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Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges discharges water during a flood peak in 2012 in Hubei, China

TPG/Getty Images

The Chinese government has a history of launching massive efforts to improve upon nature, knocking down mountains to build new cities and rerouting rivers to generate power and supply water to its increasingly urban population. Perhaps the most grandiose -- and controversial -- effort was the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in central China's Hubei province.

The enormous project includes a dam for flood control, a giant lock for carrying ships up and down river, and 26 hydroelectric power generators. When it was approved in 1992, then-Vice Premier Zou Jiahua told the National People's Congress that it would cost $8.35 billion to build. But the project's budget quickly spiraled out of control, in part because the government had to find homes for 1.3 million people whose towns and villages were flooded by the rerouting of the river. By the time that the dam was completed in 2006, the price tag had more than quadrupled to a mind-boggling $37 billion [source: Reuters].

In 2011, China admitted the dam had created "problems." Environmentalists were more explicit, criticizing the floating layers of algae and garbage that were now common in the landlocked reservoir and the frequent landslides on the banks along it [source: Wines].

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