Conspiracy Watch: Three Gorges Dam

Did the Three Gorges Dam cause China’s big quake?

Illustration: Peter Hoey

the conspiracy: The Chinese government insists the 7.9 earthquake that killed more than 69,000 people in Sichuan province in May was a natural disaster. But it’s trying to cover up the real culprit: Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest and most controversial hydroelectric project.

the conspiracy theorists: Probe International, a Canadian watchdog group that’s been against the dam since the 1980s, claims that the $30 billion, decades-long project triggered the temblor. The group says engineers detected more than 800 tremors around the dam’s reservoir in 2006, and wants an investigation into whether the pressure from its rising waters was behind the catastrophe.

meanwhile, back on earth: Plate tectonics causes most earthquakes, but scientists have blamed “reservoir-induced seismicity” for shaking things up around the world. In 1999, researchers at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska cautioned that the weight of the water held back by the Three Gorges Dam could cause quakes. This June, several Chinese geologists and environmental scientists asked the government to stop approving dams in geologically unstable areas in southwest China. Still, Three Gorges is 400 miles from the epicenter of the May quake, about the same distance as the Hoover Dam from Salt Lake City.

Kookiness Rating: tin foil hattin foil hat (1=maybe they’re on to something, 5=break out the tinfoil hat!)