The Shockingly Rapid Deterioration of the Three Gorges Dam (gallows humor)

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This one was hard to resist. As you might know, China is experiencing some terrible weather, at least in certain parts of the country. We’ve had torrential rains, which have led to massive flooding, property damage and hundreds of deaths. This is not exactly an amusing story (to say the least), but it always seems that these sorts of things attract folks who engage in black humor.

One of the big issues that has come up over the past couple of weeks involves flood control measures and large-scale engineering projects for which the government takes responsibility. Some of the dikes/levees/embankments have not exactly performed as advertised, and a lot of folks are not pleased.

One of the most famous of these projects, and certainly the most expensive one, is the Three Gorges Dam. This is a ginormous sucker that spans the Yangtze River in Hubei Province and has been touted by the government as the best thing since sliced bread. Among its other virtues, the dam has been talked up as beneficial for flood prevention.

Yeah, you know where this is going. At the moment, there is a big-time tropical storm heading for us, and all eyes are on the Three Gorges Dam. The river is already running at very high levels, and this is where the dam will either earn its reputation or be pilloried mercilessly.

So everyone wants to know how robust this thing is, right? Well, one enterprising person took a look at a few of the assurances made to the press over the past few years to get an indication of how the Three Gorges Dam might hold up.

I find this series of four stories (you can click through the headlines below to the original stories) slightly unnerving as well as amusing. The last one on the list is from yesterday, which makes it even scarier, seeing as how we’re facing yet another storm.

By the way, apologies for the bad English versions. I’m obviously no linguist. Hopefully you will consider it acceptable paraphrasing as opposed to atrocious translating.

June 1, 2003: ????????,?????????? (The Three Gorges Dam is invulnerable and can withstand a ten-thousand-year flood.)1

May 9, 2007: ???????????, ????????? (The Three Gorges Dam will be completely able to stop floods and can withstand a one-thousand year flood.)

October 21, 2008: ??????????????? (The Three Gorges Dam can withstand a catastrophic hundred-year flood.)

July 20, 2010: ????????????????? (Changjiang Water Commission: Don’t rely only on the Three Gorges Dam to withstand floods.)

Doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence.

In all seriousness, though, I hope that the Three Gorges Dam lives up to all the hype, the flood waters recede, and everyone makes it through the next storm with no trouble.

  1. Ussed in this way, “ten thousand” years essentially just means a really long time.[]


8 responses on “The Shockingly Rapid Deterioration of the Three Gorges Dam (gallows humor)

  1. bilingual

    Your translation of the headlines is incorrect. What it says is not “ten-thousand-year flood,” “thousand-year-flood,” etc., but rather, for lack of a better translation, “once in ten thousand years flood,” “once in a thousand years flood,” etc., in the sense of the English phrase “once in a lifetime.”

    1. Stan Post author

      That would be a direct translation, yes, but it would be incorrect English. The term in English is “X year flood” the way I used it. It means exactly what you said (and what the Chinese means), essentially a “once in a X year” flood.

  2. QQ

    It has quickly been pointed out by those who have carefully read all three articles that it is the titles of the news that is problematic:

    First of all in the most recent article, no where did the official say that the Dam is not reliable: instead he pointed out that the flood this year is much smaller in scope than the 1998 flood. The only slight hint is that the dam has not yet reached its optimum capacity because there are still 28 thousand people who have not been moved out. It is ridiculous of the media to exaggerate this fact in the title to claim that the dam can no longer be relied upon.

    From the other two earlier articles one should be able to get a clear impression that the dam is designed to resist thousand-year flood. For ten-thousand year floods the dam must be supported by other supplementary measures, such as lakes and other dams downstream.

    Moral of the story: media may be just as unreliable as the government, and news cuttings from the Internet just worse.

  3. Lance Winslow

    I am a bit concerned with all the dams in China, far too much bad engineering, corruption, bribes, and well, it’s the same thing with the Levees in New Orleans. And how many less-than-adaquate Chinese dams are there? How much water can Three Gorges hold, are they really sure they want to tempt fate? The water on the upper Yangtze have surpassed 1998, according to Wall Street Journal, and there are more storms coming. If even a section is breached due to landslides, the flooding will really be a problem. And may I ask what 300,000 Chinese soldiers which have been dispatched going to do when a wall of water is coming for them too?

    1. Stan Post author

      The best we can hope for is:

      1) these things aren’t as bad as we all think; or

      2) if catastrophe strikes, perhaps it will mobilize the government to put some real standards in place.

      Am I optimistic about either one of those happening? Not at all. I think we’re in for a world of hurt over the next few years, particularly if global warming leads to volatile weather patterns.