The world deadliest dam disaster happened in 1975 when Henan’s Banqiao Dam collapsed, killing 26,000 people (according to official figures; others estimate as high as 170,000).
The government called it a “natural disaster”, citing the large amount of rain. But others, including a scientist involved on the project, said the tragedy was man-made, primarily resulting from poor engineering.
Forty years on and a similar debate is raging over floods that have deluged the agricultural hub of Shouguang in eastern Shandong province. The disaster – which killed 13 people and wreaked billions of yuan in damage – has again raised the question of whether dams do more harm than good in some parts of China, especially when their management is poor.
In the early hours of August 13 three dams simultaneously released water into the Mi River because heavy rain meant they were dangerously close to breaching their capacity. The sudden surge of water engulfed Shouguang destroying 10,000 homes, 200,000 greenhouses and killing over 2 million pigs and chickens.
Shouguang is one of China’s largest producer of vegetables and supplies 30% of Beijing’s needs.
Attempts to get assistance from the provincial government 150 kilometres away fell on deaf ears despite some parts of the area being under three metres of water.
It was only when villagers began posting photos of the devastation on social media that the government’s emergency response machine kicked into action.
Yet at the same time government censors were wiping out the angriest of the online postings, a move that led to a concerted effort by netizens to get Shouguang into Sina Weibo’s top 10 hot topics – a feat they briefly achieved before it was censored. Traditional media was instructed to cover the event in a careful manner, focusing more on the clean-up effort. The China Digital Times, a California-based site that keeps record of censorship directives, says that all media outlets were ordered to pull stories about a farmer committing suicide in the wake of the flood, for instance.
Similarly, an interview with Liu Shukun of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research was taken down from the website of ThePaper.cn. “This could have been avoided,” Liu had said. “The simultaneous discharge of water from three reservoirs is an important cause of this disaster.”
Liu cited other factors, including heavier than expected rainfall; a predisposition to store water at this time of year; and blockages along the course of the main local river which meant the flood was more concentrated at Shouguang.
For many locals the second factor – the storage of too much water – is the hardest to fathom. If more water had been released from reservoirs ahead of the storm, the sudden dumping at the peak of the bad weather could have been avoided.
Some netizens pointed to the fact that water is purchased from the reservoirs to irrigate local farms, and that this was an incentive for the dams to hoard water rather than discharge it early.
China now has 98,000 dams and reservoirs, according to the Ministry of Water Resources, almost all of which have been built since the Communists came to power in 1949. They remain a totem of local development – helping to soften the country’s age-old extremes of floods and droughts, and in the case of the larger dams, adding to the power supply through the generation of hydro-electricity.
Criticism of the building and management of dams has always been a sensitive area. Chen Xing, a hydrologist who raised concerns about the safety of the Banqiao Dam, was fired before it collapsed.
“A dam, like an amplifier, concentrates the risks that are scattered along a river in one place,” pointed out the state-founded China Electricity Council, which also warned that good management of water supply becomes even more paramount in times of extreme weather.
Other academics have quietly pointed out that as climate change makes weather patterns less predictable, effective dam management becomes even more important to avoid repeats of this month’s catastrophic flooding.
Meanwhile, the clean-up effort carries on in Shouguang. This year’s harvest has been lost and another of the knock-on effects is that the price of vegetables in Shandong has soared.
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