Torrential rainfall in China this month has flooded over a hundred cities, displaced millions of people, and stoked fears of a possible “black swan event” in the form of the famous Three Gorges Dam collapsing. Such would be a generational catastrophe that could potentially overshadow even the global pandemic.
China’s central Hubei province — capital Wuhan, the origin of COVID-19 — is currently facing its second disaster this year. While the middle of the year is typically the rainy season for the country, the downpour this year has been among the strongest in decades and has continued unabated past its usual annual conclusion in mid-July. The result has been an overflowing of China’s vital Yangtze River and inundation of the countryside surrounding Wuhan in the worst floods the country has seen since 1998.
The smaller dam’s failure had not been reported by local media, raising questions of what the Chinese government could be hiding about the Three Gorges.
Floods feature prominently as turning points in Chinese history. The northern Yellow River, which alongside the Yangtze is one of the two primary arteries of civilization in China proper, was known as the “Scourge of the Sons of Han” because its frequent floods destroyed cities and toppled dynasties. The worst flood in recorded human history also occurred in the Hubei area in 1931, killing upwards of a million people.
China’s economic and technological development brought the promise of finally taming its scourges, and indeed one of the frequently touted benefits of the Three Gorges Dam at the time of its opening in 2003 was its ability to mitigate floods. Had the dam never been built, there is little doubt that the death toll from this current crisis would be far higher than it is.
Yet grand infrastructure, meant to protect and sustain local populations, can create catastrophe if it fails. The Three Gorges Dam is indeed grand: it is over two kilometers long and is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam by installed capacity, capable of generating more than the next four largest dams combined.
On the flipside, the dam is holding back energy equivalent to several hundred nuclear bombs, and contains enough water to wipe out the entirety of Hubei province were it to collapse. A simulation released by a Chinese news outlet earlier this week suggests that the dam’s implosion would send forth a “100-meter wall of water racing at 100 kph.” The nearby city of Yichang, home to some four million people, would cease to exist within half an hour. Ultimately, Wuhan with its population of 10 million would be battered by waves up to seven meters in height.
The good news for the residents of Hubei province is that the leviathan dam is effectively the world’s largest slab of concrete, and is considered capable of surviving even sustained nuclear attack. The worst-case scenario described above, in which the dam simply crumples and releases its entire reservoir at once, is virtually impossible barring an act of God. The bad news is that evidence is beginning to emerge that substantial parts of the dam have been experiencing structural deformity in recent years and may be under critical stress during this recent downpour.
An image comparing satellite photographs of the dam in 2009 and 2019, supposedly showing parts of the top bending, has been making the rounds on social media. Rumors of an impending collapse have circulated during virtually every rainy season since the dam’s inception. This year, however, a few unfortunate words from Chinese officials combined with the record rainfall have sent speculation into overdrive.
In June, with the crisis first beginning, China’s Minister of Water Resources Ye Jianchun predicted that the coming rainfall would likely “exceed existing flood control.” He then hinted, ominously, at the possibility of a “black swan incident,” referring to the term used in social science to describe unforeseen occurrences with serious consequences. Though no specific reference to the Three Gorges Dam was made, the term proliferated among observers bracing for disaster.
As flooding intensified, it was revealed that smaller dams were already failing — Reuters published a remarkable piece earlier this week in which their reporters visited the location of a reservoir in Guangxi province and discovered firsthand that the 100-meter long dam had imploded and poured its contents onto surrounding villages. The dam’s failure had not been reported by local media, raising questions of what the Chinese government could be hiding about the Three Gorges.
Beijing has mostly reacted by issuing a series of denials and insisting that the Three Gorges Dam is still far below capacity. In response to mounting video and photo evidence that parts of the dam were structurally compromised, however, the government has conceded that the dam has “deformed slightly” due to the flooding, insisting that it is nonetheless at no risk of failure. Such an admission is unlikely to be comforting to anyone. With China now carrying out dozens of massive infrastructure projects along its Belt and Road network, the stakes have never been higher for “Made in China.”