Three Gorges Probe

Vice-minister says 73 small dams a year have collapsed in China

Kelly Haggart

May 14, 2002

An average of 73 small dams a year have collapsed in China in the past five decades, Zhang Jiyao, the vice-minister of water resources, told a recent national conference on dam safety. Between 1954 and last year, 3,459 dams had collapsed, 3,434 of which were considered small-scale, he said, but gave no indication of fatalities.


Mr. Zhang said China has built 84,000 dams and reservoirs since the early 1950s, 81,000 of which (or 96 per cent of the total) are small-scale. He attributed the high failure rate to faulty construction, lack of safety awareness, negligence and mismanagement, People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) reported May 12.

The official newspaper said “small dams and reservoirs have become a weak link in the national flood-control system, a tremendous hidden problem that poses a threat to property and lives.”

China defines small dams as those with reservoirs holding less than 10 million cubic metres of water. Medium-scale dams have reservoir storage capacities of between 10 million and 100 million cubic metres, while large dams have capacities above 100 million cubic metres.

China went on a dam-building spree after the 1949 revolution, which intensified during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60, with its goals of rapid modernization. Harnessing the rivers became a rallying cry, and “all a particular leader had to do was point his finger at a certain place and the decision would be made to build a dam between one mountain and another,” writes journalist Shui Fu in The River Dragon Has Come!

In Silenced Rivers, Patrick McCully writes: “Officials took Mao Zedong’s command to aim for ‘higher and higher’ economic targets to mean the building of more and bigger dams. Economic planners discarded advice from hydrologists and built thousands of dams to contain floodwaters at the expense of maintaining traditional flood control measures like levees and diversion channels.”

During the peak of the construction boom in the 1950s and 1960s, 7.8 million people were moved to make way for new dams in China, according to World Bank figures. Thousands of lives were lost after many of the hastily and shoddily built structures collapsed. By 1980, Shui Fu writes, 110 dams were bursting every year, and by then the official death toll from the disasters approached 10,000 – a figure that does not include the huge loss of life from the catastrophic failures of the Banqiao and Shimantan dams in Henan province in August 1975. There, as many as 230,000 people are thought to have died from the initial wall of mud and water that swamped whole villages and flooded more than a million hectares of arable land, and from the disease and famine that gripped the area afterward.

This year, let there be no dam collapses at all, the vice-minister told the provincial-level officials in charge of water resources who gathered in Fuzhou, capital of the southern province of Fujian, for the conference on small dams that ended May 11. The officials were presented with six measures prepared by the Ministry of Water Resources that they are to implement in order to improve small-dam safety.

  • Clarify who is responsible for dam safety at each administrative level. A special official should be appointed to bear responsibility for all safety issues at a dam
  • Establish and improve dam-safety management institutions and ensure sufficient funding for safety management
  • Provide training programs for managers in charge of small dams to enhance their awareness of dam-safety issues
  • Eliminate existing flaws and problems as soon as possible to strengthen the dams
  • Enforce standardized management and regular safety inspections
  • Introduce a new system for decommissioning outdated, poorly operated and dangerous dams.


Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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