The idea of conquest has driven China's approach to nature ever since Yu the Great, first ruler of the Xia dynasty, allegedly declared some 4,000 years ago: "Whoever controls the Yellow River controls China." Mao took this, like much else, to extremes. His biggest monument to man's power over nature—the 350-foot-tall Sanmenxia Dam—is a case study in the danger of unintended consequences. The dam has tamed the lower third of the Yellow River by turning it into what one commentator has called "the country's biggest irrigation ditch." But the impact upriver has been disastrous, due to a stunning lack of foresight. Engineers failed to account for the colossal amount of yellowish silt (more than three times the sediment discharge of the Mississippi) that gives the river its name. By mismanaging the silt, Sanmenxia has caused as many floods as it has prevented, ruined as many lives as it has saved, and compelled the construction of another huge dam simply to correct its mistakes. One of Sanmenxia's original engineers even recommends blowing up the whole thing.
Wang would be the first to volunteer for such a mission. Husking cotton on his doorstep in Taolingzhai village, about 30 miles west of Sanmenxia, the bristle-haired former schoolteacher recalls a life whose every tragic twist has been shaped by the dam. After Wang and his family were evicted from this fertile land during the dam's construction, they were banished to a desert region 500 miles away. Nearly a third of the refugees died of starvation during Mao's Great Leap Forward, he says. Eventually, half of the survivors straggled home. Wang now farms land near the junction of the Wei and Yellow Rivers. But even here, he is not safe. When heavy rains fall, the Sanmenxia reservoir backs up, pushing polluted water over the banks. Three floods in five years have destroyed his cotton crops and poisoned the village's drinking supply. "All of our young people have left," says Wang. "There's no future here."
Unlike Mao's little red book, the Sanmenxia Dam is hardly a relic of the past. China now boasts nearly half of the world's 50,000 large dams—three times more than the United States—and construction continues. A cascade of 20 major dams already interrupt the Yellow River, and another 18 are scheduled to be built by 2030. Grassroots resistance to dams has emerged, most famously over the forced resettlement of more than a million people by the Yangtze River's Three Gorges Dam, but to little effect. Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist, says dams on the Yellow River are especially harmful, since they exacerbate the twin threats of pollution and scarcity. The reduced water flow destroys the river's ability to flush out heavy pollutants, even as standing reservoirs allow a badly overused river to be drained even further. "Why cannot human beings give up their ruthless ambition of harnessing and controlling nature," Ma asks, "and choose instead to live in harmony with it?"