rightChina has more than 98,000 dams, more than any other nation in the world, according to China's Ministry of Water Resources. Most are small-scale and constructed for flood control, hydroelectric power generation, and ensuring water security. Many were built in the 1950s and ’60s and suffer from poor maintenance. Share of the worlds dams: 1) China (45 percent); 2) the United States (14 percent); 3) India (9 percent); 4) Japan (6 percent); Other countries (26 percent).

China boasts nearly half of the world’s 50,000 large dams — three times more than the United States “and construction continues.Twenty major dams punctuate the Yellow River and another 18 are scheduled to be built by 2030. Energy shortages are encouraging more dam building. Authorities think nothing of relocating 50,000 people to make a dam that will provide electricity for a new industrial area. Between 1949 and 2008 about 12.5 million Chinese citizens have been moved to make way for 86,000 dams.

China is home to six of the world’s 11 largest hydroelectric dams and four of the five tallest dams but none of the world’s largest dams. Three Gorges Dam — China’s largest dam — ranks 22nd in the world, if all types of dams are included. .

Dams have been built in China to control flooding, improve transportation, generate electricity, provide water for irrigation, collect water for human consumption, and make rivers navigable. Dams however have many critics. Many object to them for environmental reasons, say they waste money, cause the destruction of productive farmland, force the relocation thousands of people and in the end don’t do what they supposed to do or only do it for a short period of time.

Justin Higginbottom wrote: Chairman Mao Zedong, eager to modernize the country, ordered hundreds of dams built, which put people to work, provided electricity and tamed rivers as part of his brutal Great Leap Forward. After swimming across the Yangtze River in 1958, Zedong penned a poem about his obsession with dams: “Great plans are being made/ Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west …The mountain goddess if she is still there/ Will marvel at a world so changed.”[Source: Justin Higginbottom, OZY, February 17, 2019]

Hydropower in China

With its vast mountain ranges and numerous rivers, China’s hydropower potential is the largest in the world. It is no surprise then that China is the world’s largest producer of hydroelectric power, according to the International Hydropower Association in 2021, and has aggressively built dams to supply this and continues to do so. China roughly doubled its hydro-generating capacity in the early 2010s. The Chinese government plans to expand this capacity to a future level of 700 GW. [Source: Antoaneta Bezlovam Asia Times, November 4, 2009; Wikipedia]

Hydroelectricity is currently China's largest renewable energy source and its second-biggest energy source after coal. In 2018, hydropower generated 1,232 TWh of power, accounting for roughly 18 percent of China's total electricity generation and 7 percent of its total energy consumption. China's installed hydroelectric capacity in 2015 was 356 gigawatts (GW), up from 172 GW in 2009, including 23 GW of pumped storage hydroelectricity capacity.

Hydroelectric power is viewed as a relatively clean alternative to the heavily polluting coal-fired plants that are China's main source of energy. But some critics have questioned the potential environmental and social impact of so many huge projects. In 2008, hydropwer accounted for 16.4 percent of China's total energy output, compared to 80 percent for coal, oil and thermopower and 2 percent for nuclear energy. While China has raced ahead to install more wind- and solar-power capacity, the energy generated by these works is considered too costly and insufficient to satisfy the country's voracious power needs. The drought in 2011 reduced the output of hydroelectric power, contributing to a government decision to raise the cost of electricity for industrial use in 15 areas.

China’s extensive hydroelectric energy potential is found mostly in Yunnan, western Sichuan, and eastern Tibet. China says its current hydropower capacity of around 350 gigawatts represents only about half of its total potential. Frank Yu, an analyst with Wood Mackenzie, said that China would require another 250 GW of hydroelectric capacity by 2060 if it is to meet its carbon neutrality target set by Xi Jinping in September. [Source: Reuters, November 30, 2020]

Electricity: from hydroelectric plants: 18 percent of total installed capacity (2017 est.), 93rd in the world. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Development of Hydropower in China

