On the night of Aug. 8, 1975, a line of people frantically piled sandbags atop the Banqiao Dam, in the central Henan Province, while being battered by the worst storm ever recorded in the region.
They raced against the rapidly rising Ru River to save the dam and the millions of people that lay sleeping downstream.
Just after 1 a.m., the sky cleared and stars emerged from behind the storm clouds. There was an eerie calm as someone yelled, “The water level is going down! The flood is retreating!” Seconds later, recalled one survivor, it “sounded like the sky was collapsing and the earth was cracking.” The equivalent of 280,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools burst through the crumbling dam, taking with it entire towns and as many as 171,000 lives.
Today, aside from Henan Province, if you ask Chinese people what they know about the Banqiao Dam collapse, you’re not likely to hear much. What may have been the deadliest structural failure of all time occurred in an era when the state quickly covered the scale of such catastrophes.
In 2005, 30 years after the collapse, scholars started to re-examine the event as public records were being released; yet the majority of Chinese are still unaware of the disaster’s scale and the missteps that led to it. As China now embarks on another binge of rapid dam development, some worry that factors that led to Banqiao’s collapse are re-emerging.
The dam was completed in 1952 as part of a campaign to “Harness the Huai River” and its tributaries after severe flooding in previous years. During the 1950s, over 100 dams and reservoirs were built in the Zhumadian Prefecture of Henan Province, including the Banqiao Dam. When the Great Leap Forward began in 1958, the campaign was held up as a national model to give primacy to water accumulation for irrigation. A hydrologist named Chen Xing warned that an overbuilding of dams and reservoirs could raise the water table in Henan beyond safe levels and lead to disaster.
After the Great Leap Forward, many of the projects were re-examined and renovated, but dams continued to go up quickly. From the 1950s to the 1970s, about 87,000 reservoirs were built across the country.
More than 100 additional dams went up in Zhumadian in the 1960s, joining those that had gone up in the previous decade. They created reservoirs that claimed huge tracts of land previously reserved for flood diversion. The irresistible benefits of the dams ultimately drowned out the voices urging restraint.
The equivalent of seven Three Gorges Dams
Today, China is on the cusp of another dam-building binge.
By 2020, China hopes to increase its total energy capacity by 50 per cent, at the same time it tries to raise the non-fossil fuel proportion of that energy from 9 per cent to 15 per cent. With nuclear development being slowed in the wake of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, dams have been left to do most of the heavy lifting. The twelfth five-year plan calls for the hydropower-producing equivalent of seven Three Gorges Dams to be built by 2015.
Nowhere is the aggressive dam push raising more eyebrows than in southwest China, where dozens of major projects are gearing up. On three river systems – the Nu (Salween), the Lancang (Mekong), and the Yangtse watershed – there are altogether 32 major dams. But in coming years these are likely to be joined by over 100 more.
While most worries associated with the planned projects focus on environmental effects and dislocation of local residents, serious safety concerns have also been raised. Last year, a report by the environmental group Probe International said that of the 130 proposed dams on these and other rivers in the region, nearly 50 per cent “are located in zones of high to very high seismic hazard.” The report continues, “By constructing more than 130 large dams in a region of known high seismicity, China is embarking on a major experiment with potentially disastrous consequences for its economy and its citizens.”