China's Dams

The “river dragon” came from the Sanmenxia Dam and the consequences were deadly

As people enjoyed themselves along the banks of the Yellow River to celebrate the first day of the Lunar New Year, a sudden release of water from the Sanmenxia Hydropower Station sent people running in horror. But why was there no advance warning?

A Probe International Exclusive, By Mu Lan

The Chinese language version of this report is available here

January 22, 2023 was a normal day, like every day, for most people, but for the Chinese, it is a big day. It is Danian chuyi – the first day of the Lunar New Year; this year, the Year of the Rabbit. On that day, people celebrate by travelling home, visiting friends and relatives, paying respects to their ancestors, and seeking health, fortune and good luck for family members. Whatever they do, they take measures to ward off bad luck, tragedy and to secure good fortune for the new year with traditional prayers and conventions.

On the afternoon of that day, however, in the Sanmenxia Dam area in Henan Province of central China, many holidaymakers enjoying themselves along the Yellow River banks, and even in the shallow water below the dam, were met with more than bad luck. They had to run for their lives in horror. The “river dragon” had come from out of nowhere, suddenly and without warning.

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Source: the New Beijing News. Photo provided by the interviewee.


The consequences were deadly: a number of holidaymakers were washed away by the rapidly rising river water; two were killed and at least eight were missing, but later rescued. According to the State news agency, Xinhua, six of those rescued were soon discharged from the hospital, while two remained in stable condition. 

After this extraordinary frightening moment, people everywhere asked the same question: where did the water come from?

Was the “river dragon” from the sky?

Qin Jialei, one of the survivors, told Red Star News that at around 4:10 p.m. on Sunday, he waded into the middle of the river, about 1.5 km downstream from the dam. Approximately, five minutes later, the river suddenly rose, surging to around 1.8 meters in just six minutes. Qin was completely submerged but managed to reach the riverbank after swimming around 50 meters.

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Screenshot from Chinese Social Media. The Chinese characters read as “the dam on Yellow River was flooding … people are swept away by the water”.


The Associated Press reported on Jan 23, 2023, that “water behind the dam was estimated to have risen by almost 2 meters (6 feet) within 10 minutes before it began spilling over the top.”

According to AP, the water behind the dam in the reservoir rose so high, and so quickly, that the “river dragon” flew over (or “spilled over”) the dam, rushing downstream and sweeping unsuspecting holidaymakers away.

According to Fan Xiao, a Sichuan-based geologist and senior engineer, while it might be true that the dam authority maintained a relatively high-water level of the reservoir when the incident occurred, there is no data available to prove this. It is also highly improbable that the reservoir water would overtop the dam during the winter season and there would be no floods coming from upstream of the dam. The Yellow River sometimes has a problem with a so-called “ice jam” or “ice dam” in winter, but apparently this was not the case here.

Moreover, even if there was flooding from upstream of the reservoir, the dam authority would have easily released water from the reservoir in advance before the water level reached the flood warning level. Dam authorities regularly release water from reservoirs as a routine operation.

Meanwhile, a staff member of the dam authority – the Sanmenxia Water Conservancy Project Administration – told New Beijing News that the change in water levels was “not a release of water, but the normal scheduling operation of the turbine units,” following the operating instructions from the provincial authorities. In other words, it seems that the dam authorities did not spill water (i.e. discharge reservoir water, for example, to flush out silt or to release excess reservoir water) but simply passed water through the turbines to generate electricity.

German-based hydraulic engineer and expert, Dr. Wang Weiluo, concurs, explaining in an email to Three Gorges Probe, that it is most likely that the Sanmenxia Water Conservancy Project Administration turned on the hydro generators to generate electricity after receiving instructions from the Power Dispatch Center of Henan Province, resulting in the sudden release of water without warning.

Although the Sanmenxia Hydropower Station is owned and controlled by the Yellow River Conservancy Commission, the Sanmenxia Water Conservancy Project Administration must follow the scheduling demands of the national grid, otherwise the electricity generated by the dam cannot be put on the national grid, Dr. Wang added.  

A Radio Free Asia reporter repeatedly called the Yellow River Conservancy Commission of the Ministry of Water Resources – the superior department of the Sanmenxia Water Conservancy Project Administration – and reached an official surnamed Zhu who said that she “only knew that two people died, and a few people were missing”. “Only the propaganda department can speak on this, or I could get into a lot of trouble,” she added. 

Another official from the municipal government of Sanmenxia City said, investigations are still underway into how the water level rose so suddenly.

A local resident told reporters that officials are now trying to cover up the incident and are shirking responsibility: the government departments involved would always seek to avoid responsibility if they can. He also said that the local media is under tremendous pressure to discuss the accident in more details.

It is not unusual in China, that the public, including the victims and their family, would have no way of knowing what exactly happened and who should be held responsible or blamed for a fatal incident like this.

Was this a rare case?

Fan Xiao told Three Gorges Probe that the Sanmenxia dam authority should have issued an early warning to people below the dam before they released water. What we now know is that many people love to visit the scenic spots along the river, and even frolic in the water below the dam. Without warning, they had no chance of escaping the sudden surge of water from the reservoir, leading to tragedy. 

Mr. Fan also added that this is not a rare case at all. Similar cases to the Sanmenxia incident have occurred on many occasions throughout China, especially in the summer season.

A search on Chinese websites corroborated Mr. Fan’s point.

The following is a list of just a few of the cases in which people were threatened with unexpected water releases by hydro dams or other water control facilities, some of whom died:

– October 11, 2021: in Pingshan County of Hebei Province, a commuter bus with 51 people was swept off a bridge into the Hutuo River when the Gangnan Water Project released water from its reservoir. Thirteen people died.

– July 20, 2021: in the capital of Henan Province, Zhengzhou, the subway system was inundated when flash floodwaters from the Changzhuang Reservoir were released, upstream from Zhengzhou. At least 25 people died. According to Radio Free Asia, in an attempt to ease pressure on the reservoir, dam authorities started releasing water from the reservoir at 10 a.m. on July 20 and issued a warning later that night.

– May 16, 2020: in Lintao County of Gansu Province, the Xinmintan Hydropower Station suddenly released water without warning. A picnicking couple and their two children were washed away, drowning in the surge of water.

– April 10, 2020: in Dongkou County of Hunan Province, a dam on the Pingxi River suddenly opened its sluice gate, sweeping six people into the surge of water. Three died and the other three were later rescued downstream.

In the debates over the Sanmenxia incident on Chinese social media, some netizens argued that the tourists should be held partly responsible for the tragedy. Fences along the river to prohibit access were broken and warning signs to stay away were ignored by the tourists.

Still, government departments and dam authorities communicated poorly and failed to warn tourists to leave for their safety. Warning sirens are commonly used in other countries to warn people of water releases from dams (see here, here and here). The consequences were disastrous, all the more poignant on the first day of the Lunar New Year and could have been avoided.

The Sanmenxia incident is reminiscent of another major disaster that also occurred in Henan Province: the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure. In August 1975, Typhoon Nina (a deadly tropical cyclone) caused the collapse of the Banqiao Dam and 61 other dams in Henan. Ten million people were left stranded for weeks and an estimated 26,000 to 240,000 died – the final death toll was never determined.

The Banqiao Dam failure became a tragic example of the failure of the CCP and its bureaucracy to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies, failing to protect Chinese citizens, their life and their property.

Today, authorities still cover up details after bad things happen and shirk responsibility.

As Mr. Fan points out, if government departments and dam authorities do not take action to improve early warning systems, similar incidents and tragedies will inevitably reoccur in the future.

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