Top 10 Incredible Facts about the Three Gorges Dam

This amazing dam in China is not only an architectural marvel but also holds an incredible record. The figures of this structure are dazzling, and that means something in a country that purs so much concrete every year.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting facts about the Three Gorges Dam, one of the most astounding structures ever built.

1. It’s located in a magnificent landscape in central China

The Three Gorges Dam is located on the Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia and the third-longest river in the world. With an incredible length of 6,300 kilometers (3,900 miles), it’s also the longest river in the world completely within the boundaries of one country.

It’s located just northwest of Yichang, a city with about 4 million inhabitants in the Hubei Province of central China, and right next to the small town of Sandouping. This is about the middle of the Yangtze River in central China.

The landscape around the dam is magnificent as its name refers to the three adjacent gorges in this area. These natural wonders are so beautiful that they are classified as the “Three Gorges Scenic Area.”

They are on the AAAAA level. As you guessed, this is the highest level as classified by the China National Tourism Administration, and there’s no wonder why as well.

Three gorges Yangtze River
View of the Three Gorges near the dam / Wiki Commons

2. Building a dam here was already proposed in the early 20th century

Although the dam was only fully operational in 2012, this area was already deemed as a suitable location to build a massive dam almost a century earlier. The first man to propose the construction of a dam here was Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the first provisional president of the Republic of China.

He was relatively humble in his estimates because he claimed a dam with a capacity of 30 million horsepower (22 GW) would be possible downstream of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.

American engineer John L. Savage, known for his design of the Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam to name a few of the 60 major dams he supervised, even surveyed the area in 1944.

The training of 54 Chinese engineers in the United States was abruptly halted when the Chinese Civil War broke out in 1947 and completely shelved when Communist leader Mao Zedong took over in 1949.

3. It took nearly 18 years before the dam was fully operational

The Communist Government was in favor of building the dam, but they simply didn’t have the financial resources to build an immense structure like this. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the idea of a dam reemerged.

The dam was finally approved in 1992, not coincidently shortly after the Fall of Communism. Construction of the Three Gorges Dam started in December of the year 1994.

It was estimated that the dam would be completed in 2009 but it wasn’t fully operational until May 2012. That’s mainly because they wanted to take full advantage of the enormous potential of this location and an underground power plant with 6 additional generators was included.

Three Gorges Dam facts
The dam during construction in 2009 / Rehman / Wiki Commons

4. The dam in China is a record-breaking structure

The Three Gorges Dam is a hydroelectric gravity dam and the most powerful dam in the world in terms of capacity. It also surpassed the Itaipu Dam on the border of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina to become the number 1 dam in the world in terms of annual generation.

The dam set a world record with the production of 111.8 TWh in 2020, shattering the previous record of 103 TWh set by the Itaipu Dam in 2016. How did it achieve these incredible figures? Here are some of the dam’s dazzling stats:

  • Height: 181 meters (594 feet)
  • Length: 2,335 meters (7,661 feet)
  • Width at the base: 115 meters (377 feet)
  • Width at the crest: 40 meters (131 feet)
  • Dam volume: 27.2 million cubic meters (35.6 million cubic yards)
  • Spillway capacity: 116,000 cubic meters per second (4,100,000 cubic feet per second)

5. Building the dam was an extremely profitable endeavor

Before construction started, the estimate was that the dam would cost a whopping 180 billion yuan, the equivalent of $22.5 billion. This figure was a bit optimistic because it eventually cost 203 billion yuan or $31.765 billion to build the Three Gorges Dam.

The predictions of recovering this huge amount of money were less optimistic. It was expected to be recovered after a decade of being operated and after producing 1,000 terawatt-hours (3,600 PJ) of electricity.

The incredible capacity of the dam is perhaps best emphasized by the fact that the entire sum of $31.765 billion was already recouped on December 20, 2013, just 19 months after it started producing electricity, quite astounding!

Three Gorges Dam fun facts
An alternative view of the dam / Dan Kamminga / Wiki Commons

More interesting facts about the Three Gorges Dam

6. Producing electricity isn’t the only function of the Three Gorges Dam. It also provides increased shipping capacity on the Yangtze River. A 5-step shipping lock allows ships to pass the dam, increasing the capacity on the river by 100 million tonnes every year.

The other important function of the dam is that it has flood storage space included. This allows the dam to protect the Yangtze Plain downstream, an area that has historically been plagued by floods.

7. Building the dam has created the Three Gorges Reservoir, an artificial lake with a surface area of 1,084 square kilometers (419 square miles).

This reservoir has a maximum length of approximately 600 kilometers (370 miles) and a capacity of 39.3 cubic kilometers (15.17 cubic miles).

8. The dam is equipped with 32 generators that each weigh 6,000 tonnes and can produce 700 MW of power. There are also 2 Francis turbines which each produce 50 MW of power, bringing the total capacity of the dam to 22,500 MW.

To give some reference to this incredible figure, the second-largest dam in the world in terms of capacity, the Itaipu Dam, has a total capacity of 14,000 MW, which is significantly less.

Three Gorges Dam Ship Locks
View of the dam’s ship locks / Photnart / Wiki Commons

9. Another astounding feature of the Three Gorges Dam is the ship lift. This structure can lift ships with a weight of up to 3,000 tonnes to an elevation of 113 meters (371 feet).

This process is pretty fast as well as it only takes 30 to 40 minutes to lift the ship as opposed to the 3 or 4 hours it takes for a ship to pass through the 5 locks.

10. Building this dam would have never been possible in the United States or Europe. While it’s not uncommon that small villages are resettled to build a dam, the amount of people that were relocated to build the Three Gorges Dam is on a completely different level.

13 cities, 140 towns, and 1350 villages were completely flooded during the construction of the dam. This resulted in an estimated 1.24 million residents being relocated, a process that was finally completed on July 22, 2008.

Do you think relocating this amount of people from their homes in either the US or Europe? That definitely wouldn’t fly, that’s for sure!

Three Gorges Dam ship lift
The ship lift of the dam / Gaynor / Wiki Commons