From 1949 to 1986, China built at least 25 large, 130 medium, and about 90,000 small-sized hydropower stations. According to the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, China's 1983 annual power output was 351.4 billion kilowatt hours, of which 86 billion kilowatt hours were generated by hydropower. While construction of thermal plants was designed as a quick remedy for alleviating China's power shortages, the development of hydropower resources was considered a long-term solution. The primary areas for the construction of hydropower plants were the upper Huang He,the upper and middle stream tributaries and trunk of the Chang Jiang, and the Hongshui He in the upper region of the Zhu Jiang Basin. The construction of hydropower plants was a costly and lengthy process, undertaken with some assistance from the United States, Canada, Kuwait, Austria, Norway, France, and Japan. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: In the late 1990s, after economic growth slowed due to the Asian economic crisis, the government declared a two- to three-year moratorium on construction of new power plants due to an oversupply problem. The main hydroelectric projects include Ertan in Sichuan Province, Yantan in Guangsxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Manwan in Yunan Province, Geheyan in Hubei Province, Wuqiangxi in Hunan Province, Yamzho Yumco in Xizang Autonomous Region, and Lijia Xia in Qinghai Province. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In April 1992, the government approved the construction of the largest hydropower project in China—the Three Gorges Project on the middle reaches of the Chang Jiang. Construction began in 1996, A second major hydroelectric project, consisting of a series of dams on the upper portion of the Yellow River, was also underway as of August 2005. Plans for this project call for 25 generating stations to be built, having a combined 15.8 GW of installed capacity.

China is home to six of the world’s 11 largest hydroelectric power stations.
World largest hydroelectric power stations (Name, Country, River, Installed capacity (MW), Annual production (TW-hour), Area flooded (km²), Reservoir volume (km3), Years of completion)
1) Three Gorges Dam — China — Yangtze — 22,500 — 111.8 — 1,084 — 39.3 — 2008/2012
2) Itaipu Dam — Paraguay, Brazil— Paraná — 14,000 — 103 — 1,350 — 29 — 1984/1991, 2003
3) Xiluodu — China — Jinsha — 13,860 — 55.2 — 12.67 — 2014
4) Belo Monte — Brazil — Xingu — 11,233 — 39.5 — 441 — 1.89 — 2016-2019
5) Guri — Venezuela — Caroní — 10,235 — 53.41 — 4,250 — 135 — 1978, 1986
6) Wudongde — China — Jinsha — 10,200 — 39 — 7.4 — 2020/2021
7) Tucuruí — Brazil — Tocantins — 8,370 — 41.43 — 3,014 — 45 — 1984, 2007
8) Baihetan Dam — China — Jinsha — 8,000 — ? — 17.9 — 2021/?
9) Grand Coulee — United States — Columbia — 6,809 — 20 — 324 — 12 — 1942/1950, 1973, 1975/1980, 1983/1984, 1991
10)Xiangjiaba — China — Jinsha — 6,448 — 30.7 — 95.6 — 5.16 — 2014
11) Longtan Dam — China — Hongshui — 6,426 — 18.7 — 27.27 — 2007/2009 [Source: Wikipedia]

China’s Dams, Flood Control and Water Storage

Many of China’s were built for flood control. There are about 85,000 reservoirs of different sizes that have been constructed in upstream reaches of rivers. Most of them have been built for for flood control integrated with irrigation and power generation

The Yangtze river’s periodic flooding was one of the reasons China built the Three Gorges dam, the world largest dam. Dams gives Chinese planners additional flexibility in managing storage and release of water to adapt to floods, extremes in rainfall and drought. According to Quartz: “The idea was that by storing and then carefully releasing river waters, the country would be able to prevent catastrophes like the floods of 1931, in which millions of people died or the 1998 floods, that left millions homeless. “The Three Gorges Dam is instrumental in our flood control efforts,” a Chinese water resources minister said. But flooding in recent years due to unusually heavy downpours has drawn more attention to the challenges of managing dams in an era of climate change, when extreme rainfall poses new risks for surrounding communities. [Source: Sumnima Kandangwa, Quartz, August 11, 2021]

Extreme water and weather has generally been equated with more dams, not fewer. In 2011 after a drought was followed by severe floods, Dr John Yin, a hydrologist at the University of San Diego, told Asia Times Online: "I believe that these recent extreme events will provide ammunition to those who want to build more large dams for increasing storage capacity to handle flooding and/or water shortage problems."

World's Tallest Dams, in China

The tallest dam in the world is the Jinping-I Dam in China. Four of the five tallest dams in the world are in China (Name, height, country, river, year )
1) Jinping-I Dam — 305 meters (1,001 feet) — Concrete arch — China — Yalong — 2013
2) Nurek Dam — 300 meters (980 feet) — Embankment, earth-fill — Tajikistan — Vakhsh — 1980
3)Xiaowan Dam — 292 meters (958 feet) — Concrete arch — China — Lancang (Mekong) — 2010
4) Baihetan Dam — 289 meters (948 feet) — Concrete arch — China — Jinsha River (upper Yangtze) — 2021
5) Xiluodu Dam — 285.5 meters (937 feet) — Concrete arch — China — Jinsha River (upper Yangtze) — 2013. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Longtan Dam is a mult-billion-dollar project that was the second largest energy project in China after the Three Gorges Dam in Tian'e County of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southwestern China . The dam blocks the mighty Hongshui River, a tributary of the Xi River and the Pearl River, and generates 4,200 megawatts of electricity. Longtan Dam is the world’s tallest roller-compacted concrete (RCC) gravity dam. It is 216.2 meters (709.3 feet) high and 849 meters (2,785 feet) long. Intended for hydroelectric power production, flood control and navigation, the dam contains seven surface spillways, two bottom outlets and an underground power station. The Longtan ship lift, part of the dam complex, will be the tallest ship lift system in the world.

