Earthquake Shines Spotlight on Dam Safety in China

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The Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province in April caused untold grief to tens of thousands of families. It also provoked a wave of generosity towards these victims from all levels of Chinese society, a response that was facilitated in part by journalists’ ability to candidly report on the disaster. As Chinese Sociologist Zheng Yefu reflected, “Besides enormous grief and sorrow, we saw something new from any past disasters in China…the general public was well-informed about it.”

Several stories in the state-controlled media focused on the impacts of the earthquake on dams and reservoirs. The Ministry of Water Resources stated that in Sichuan Province alone, 69 dams were in danger of collapse, 310 were at “high risk,” and 1,424 posed a “moderate risk.” Other reports told of the Chinese army being mobilized to repair the cracked Zipingpu Dam, which five years earlier had been criticized by Chinese seismologists and NGOs concerned about the safety of the project. These stories carried a message to the Chinese public: dams in earthquake prone areas may not make sense.

Taking advantage of this window of opportunity to address dam safety concerns, a diverse group of 62 Chinese scientists and conservationists wrote an open letter asking the Chinese government to re-examine plans to build additional dams in areas of China that are seismically active. Authors of the letter told China’s online First Business Daily that several of China’s largest new hydropower projects, such as those proposed on the Yangtze River, Nu River, and Lancang-Mekong River, are located on top of China’s largest seismic belts. The expert letter called upon relevant government departments to complete a study of seismic activity in southwest China, the safety of existing dams, and the risks posed by proposed new dams, including the risk of reservoir-induced-seismicity. The letter also demanded a public release of the study and suspension of new dams until government development plans can be appropriately revised.

What makes the open letter remarkable is the fact that a diverse group of prominent Chinese dam experts have taken a strong public stand, calling for reconsideration of the country’s major dam projects. It is a small sign of hope that an era of broader public debate on dams in China may be dawning.