Dams and Landslides

China’s dam-safety monitoring system ‘in chaos’

Kelly Haggart
April 25, 2003

Although dam failures have brought about ‘unforgettable nightmares,’ the monitoring of dam safety in China is hampered by a severe shortage of funds and personnel, a Chinese newspaper reports.

The monitoring of dam safety in China is hampered by a severe shortage of funds and personnel, the China Economic Times (Zhongguo jingji shibao) reports, warning that the system is “in chaos.”

With an annual budget of 800,000 yuan RMB (less than US$100,000), the Dam Safety Monitoring Centre in Beijing can barely run its day-to-day operations and pay its 37 staff members, let alone function as an effective inspector of China’s dams, the newspaper said.

“The financial situation has deteriorated with the dismantling of the State Power Corp.,” Wang Dianxue writes in the April 17 issue of the financial newspaper. “To pay staff salaries, the centre has had to draw on contingency funds. At this turning point in China’s
power-sector reform process, and before new institutions are in place, the monitoring of dams and hydropower stations is in chaos.” Most of China’s 84,000 dams were built hastily in the 1950s and 1960s, and many are considered at risk of collapse. Dam failures have brought about “unforgettable nightmares,” China Economic Times said, involving “huge loss of life and tremendous devastation to areas below the dams, where topsoil has been washed away and nothing can be grown for many years afterward.”

“It has been said that of all manmade disasters, the degree of destruction associated with dam collapses is second only to that of nuclear bombs,” the newspaper said. It cited the 1975 disaster, when 230,000 people are thought to have died after the Banqiao and Shimantan dams in Henan province broke during a typhoon; and the 1993 Gouhou dam
failure in Qinghai province, which claimed about 300 lives and caused economic losses of 153 million yuan RMB (US$18.5 million), a huge sum in a poor area.

Even dam collapses in remote regions can cause heavy loss of life and enormous property damage, the newspaper said. And dams located in populous areas or upstream of large cities are particularly troubling: “Xinanjiang dam in Zhejiang province, Fengman power station in northeast China, and Liujiaxia reservoir on the Yellow River are cases in point,” the newspaper said. The Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River is located 200 kilometres upstream of Jinsha (population two million) and 700 km upstream of Wuhan (pop. seven million). An efficient monitoring system is particularly urgent now given the serious safety concerns that experts in China have raised about the world‚Äôs biggest dam, which is due to start coming onstream this summer. For instance, leading scientists
have warned that filling the huge reservoir behind the dam (scheduled for June 1-15) could cause increased seismic activity and geological instability in a region already prone to earthquakes and landslides.

Zhang Jiyao, China’s vice-minister of water resources, told a national conference last year that 3,459 dams, most of them considered small-scale, had collapsed between 1954 and 2001. He attributed the high failure rate to faulty construction, lack of safety awareness,
negligence and mismanagement, and called for improved dam-safety institutions and inspections. But dam safety inspections, which are supposed to take place every five years, “are not going very well,” China Economic Times reports. “The inspection is usually organized by the operator of the dam or hydropower station rather than by a more independent organization such as the Dam Safety Monitoring Centre.” And to save time and money, the operators invite as few experts as possible to take part in the inspection, and ignore or curtail important parts of the process, the newspaper said.

The Beijing monitoring centre is drafting a series of laws aimed at bolstering dam safety, but it can’t do a good job without strong  government support, the newspaper said.

China needs new institutions to ensure the safety of its dams, the newspaper argued. It called for more funding and more legislation to back up the inspection process, as well as early warning systems, emergency rescue plans and “disaster-resistance” measures to reduce the consequences when dams do fail.

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