Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province, China spans the width of the Yangtze River. A massive concrete structure 7,661 feet long it is the world’s largest capacity hydroelectric dam, at 22,500 MW. While the power generation is impressive, one of the most important functions it serves is to mollify the flooding from the Yangtze, a seasonal river. Downriver from Three Gorges are major industrial areas, the now-infamous Wuhan, Wuxi, Yangzhou, Zhenjiang, Shanghai, and Nanjing…a third of the countries population live in the river basin and half of it’s agricultural output comes from there. Flooding is a constant issue, as are ‘super floods’ that were semi-regular before the Three Gorges and other dams were used to regulate the rate of flow along the river. In 1954 Wuhan and nearly 75,000 square miles along the Yangtze were flooded, with Wuhan remaining flooded for three months.
Currently, the Three Gorges Dam is under pressure due to massive amounts of rainfall and a second major flood that hit the dam on July 18th. A third flood is gathering, with less roughly 160m of its 175m of capacity already taken. The first hit the dam at approximately 53,000 cubic meters/second peak flow rate, the second one was 55,000 and the one forecasted to hit Tuesday is estimated to be 60,000. President Xi has already issued evacuation orders, but a fraction of what would be required to prevent massive casualties even in the event of a partial breach of the dam. Complicating the situation are a panoply of older dams and reservoirs of questionable integrity. Particularly since Chinese engineering is about as well thought off as Chinese media, and for good reason.
Why does any of this matter? Geopolitically, if the dam even partially gives way, this could be a Rubicon moment…pun intended…for the Chinese Communist Party. Xi, like the rest of us, has had a rough go of it in 2020. First Hong Kong roiled by protest, providing exceptionally bad press to the regime on a global level. Chinese are notoriously averse to embarrassment and their reaction to the protests was also seen as gross overreaction and bungled at best. Layer on top of that the Wuhan coronavirus debacle, with the majority of the world seeing China as the root cause of the virus. The world also is wondering why the Chinese government is allowing people to sell bats for human consumption out of the back door of a virus lab. I am still curious as to why bats are considered edible in China, but I’m just gastronomically conservative that way. In response to this, Xi did not just lock down huge swaths of the country using methods that are reminiscent of Kim Jung Un, the concomitant economic fallout stalled an already tepid Chinese economy. The China of 2019 was hardly the economic powerhouse seeing 8-10% GDP growth year over year, but rather had begun to plateau. The unprecedented economic carnage in their industrial centers (around the Yangtze river), has created even more of an impetus for the first world to divorce itself from Chinese industry. India is beginning to flex their muscle and with human capital and excess and significantly less political baggage, represents an attractive alternative to China in addition to manufacturers pulling back to domestic production. Now introduce flooding that has already destroyed not-insignificant amounts of crops and cities upstream of Three Gorges Dam and a third flood on the way. A national disaster of that kind could very well spell regime change or spark some significant internal struggle as an already battered Chinese population reaches its breaking point. If Xi was anyone but a godless Communist, I would feel bad for the guy.
For the US a humbled China could prove more dangerous in the short run. To keep his power Xi could very well lash out and use the millions of unmarried military-age males at his disposal to galvanize popular support for himself. The short term result could be finding out how good China’s brown-water navy is and just how drone/electronic warfare is going to look in the 21st century. Alternatively, if there is nothing but economic devastation, the effects will be felt around the globe. China is about to enter its harvest season and if the breadbasket of over a billion people floats away then the strain on global food prices could be immense. China has already booked its second-largest US corn purchase in history, to fulfill trade-deal obligations with the US. A massive decrease in domestic agricultural output would spike food prices here, impacting a US economy already reeling from months of closures. Similarly a sudden drop in industrial and manufacturing output would create supply-chain disruptions and logistical nightmares for domestic industry in the US that relies on Chinese products for raw materials or components. The redhead and I were joking about what July’s surprise would be, as we seem to be descending further into Dante’s Inferno every month. Perhaps the descent into the next circle is someone figuring out the the frequency to generate mechanical resonance in a large span of concrete…