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Keep an eye on the Sichuan dams

Quake4_2 Most Chinese seem content with the energetic response of the central government to Monday’s devastating quake in Sichuan Province. Since hours after the quake hit, Premier Wen Jiabao has been touring the tragic scene, overseeing relief efforts.

“Grandpa Wen,” as he identified himself at the rubble of a collapsed school, repeatedly stressed that the No. 1 goal is to pull people out alive.

It’s a mission that has kept the nation in rapt attention.

I’m looking at a TV broadcast now, and Premier Wen is still all over the airwaves. The TV announcer is declaring the relief efforts a major success.

Quake3_2 It seems to me that the government learned from its disastrous handling earlier this year of the winter snowstorms that paralyzed the country during the Lunar New Year holiday.

That crisis built slowly until – boom! – it became a really big deal. The quake disaster was known to be a crisis from the first moment, and the central government acted accordingly.

It’s a fluid situation, though, both in political and humanitarian terms. And among the factors worth watching are further assessments on possible shoddy construction of schools (perhaps revealing local level corruption), and possible damage to dams.

That area of Sichuan on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau is blessed with major rivers and has numerous dams. Some dams have reported cracks from the major quake and may now be unstable. Will they hold?

Here’s a Reuters story that talks about the collapse of a hydropower generating unit (what’s that?) at Zipingpu, about 5 miles from the devastated city of Dujiangyan.

“This is an extremely dangerous situation,” He Biao, deputy party chief in Aba, told the news agency.

Here’s a link to an eyewitness account on the edge of Zipingpu that mentions cracks in the road surface and damage to the huge reservoir there.

Xinhua says the huge Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world, which is a few hundred miles away, was not affected.

The fear, of course, is that one of the dozens of dams in the area might burst and cause a cascading effect that could endanger millions of people.

The following is from the Three Gorges Probe newsletter:

The Chinese-language China News Service reports that 17 reservoirs have suffered damage because of the earthquake across four counties and districts, including Beipei, Dianjiang, Banan and Nanchuan in Chongqing (not in Sichuan province) and are cracked or leaking water.

Cracks have also been found in the dam structures of two reservoirs in Suishui township of Anxian County (or An county) in Sichuan province, approximately 50 km away from the epicenter of yesterday’s earthquake, reports Xinhua.

And the Sichuan provincial government have said that severe cracks have formed on the dam at the Zipingpu Hydropower Station. Located at the junction of Dujiangyan City and Wenchuan County on the upper Minjiang River, the plant was one of the first landmark projects of the Western Development Plan and was brought into service in 2006. The plant and associated buildings have collapsed, some are partly submerged and the whole installation is out of commission.

Fan Xiao, a geologist at the Bureau of Geological Exploration and Exploitation of Mineral Resources in Sichuan province, estimated in a Chinese National Geographic article last year that more than one-third of China’s reservoirs are poorly constructed and describes them as “time bombs waiting to explode in the event of a severe flood or other unexpected occurrence.”

China may dodge a bullet on this. All the dams may hold. Fears of shoddy construction may prove false. But the issue has resonance far beyond the obvious humanitarian ones. It also affects investment. I was perusing email this morning and came across this snippet from an editor’s note leading a daily email from the EE Times (a newsletter about the semiconductor industry):

“The quake illustrated the glaring deficiencies in Chinese construction standards. Traveling in Beijing several years ago, my guide told me that the capital's shiny new--and expensive--train station was already crumbling due to corruption and shoddy construction. While we mourn the deaths in China, especially the children, the Sichuan quake should serve as a stark reminder to the Chinese government that it will lose the faith of global investors if it doesn't move quickly to improve construction standards, particularly in earthquake zones.”

Update: Here's an opposite point of view from Reuters
By Jason Subler
BEIJING, May 15 (Reuters) - Foreign investors will probably come away from the devastating earthquake that hit China this week more reassured than shaken, thanks to the government's quick and open response.


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nanheyangrouchuan: it is not as simple as you posted. Water is a great mover of soil. Dams sit on soil. When water seeping under the dam, it carries soil away. The little seepage become a little leaking becomes a little stream becomes a little river becomes a torrent. Draining the dam wasn't too scary if the torrent don't trigger land slide and mud slides that buries villages and towns and roads and rails. And, BTW, most of these dams are not just for power generation. They are for fresh water supplies as well. And when the water is gone ...



A list is available here in Chinese

Rick A Hyatt

Don't the Chinese believe in Karma? JFK - The Trade Center - Sichuan - The 3 Gorges Dam?
Well if it's Weather Wars, or Food Wars, I think I know who will win.


Now Mr. environmental engineer with a master's degree could you please explain to us non-engineers this. With 1.39 trillion cubic feet of water storage capacity and the associated pressure, just where would these water go "if the quake weakens the soils around the dam enough" so it "essentially drain the reservoir". I guess losing power to push the turban should be the last of people concern, shouldn't it?


Last year my wife and I took the new "fast" train from Beijing to Tianjin and were disappointed in its shoddy construction and constant sewage smell. We've been debating buying a new apartment in Tianjin but I'm concerned about construction quality amid all the corruption.


Dams themselves don't need to split open, if the quake weakens the soils around the dam enough, the water can go around or under the dam. And the water may not "burst" through but leak large volumes and essentially drain the reservoir, removing the power generation capabilities and any fresh water storage. Three Gorges has very weak geology, making this scenario very plausible.

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"China Rises" is written by Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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