In 2013, what should be the world's tallest dam — at 314 meter-high (1,030 feet), on the Dadu river in Sichian Province — was approved by Chinese environmental officials, who acknowledged that endangered plants and rare fish species could affected.. According to The Guardian: The dam will serve the Shuangjiangkou hydropower project along the Dadu river. A subsidiary of Guodian Group, one of China's five major state-owned power companies, will complete the project over a decade at an estimated cost of around $3.5 billion
The dam will be far taller than the 185 meter-high Three Gorges dam along the Yangtze river. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, May 17, 2013]

China's environment ministry said: "The project will affect the spawning and movement of rare fish species, as well as the growth of endangered plants, including the Chinese yew, which is under first-class state protection." “The ministry proposed counter-measures to mitigate the environmental impact, such as "protecting fish habitats in tributaries, building fish ladders and increasing fish breeding and releasing", Xinhua reported. The project is still awaiting a final go-ahead from China's state council.

“The Dadu river is a tributary of the 450 mile-long Min river, which cuts through the centre of Sichuan province before joining the Yangtze further south. Upon completion, the plant will have a total installed capacity of 2GW and produce nearly 8bn KW-hours of energy a year, about twice as much as the Hoover dam in the U.S. Another hydroelectric project on the Dadu river prompted social unrest in 2004, as tens of thousands of farmers along its banks rioted against plans to relocate them. Authorities responded by halting the Pubugou dam's construction for a year.

Problems with China’s Dam Projects

More than 80 percent of China’s 98,000 dams used to regulate floods, generate power and facilitate shipping and irrigation are more than four decades old or older, and some pose a safety risk, something that even the China government has acknowledged. A lack of financial resources means that nearly a third of the total number have not had mandatory safety appraisals completed, Wei Shanzhong, deputy water resources minister said. Most of the dodgy dams were built in the 1950s, 60s and 70s using low construction standards. Many of these are in serious disrepair, posing challenges to the prevention and control of flood-triggered geological disasters in areas with a population of 130 million or more. These problems are particularly acute in regards to dams on China's medium and small rivers. [Source: Reuters, July 19, 2021; Wikipedia]

The Ministry of Water Resources released a survey in March 2013 saying that 23,000 rivers had disappeared entirely. According to New York Times: Many of the nation’s most storied rivers had become degraded by pollution. The mouth of the Yellow River is little more than an effluent-fouled trickle, and the once-mighty Yangtze has been tamed by the Three Gorges Dam, a $25 billion project that displaced 1.4 million people. According to its latest energy plan, the government aims to begin construction on about three dozen hydroelectric projects across the country, which together will have more than twice the hydropower capacity of the United States. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 4, 2013]

Hydropower is losing support in other countries due to concerns that dams flood communities and farmland and disrupt the ecology of rivers, threatening fish and other species. Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: China’s over-damming of rivers and its inter-river and inter-basin water transfers have already wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems, causing river fragmentation and depletion and promoting groundwater exploitation beyond the natural replenishment capacity. The social costs have been even higher, a fact reflected in Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s stunning admission in 2007 that, since 1949, China has relocated a total of 22.9 million Chinese to make way for water projects — a figure larger than the populations of Australia, Romania, or Chile. Since then, another 350,000 residents — mostly poor villagers — have been uprooted. So, by official count alone, 1,035 citizens on average have been forcibly evicted for water projects every day for more than six decades.

Some dams were not very well thought out. The Three Gates Gorge Dam, for example, was destroyed only four years after it went into operation in 1960 because 62 percent if the reservoir was filled with mud. A large dam in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region produces only about a third of electricity it was designed to produce due to lack or water caused by droughts and erosion.

People Relocated by Dams and Resistance to Dam Projects in China

Large numbers rural people have lost their homes as a result of hydroelectric dam projects. Some have been evicted from their land and received little or no compensation. Without a means of making a living, many of the displaced people migrate to the cities. Between 1949 and 1999, 17.5 million people — twice the population of London - were relocated for dams. Since then, the pace has accelerated thanks to mega-projects like the Three Gorges dam, which has forced the relocation of 1.5 million people, and the South-North diversion.

