China's Dams

China at risk from thousands of dangerous reservoirs

(September 13, 2011) China’s programme to shore up its thousands of aging reservoirs is undermined by corruption, rushed repairs and inadequate funds, leaving towns, lives and land at risk.

Probe International

Hundreds of Chinese cities have “pots of water” above their heads – poorly constructed, worn out and dangerous hydro dam reservoirs built in a helter-skelter rush to supply the country with electricity. An article in China Economic Weekly reports that half of China’s 87,000 reservoirs are at risk, posing a potentially disastrous threat to cities, county seats, homes and farmland. A massive government programme to repair the reservoirs is slow, crippled by underfunding, embezzlement, mismanagement and poor construction standards. In fact, reporters discovered, many projects are deemed complete when repairs aren’t even finished. Read Probe International’s translation of the full article below.

Risks and threat from 40,000 dangerous reservoirs in China

China Economic Weekly (Zhongguo jingji zhoukan) – August 23, 2011

Guo Fang, Li Fengtao, Wang Xiaozong and Hou Jun reporting from Beijing, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui and Henan

Half of the nation’s reservoirs are at risk and dangerous

China has built over 87,000 hydro dams – more than any other country in the world – most of which were built between 1950 and 1980, a period that could be deemed the “Great Leap Forward” in hydro dam construction in China’s history.

However, due to the poor economic conditions and limited dam construction technology at the time, many of the dams were hastily and poorly built. Of the 87,000 hydro dams, the majority of them are small in size, and 90% are made of earth. Without proper maintenance, and because of a lack of funding, more than 40,000 dams and their reservoirs around the country have been in use longer than their design life.

Most of the 40,000 reservoirs are located in rural areas, but some of them are located upstream of cities and county seats. Statistics show that there are as many as 179 cities with “a pot of water” above their head, accounting for 25.4% of the cities nationwide; while the county seats with “a pot of water” above their head are as many as 285, or 16.7% of all the county seats in the country.

As Xu Yuanming, director of the Reservoir Department under the Construction and Management Division of the Ministry of Water Resources, told reporters from China Economic Weekly, “There is a high risk that these dams will ruin farmland, railways, buildings and even whole cities if they collapse, so the safety of reservoirs has been a priority for governments.”

According to data from the Ministry of Water Resources, records show that a total of 3,515 dam collapse incidents have occurred since 1954, 98.8% of those being minor events. The most tragic dam collapse incident in human history occurred in the Huaihe River Basin in 1975, when two large reservoirs, the Banqiao and Shimantan, together with two other medium-sized reservoirs and 58 small reservoirs in the Zhumadian area of Henan Province, collapsed one after another, destroying 11 million mu (1 mu=1/15 ha) of farmland, killing 26,000 people and affecting 11 million more.

After the “Banqiao incident” in 1975, China launched a nationwide inquiry into the safety of dams and discovered that one-third of them were unsafe. The central government came up with a special plan to repair and fix those dangerous reservoirs within ten years, setting aside a large amount of money to do so.

After the devastating floods occurred in 1998 on the Yangtze River, the Ministry of Water Resources organized another survey of dam safety, which showed that more than 50% of reservoirs nationwide were considered at-risk and dangerous.

As Xu Yuanming told Economic Weekly reporters, in 2008 China began the world’s largest reservoir repair and maintenance programme. As a result, in the past three years, China has invested 62 billion yuan (RMB) reinforcing 7,356 at-risk and dangerous medium and large-scale reservoirs.

The Ministry of Water Resources announced this year that as a result of the reinforcement programme, the threat to 637 cities and county seats, 161 million mu of farmland and a large number of key infrastructure facilities from floods and dam collapse is basically lifted, protecting as many as 144 million people living downstream of those reservoirs.

The reinforcement of small reservoirs also began as early as in 2010: last July, the State Council approved a plan to deal with 5,400 key small reservoirs nationwide. This April, reinforcement began on an additional 40,900 small reservoirs, 15,900 of which are the responsibility of the central government, and 25,000 the responsibility of local governments.

According to the central government’s plan, reinforcement of the 5,400 small key reservoirs should be finished before the 2012 flood season, the 15,900 small reservoirs reinforced by the end of 2013, and the 25,000 small reservoirs reinforced by local governments by the end of 2015.

Lack of funding, local governments unable to launch projects

The problem is that most of the at-risk and dangerous reservoirs are located in the less developed central and western provinces such as Hunan, Jiangxi, Hubei, Guangxi, Sichuan, Henan and Anhui, so the big challenge is how to get funding to fix the dams in those provinces.

