water into electricity. Inside are 32 turbines rated at 700 megawatts each. Two additional Francis-type turbines add a total of 100 megawatts.

Three Gorges Dam in China
Facts about Three Gorges Dam. Photo © Kun Yang

The History of the Three Gorges Dam

11. A Grand Vision

It started with a dream. Sun Yat Sen, considered the “Father of the Nation,” envisioned a large dam on the Yangtze River. It was part of his international development plan for China back in 1919.

12. Preliminary Work

In 1932, the Nationalist government of Chang Kai-shek initiated planning. Unfortunately, the Japanese occupation stopped it and many other projects. The invaders, thinking they would win the war, even made designs called the “Otani Plan.”

13. Savage Visits

John Savage, the brains behind the Hoover Dam, went to China in 1944 to survey the site and draw a proposal. Chinese engineers also went to the US for training. However, the Chinese Civil War halted work in 1947.

14. Communist Revolution

Mao Zedong led the communists to victory. They supported the Three Gorges project but chose to prioritize another dam. Dwindling funds eventually made it difficult to move forward.

15. The 1954 Flood

A long rainy season caused catastrophic flooding in Wuhan. Over 33,000 people died, and almost 19 million evacuated. Moved by the destruction, Mao Zedong wrote a poem about the Great Stone Wall rising on the gorge to catch the rains.


16. Goodbye, Chairman

Sometimes, words are just words. Even the most powerful man in China could not build the Three Gorges Dam within his lifetime. Wars, politics, and economic challenges prevented him from doing so until he died in 1976.

17. Reemergence

In the 1980s, economic development and population explosion made it necessary to generate more power. Li Peng, an electrical engineer, became the premier of China in 1988. He campaigned for the dam’s construction.

18. Approval

In 1992, the National People’s Congress 67.75% approved the dam. Critics warned against the effects on the residents and the environment. Others lauded the project as a vital source of clean energy.

19. The Human Cost

Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Creating the reservoir meant flooding 600 square kilometers of land upstream. The area covered 13 cities and hundreds of villages. Over a million people had to move elsewhere with little government support.

20. The Cultural Cost

More than a thousand historical and archeological sites are now underwater. A few survived, such as the 1,700 yrs old Zheng Fei Temple, which caretakers moved brick-by-brick to a higher elevation.

Dam at three gorges

Materials and Economics

21. Initial Estimates

How do you budget for the most ambitious project in the world? The government’s initial estimate was 180 billion yuan or US$22.5 billion: half for construction and half for relocation. However, the project exceeded this by about $10 billion.

22. Return on Investment

You have to earn what you burn. The power plant helped recoup the cost of construction by selling electricity to surrounding cities. It needed to generate a thousand terawatt-hours to break even, and it did just that in 2013.

23. Funding Sources

No single entity would take on that much risk. China had to pool the money from different sources, including loans from domestic and foreign banks. They also issued corporate bonds, tapped profits from a nearby dam, and collected additional charges from provincial customers.

24. Expectation versus Reality

China had big goals for the big dam. The expectation: provide 10% of the country’s power needs. However, electricity demand outpaced projections. In 2011, its tremendous output accounted for only 2% of Chinese energy consumption. Bummer!

25. Concrete

The Three Gorges was insatiable. The long towering structure required 27.2 million cubic meters of concrete, most of which went into the dam wall, effectively setting a new world record.

26. Steel

Concrete needs reinforcement. The dam consumed 463,000 tons of steel for added strength. With this much metal, you can build 63 Eiffel Towers and have a bit more to spare.

27. Earth

Preparation comes before construction. The team had to move 102.6 million cubic meters of earth to create the cofferdam and protect the site from floods. Heavy equipment hauled soil and rocks non-stop.

28. Number of Workers

Building something grand? You’ll need a lot of hands. With the Three Gorges, the number of workers reached 26,000 at the peak of construction. These include both Chinese and foreign employees.

29. Generators

Mammoth machines went into the power plant. The 32 main generators have an 80-meter hydraulic head. Each of them weighs roughly 600 tons. Their manufacture required joint ventures between Chinese and western companies, including Siemens and General Electric.

30. Installation Progress

It was a gradual process. Each generator had to pass multiple tests. The first became operational in 2003, whereas the last of the 32 units went online in 2012. They now light up Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

Three Gorges Dam Ship Locks, Yangtze China Travel
Three Gorges Dam Ship Locks. Facts about the Three Gorges Dam Photo © Wisconsinart

The Construction Process

31. First Cofferdam

It’s a busy waterway. Ships had to keep going, so the first cofferdam blocked only a portion of the river. They used boulders to keep the water out while they went ahead with construction. A narrow passage enabled continuous commercial activities.

32. Main Dam

With the cofferdam in place, they could build the first two sections of the dam wall, including the spillway for excess water. They drained the area within the border for a dry worksite.

33. Second Cofferdam

It was time to finish the wall. Workers moved tons of rock to block the narrow passage and covered the surface with concrete. A temporary concrete wall also went up to keep the water out while they built the last section.

34. Cofferdam Removal

Excavating the first cofferdam was easy. After all, it was just a pile of stones. The second was concrete, so it needed an explosive exit. In a snap, 200 tons of dynamite turned it into rubble.

35. Concrete Cooling

Hot concrete is no match for cool engineers. The Three Gorges applied Hoover Dam techniques like using discrete blocks and chilled water tubes. They also cooled the materials before mixing and sprayed mist to block solar radiation.

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