Major Chinese hydroprojects and resettled populationThree Gorges dam — 1.5 million people Sanmenxia dam — 410,000 people Danjiangkou dam — 380,000 South-North water diversion — 345,000 Xiaolangdi dam — 200,000 people Pubugou dam — 120,000 Zipingpu dam — 33,000 people

There have been a number of protests against dams. In November 2004, 90,000 farmers in Sichuan Province, frustrated by a lack of response to their complaints over the seizure of their land for a dam project in Hanyuan County, barred workers from entering the dam site for days. It took 10,000 paramilitary troops to put down the protest.

An environmental group called the Green Watershed was formed to help farmers affected by the dams proposed for the Three Parallel Rivers area of Sichuan and Yunnan. The group has organized residents in the area of the dams to petition authorities and has forged links with international environmental groups.

Farmers in the Three Parallel Rivers area were enraged by the secretive and cagey way the government is pressuring to have the project built. They are aware of what happened at the Three Gorges Dam and are worried the they will suffer the same fate as farmers there.

Some feel a small is better strategy would work more effectively. A number of countries have had success with microhydroelectric plants. The systems’set up with support of local people — divert waters from streams and rivers to run turbines with complex dams and catchment areas. Plants produce up to 200 kilowatts, enough to provide electricity for 200 to 500 homes.

A report by China's Economic Observer suggested the hydropower industry has overcome the political and environmental obstacles of the past five years and will now accelerate dam building. In January 2011, the National Energy Agency said China plans to build an additional 140 gigawatts of hydropower capacity in the next five years as it tries to achieve the goal of producing 15 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.

Impact of Climate Change on China’s Dams

China is expected to have warmer temperatures and heavier rain as a result of global warming. “Because of climate change there could be higher and higher precipitation, that’s something that may have not been considered during the process of designing the dam,” Wen Wang, a professor of hydrology at Hohai University in Nanjing told Quartz, adding that it’s a major issue engineers are paying attention to now, yet one that’s hard to construct for given the difficult of accurately forecasting volumes of extreme rain. [Source: Sumnima Kandangwa, Quartz, August 11, 2021]

Officials have been forced to blow up dams that was at risk over overflowing.““If unprecedented flooding is going to be the (new) norm, then large reservoirs would put communities at a big risk” said Heiderzahad. One mitigation step he suggested is adding another emergency spillway under already existing dams to prevent them from overflowing.

“Wang, of Hohai University, disagreed that size itself is a risk. Instead, he said collaboration between different reservoirs, and the use of engineering and non-engineering methods of handling water overflow, is what matters. When it appears that engineering methods cannot handle the level of rainfall, dams must empty their reservoirs, he said, a move that is highly reliant on accurate forecasts of precipitation. Learning from last year’s floods, for example, engineers at Three Gorges expelled 90 percent of the dam’s capacity at the beginning of June this year to brace for the flooding season.

“Others note that the age of a dam may be a crucial factor to consider. “The aging dam landscape faces new temperature, snow, discharge, and floods patterns that increase the risk of hydrological failure,” noted a 2021 paper in Nature Communications that described dams as playing a positive role in reducing flood vulnerability. ”To maintain historical levels of flood protection in the face of climate change, new dam release operations will be required.” If more dams have to release water to accommodate more intense rainfall, however, that could result in flooding in downstream areas, particularly if those flows coincide with rainfall. “But we have to make a balance,” said Wang. “If the reservoirs are not emptied to prepare for high precipitation events, maybe the dam will collapse, which will cause more and more loss of people and properties.”

New Dams in China and the Frenzy to Build Them

Despite criticism by environmentalists, China is building more dams in an effort to reduce reliance on coal and to curb surging demand for imported oil and gas. Hydropower development has been a key component of China's effort to increase non-fossil energy sources to 15 percent of its total energy use by 2020. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, China’s dams had the capacity to store 562.4 cubic kilometers of water in 2005, or 20 percent of the country’s total renewable water resources. Since then, China has built scores of new dams, including the world’s largest: the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. As of the early 2010s, more than 100 dams were being planned for the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze River and its tributaries alone.