After visiting Jiangxi, Hubei, Anhui and Henan and other provinces, reporters from the Economic Weekly discovered that there is a lack of funding to varying degrees in those provinces, especially at the city and county levels.

Suixian County, for example, which has the most reservoirs in Hubei Province, is facing a big challenge from the lack of funding: with 28 reservoirs already reinforced, the County has as many as 267 problem cases still to fix. A budget of at least 800 million yuan (RMB) is needed to get the job done. But the county has annual revenue of only 34 million yuan, which should be spent on civil servants’ salaries, the government’s operating expenses, education, health care, transportation and so on.

As one local official told reporters from Economic Weekly, the expense of repairing the remaining 267 reservoirs within three years would be unaffordable, even if all government officials gave up eating and drinking for that period of time.

In Hubei Province as a whole, a budget of 11.7 billion yuan (RMB) is needed to fix about 4,000 small reservoirs. “According to the current subsidy policy by the central government, 7.3 billion yuan is available from the State Council, but our province should collect at least 4.4 billion to match. We are under a lot of pressure to get this sum of money, and are trying to get it in a number of different ways,” Yuan Junguang, director of the Reservoir and Dyke Department of the Water Resources Bureau of Hubei Province, told reporters from the Economic Weekly.

The Xinfu[i] Reservoir, one of the key reservoirs listed as at-risk and dangerous in Jiangxi Province, provides a good example. Located in Xinjian County, near Nanchang City, the capital of Jiangxi Province, repairs on the Xinfu Reservoir complex began in November 2008. But, as reporters from the Economic Weekly discovered, the project remains unfinished as the attached office building is still under construction and the cement mixing machine remains in front of the unfinished building. The repair operation for the Xinfu Reservoir is obviously not finished, though it is registered as “completed” as of March 2010.

A lack of funding from local governments contributed to the problem: with a total funding of 42.59 million yuan for the project, the 21.8 million yuan from the central government was fully in place, 87% of the matching 9.9 million from the province arrived, but the 10.89 million yuan from the city and county levels never arrived.

In Xinjian County, where the Xinfu Reservoir is located, about ten reservoirs need to be fixed. But as of the end of 2010, no matching funds from the city and county levels for those ten reservoirs are fully in place.

With a lack of supervision, hidden troubles remain

Obviously, the situation of the Xinfu Reservoir is not unique. Because of the lack of matching funds from local governments, many reservoir reinforcement projects are not yet finished, even if they have “passed” the final check and been deemed up to standard. This means new kinds of hidden troubles for the already troubled reservoirs.

To make the situation worse, funds earmarked for the reinforcement projects have been misused and embezzled due to corruption.

Thus because of the lack of matching funds from local governments, misuse of funds, mismanagement of construction, and racing to meet construction schedules, dam quality problems persist. Some projects’ standards are so bad and their building materials so compromised they are nicknamed “tofu bean dregs.”

Take the Xiaohaizi Reservoir in Gaotai County of Gansu Province as an example: funded by the Ministry of Water Resources, the repair project on the reservoir was finished in 2004 and rated as a “quality project” afterwards. But only three years later the Xiaohaizi dam collapsed, flooding 5,400 mu of farmland and forcing 1,700 people from four villages below the dam to evacuate. Fortunately, there were no casualties in the incident.

Based on audit reports released by the National Audit Office in June 2009, of 554 reservoir reinforcement projects, problems were discovered with 168 – including quality defects, illegal bidding, unqualified contractors and more. Of the funding earmarked for these projects, 56.58 million yuan was embezzled, 153.11 million yuan misused for other purposes, and the management expenses exceeded the budgeted amounts by 47% for 119 agencies in charge of reservoir construction and management.

Xu Yuanming told Economic Weekly that the Ministry of Water Resources has taken measures to deal with those problems: for example, expenditures should be checked every spring and an examination and assessment should be done every fall. The Ministry of Water Resources has also appointed an agency specialized in supervision to monitor projects, treating the reservoir reinforcement projects as a priority. Once problems are found, the agency will directly report to the Ministers.

Moreover, said Xu Yuanming, “Leaders from the Ministry of Water Resources who are responsible for different provinces often go to those provinces for inspection tours, so that they can identify problems and take action to solve them. They are also coordinating the Ministry and provinces, and asking for help from provincial leaders if it is obvious no progress is being made reinforcing the reservoirs, or if local officials are paying insufficient attention to the projects, or if the funds are not in place for the projects and, so on, and so forth.”


[i] The “Happiness” Reservoir.

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