05/08/2009, 00.00
CHINA
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More than 37,000 Chinese dams could collapse from excess rain

Earthquake damaged many dams in Sichuan (where more than 90 per cent of China’s dams are located). Monsoon rains are becoming increasingly powerful. Emergency plans are lacking. This summer could bring dangers.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – More than 37,000 dams are at risk of collapsing if there is too much rain, China’s Minister of Water Resources Chen Lei warned. The current spring is in fact particularly wet and already threatening nearly one dam in two. Making matters worse tropical storms are expected this summer.

In June of last year a downpour in western Inner Mongolia forced the evacuation of more than 15,000 residents and wiped out 260,000 hectares of grassland.

In the same month, seven people, including three children, were killed in Hunan when a small dam under construction collapsed.

“China is plagued by the world's worst dam hazards,” Mr Chen said. “The test will be particularly hard this year because of the weather and the condition of our dams."

In the last ten years six dams have collapsed on average per year, half at least as a result of excess rainfall.

The problem is compounded by the lack of warning systems. If a dam were to collapse, releasing floodwater, people living downstream would be unlikely to receive a warning.

In places where warning systems do exist the government is still using gongs and firecrackers to announce an impending flood.

The management in almost one small dam in three does not even have an emergency plan.

The most dangerous area is Sichuan which is host to 90 per cent of China’s dams, many of which were damaged in last year’s earthquake.

Urgent repairs have been carried out, but the work is far from complete, Minister Chen said.

For decades China has been on a dam spree, building ostensibly clean dams to meet its huge demand for electricity. The reality though is quite different.

Large scale dams have created huge environmental and social problems. Millions of people, especially in the countryside, have forced from their homes and villages, deprived of their land, their sole means of earning a living.

The hydrological impact of this network of dams is shrouded in so much mystery. For months people have been discussing the possible role played by the 156-metre Zipingpu Dam (pictured) in Sichuan’s 2 May 2008 earthquake. The installation itself is just 5.5 kilometres from the epicentre.

US and Chinese experts wrote in December that 320 million tonnes of water in the Zipingpu reservoir “clearly affected the local seismicity”.

But mainland officials have played down the argument, dismissing the reservoir-induced earthquake theory as baseless “personal opinions at most”.

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