Proponents of the hydropower industry say they are unequivocal in their support for more dams. Pan Jiazheng, hydrologist with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, argues that water is the only renewable energy source in China that can be developed on a large scale. “Developing hydropower is the only viable way to make a dent in China's consumption of coal. Those who argue that hydropower is not a clean energy have to ask themselves whether there is any other task more urgent for China's clean development than burning less coal.” [Source: Antoaneta Bezlovam Asia Times, November 4, 2009]

Critics of hydropower expansion, though, are equally forceful. “It is quasi-science to believe that hydropower equals green energy,” says Zheng Yisheng, who researches environment and development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “You can't see rivers just as a source of energy and choose to ignore their ecological function as eco-systems. People need energy but they need a place to live too.” What is more, China is actively seeking to export its Three Gorges expertise abroad, signing up agreements to build hydropower works in countries from Cambodia to Pakistan and Nigeria.

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: China is the world’s biggest dam builder at home and abroad. Indeed, no country in history has built more dams than China, which boasts more dams than the rest of the world combined. Before the Communists came to power in 1949, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. Now the country has more than half of the world’s roughly 50,000 large dams, defined as having a height of at least 15 meters, or a storage capacity of more than three million cubic meters. Thus, China has completed, on average, at least one large dam per day since 1949. If dams of all sizes are counted, China’s total surpasses 85,000. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011, Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and the newly released Water: Asia’s New Battleground.]

China’s powerful hydropower lobby argued that dams also offered a clean way to reduce the nation’s dependency on power plants fired by carbon-belching coal, which generate about three-quarters of China’s electricity. In 2000, with demand for power surging along China’s east coast, Beijing launched a policy known as “sending electricity from west to east,” pushing for new dams on rivers in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan, In 2002, however, the industry hit an obstacle — a new law that required an environmental impact assessment for each project before work could start. Under pressure from emboldened environmentalists, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered Huaneng, a state electricity company then run by Li Peng’s son, to suspend a huge dam planned for the Nu River in Yunnan.

Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam s the world's largest hydropower dam. Opened in 2003 on the Yangtze River, with 22.5 million kilowatts of generating capacity, it has been called China's most ambitious project since the Great Wall and the world’s largest construction job. Comprised of one massive dam and several smaller dams, it named after the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, one of China's great natural wonders, which the reservoirs behind the dams will partly submerge. [Source: Arthur Zich, National Geographic, September 1997]

The Three Gorges Dam project may be the world’s last such project because big dams are becoming increasingly unpopular. Most Chinese support the project as a way of bringing development and progress to China. Many international groups have opposed it on environmental and humanitarian grounds. The World Bank was originally supposed to provide loans to help finance the project and relocate people but changed its policy due to pressure from the United States and environmental and human rights groups.

Three Gorges Dam is not only the world's largest but also the costliest hydropower project ever undertaken. When it was approved in 1992, its cost was estimated at $8.3 billion. According to official figures, the venture cost China about $23 billion, but outside experts estimate it may have cost double that amount. Some have said it may have cost as much $88 billion.

Baihetan Dam: the World's Second-Biggest Hydropower Dam

Baihetan dam in Ningnan county in southwestern China's Sichuan province is the world's second-biggest hydroelectric dam. The Chinese government turned on it first two generating units in June 2021, just ahead of the ruling Communist Party’s celebration of the official 100th anniversary of its 1921 founding.. Associated Press reported: “The Baihetan Dam on the Jinsha River, a tributary of the Yangtze, is part of Chinese efforts to curb surging fossil fuel demand by building more hydropower capacity at a time when dams have fallen out of favor in other countries due to environmental complaints. [Source: Associated Press, June 28, 2021]

“Plans call for the 289-meter-tall (954-foot-tall) Baihetan Dam to have 16 generating units with a capacity of 1 million kilowatts each. That will make it second in size after the Three Gorges Dam. Both were built by the state-owned Three Gorges Group Corp., the world’s biggest investor in hydro, solar and wind generation.

“China is a leader in developing ultra-high-voltage, or UHV, transmission technology to move power from dams in the southwest to Shanghai and other eastern cities. Once fully operational, the Baihetan Hydropower Station should eliminate the need to burn 20 million tons of coal annually, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing Three Gorges Group.

Yellow River Dams

As of the early 2010s, twenty major dams punctuated the Yellow River and another 18 were scheduled to be built by 2030. In June 2009, the Chinese media reported that several dams on tributaries of the Yellow River were near collapse shortly after being built. According to the China Sailu at least five dams in Huan County in Gansu Province are “in very fragile condition.” Shoddy construction and embezzlement were blamed for the problem.

The massive $4.17 billion Yellow River Dam built near Xiaolangdi in central China is the nation's second largest dam project after the Three Gorges Dam. The main purpose of the earthen dam is to halt the rising river by flushing out the silt. This will be accomplished with 16 reinforced tunnels that cut through an adjacent mountain which allow engineers to regulate the flow of water. During the wet season water can be stored in the reservoir to prevent flooding, and during the dry season it can be released to flush out sediment as well as provide water for irrigation.

Sanmenxia Dam (San Men Xia) was a gigantic failure for which Mao and his planners were directly responsible. Built on the Yellow River with Soviet assistance in the 1950s and desperately and expensively repaired by China alone in the 1960s, it consumed a disproportionate share of the national budget and served as a drag on economic growth. The Sanmenxia Dam displaced 400,000 people and was supposed stop chronic flooding on the Yellow River. Instead it slowed the rivers current, causing silting on a massive scale and increasing the likelihood of flooding.

Plans to Dam China’s Largest Freshwater Lake Spurs Outrage

Poyang Lake (in northern Jiangxi), 40 kilometers northeast of Nanchang) is the largest fresh water lake in China. Located south of the middle and lower reaches of the Changjiang River, it stretches 170 kilometers (105 miles) from north to south and covers a total area of about 3,841 square kilometers (1,483 square miles). According to Reuters: Poyang Lake is a main flood outlet for the Yangtze River, which overflows during summer and can cause extensive damage to crops and property. In winter, the lake’s water flows back out into the river. Sand mining in the main river and its tributaries and lakes is believed to be responsible for the abnormally low water levels during winters over the past two decades. It also has made it harder for authorities to control the summertime water flow.

In January 2021, it was revealed that the Chinese government planned to dam Poyang Lake, which conservationists would impede with its ability to provide a a flood outlet for the Yangtze rive and harm an already fragile ecosystem, which includes rest areas for migratory birds and waters inhabited by the seriously the endangered Yangtze river porpoise. Reuters reported: “The outcry comes after the Jiangxi provincial government revived a project aimed at regulating water flows on the Poyang lake, which is increasingly prone to drought in winter. A Shanghai-based non-government environmental group called Free Birds said in an open letter to the Jiangxi government that the project's approval would be "extremely irresponsible". It accused Jiangxi of sneaking the project through without proper consultation, and said it defied a plan led by President Xi Jinping to better protect the ecology of the Yangtze, which supplies water to 40 percent of China's population. [Source: David Stanway, Reuters, January 18, 2021]

“Under revised Jiangxi government plans, a sluice gate will be built spanning 3 kilometres between the lake and the Yangtze river, aimed at gaining control over water levels and alleviating drought. A hydropower plant first proposed around a decade ago has been ditched, but critics say the sluice gate will still break the natural link between Poyang and the Yangtze. The Free Birds group said the Jiangxi government should look at the real reasons for the decline in the Poyang's water levels, including sand mining and the holding back of water by giant reservoirs like the Three Gorges.

“Winter droughts have worsened in recent years and the Poyang all but disappears, depriving farmers of irrigation and further shrinking the habitats of migratory birds and the Yangtze river porpoise. Wang Hao, professor with the China Academy of Engineering, backed the project, saying lake conditions — caused partly by upstream hydropower — would not be easily reversed, but the project could at least improve local farming. He also said the project's design did include specific features aimed at minimising habitat disruptions, adding that "the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages".

“But fellow academics said the long-term challenges facing the Poyang lake were too complex to be solved by a single project, and further disruption to water flows could make things worse. “The decline in the water levels of the Poyang lake is caused by many reasons, but generally speaking it is mainly the impact of engineering, including the Three Gorges Dam," said Lu Shanlong, researcher with the China Academy of Sciences' Aerospace Information Research Institute. “The best way to solve it should be to optimise the way it is currently engineered, and not add even more engineering," he said.

Breached Dams

In July 2021, the Yihetan dam, a major dam in central China’s Henan Province, was breached and “seriously damaged” after the province was struck by torrential rain. Two other dams in north China’s Inner Mongolia region were breached and collapsed after overflowing, affecting more than 16,000 people. Heavy rainfall in 2020 even prompted concerns about the stability of Three Gorges after waters rose above its flood-prevention level. [Source: Sumnima Kandangwa, Quartz, August 11, 2021]

One of the dams that collapsed in 2021, the Xinfa dam in Inner Mongolia, was “well constructed and prepared very well (for floods)” Mohammad Heiderzahad, an associate professor of civil engineering at Brunel University in London, told Quartz. Heiderzahad, who is a dam engineer himself, explained that even so the dam collapsed quickly despite having two spillways and an emergency bottom outlet, which allows for water to be released safely when a dam is in danger of overflowing. This may have been due to the fact that the unprecedented level of rainfall exceeded the Probable Maximum Flood the dam was designed for, a term that refers to an estimation of the largest flood conceivable where the dam is being constructed.

After the dams in Inner Mongolia collapsed, Reuters reported: “The dams, in the Inner Mongolian city of Hulunbuir, collapsed on Sunday afternoon. They had formed reservoirs with a combined water storage capacity of 46 million cubic metres, the Ministry of Water Resources said. People living downstream were evacuated, with no casualties reported, it said. The ministry said that on average, 87 millimetres of rain fell in Hulunbuir over the weekend and as much as 223 millimetres at the Morin Dawa monitoring station.[Source: Reuters, July 19, 2021]

“Hulunbuir's city government said on its WeChat account that 16,660 people have been affected, with 326,622 mu (53,807 acres) of farmland submerged. Bridges and other transport infrastructure had also been destroyed. Footage posted on Chinese social media showed one of the dams being completely swept away by the water, inundating nearby fields.

Banqiao Dam

The Banqiao Reservoir Dam is a dam on the Ru River Ru in Zhumadian City, Henan province, designed by Soviet engineers. Its failure in 1975 caused more casualties than any other dam failure in history (See Below). Banqiao Dam had been heralded as an "iron dam" able to withstand a once-in-1,000-years flood. The People's Daily has maintained that the dam was designed to survive a once-in-1000-years flood (300 mm of rainfall per day) but a once-in-2000-years flood occurred in August 1975. An engineer who questioned the design was fired.After the disaster Banqiao dam was rebuilt. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Construction of the Banqiao dam began in 1951 on the Ru River with the help of Soviet consultants as part of a project to control flooding and electrical power generation. The dam was a response to severe flooding in the Huai River Basin in 1949 and 1950. The dam was completed in June 1952. Because of the absence of hydrology data, the design standard was lower than usual. After the 1954 Huai River great flood, the upstream reservoirs including Banqiao were extended, constructed and consolidated. Banqiao Dam was increased in height by three meters. The dam crest level was 116.34 meters above sea level and the crest level of the wave protection wall was 117.64 meter above sea level. The total capacity of reservoir was 492 million m³ (398,000 acre feet), with 375 million m³ (304,000 acre feet) reserved for flood storage. The dam was made of clay and was 24.5 metres high. The maximum discharge of the reservoir was 1742 m³/s. Cracks in the dam and sluice gates appeared after completion due to construction and engineering errors. They were repaired with the advice from Soviet engineers and the new design, dubbed the iron dam, was considered unbreakable. +

Chen Xing, one of China's foremost hydrologists, was involved in the design of the Banqiao dam. He was also a vocal critic of the government dam building policy. He was one among many who feared the country was building too fast and too recklessly. When he designed the Suya Lake Reservoir in 1958 — at the time the largest reservoir in Asia — he recommended that the Banqiao dam have 12 sluice gates. Labeled a “right-wing opportunist,” he was eventually fired for being too vocal in his criticism and the number of sluice gates for the Banqiao Dam was reduced to five. Similar measures were taken at other dams in the project. In 1961, after problems with the water system were revealed, he was brought back to help. Chen continued to be an outspoken critic of the system and was again removed from the project. +

Collapse of the Banqiao Dam in 1975: Over 170,000 People Killed

In August 1975, the Banqiao dam collapsed during in 1975 during Super Typhoon Nina. killing an estimated 170,000 people from immediate impact, starvation and epidemics from the floodwaters. It was the deadliest dam failure in history. China banned media coverage and only declassified information about it in 2005. The Shimantan Reservoir Dam and 60 other dams in Zhumadian failed catastrophically or were intentionally destroyed during the typhoon. The dam failures made 11 million people homeless and caused the sudden loss of 18 GW of power, the power output equivalent of roughly 9 very large modern coal-fired thermal power stations. The official government death toll was 86,000. Other estimates are as high as 230,000. Officially, the dam failure was a natural disaster as opposed to a man-made one. Government sources blamed the heavy rainfall rather than poor engineering and construction.[Source: Wikipedia +]

Extremely heavy rain was caused by the collision of Typhoon Nina and a cold front. The rain endured over several days because the typhoon was blocked for more than 48 hours before its direction changed from northeastward to west. More than a year's rain fell within 24 hours, which weather forecasts failed to predict. New records were set, at 189.5 mm rainfall per hour and 1060 mm per day, exceeding the average annual precipitation of about 800 mm. While the rain was falling its hardest Xinhua said the forecast for rainfall of was 100 mm and China Central Television reported that the typhoon disappeared from radar and had degraded.

Justin Higginbottom wrote: Workers stood along the top of Banqiao Dam, some 150 feet above the valley’s floor, desperately trying to repair its crest as rain from Typhoon Nina fell for a third straight day. After battering Taiwan, the storm had moved inland where it was expected to dissipate, but Nina turned north instead, reaching the Huai River basin on Aug. 5, 1975, where a cold front blocked its progression. Parked in place, the typhoon generated more than a year’s worth of rain in 24 hours. [Source:Justin Higginbottom, OZY, February 17, 2019]

“By the time night fell on Aug. 8, as many as 65 area dams had collapsed. But despite the fact that water levels at the Banqiao Dam had far exceeded a safe capacity, and a number of sluice gates for controlling water flow were clogged with silt, authorities felt confident they’d skirt disaster. After all, the Soviet-designed dam had been built to survive a typhoon — a once-every-1,000-year occurrence that could dump 11 inches of rain per day. Unfortunately, Typhoon Nina would prove to be a once-every-2,000-year storm, bearing down with enough force to cause the world’s deadliest infrastructure failure ever.

“According to an account of the Banqiao Dam by a Chinese journalist writing under the pseudonym Yi Si, on Aug. 8, as workers stared curiously at the retreating water level of the reservoir, a voice in the dark called out: “The River Dragon has come!” And suddenly the dam ruptured, unleashing 600 billion liters of water and destroying an entire village. By Aug. 17, reports Si, 1.1 million people remained trapped by flooding with 50 to 60 percent of food air-dropped into the area floating in the murky waters. It would take weeks for the waters to drain, revealing bloated corpses dotting the landscape in the late summer sun.

Communications to the dam was largely cut due to wire failures. Initial requests to open the dam were rejected, because of the existing flood in downstream areas. On August 7, however, the request was accepted, but the telegrams failed to reach the dam. By that time the sluice gates were unable to open because of sediment. At 9:30pm On August 7, the People's Liberation Army Unit 34450, which was deployed on the Banqiao Dam, sent the first dam failure warning via telegraph. At 1:00am on August 8, water at the Banqiao crested at the 117.94 meters level above sea level, or 0.3 meter higher than the wave protection wall on the dam, and it failed.

Flood from the Banqiao Dam Collapse

According to the Hydrology Department of Henan Province, in the province, approximately 26,000 people died from flooding and another 145,000 died during subsequent epidemics and famine. In addition, about 5,960,000 buildings collapsed, The volume of water released by Banqiao Dam collapse was 13,000 m³ per second in vs. 78,800 m³ per second out, and as a result 701 million m³ of water were released in 6 hours, while 1.67 billion m³ of water were released in 5.5 hours at upriver Shimantan Dam, and 15.738 billion m³ of water were released in total. + [Source: Wikipedia]

The resulting flood waters caused a wave, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide and 3–7 meters (9.8–23 feet) high in Suiping, to rush onto the plains below at nearly 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph), almost wiping out an area 55 kilometers (34 miles) long and 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) wide, and creating temporary lakes as large as 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 sq miles). Seven county seats, Suiping, Xiping, Ru'nan, Pingyu, Xincai, Luohe, Linquan were inundated, as were thousands of square kilometers of countryside and countless communities. Evacuation orders had not been fully delivered due to weather conditions and poor communications.

Telegraphs failed, signal flares fired by Unit 34450 were misunderstood, telephones were rare, and some messengers were caught by the flood. While only 827 out of 6,000 people died in the evacuated community of Shahedian just below Banqiao Dam, half of a total of 36,000 people died in the unevacuated Wencheng commune of Suipin County next to Shahedian, and the Daowencheng Commune was wiped from the map, killing all 9,600 citizens. Although a large number of people were reported lost at first, many of them later returned home. A 2005 book compiled by the Archives Bureau of Suiping county reports that more than 230,000 were carried away by water, in which 18,869 died. It has been reported that 90,000 - 230,000 people were killed as a result of the dam breaking. +

To protect other dams from failure, several flood diversion areas were evacuated and inundated, and several dams were deliberately destroyed by air strikes to release water in desired directions. The Nihewa and Laowangpo flood diversion areas downstream of the dams soon exceeded their capacity and gave up part of their storage on August 8, forcing more flood diversion areas to begin to evacuate. The dikes on the Quan River collapsed in the evening of August 9, and the entire Linquan county in Fuyang, Anhui was inundated. As the Boshan Dam, with a capacity of 400 million m³, crested, and the water released from the failures of Banqiao and Shimantan was rushing downstream, air strikes were made against several other dams to protect the Suya Lake dam, already holding 1.2 billion m³ of water. Suya Lake only won a temporary reprieve, and both it and Boshan became targets as well. Finally, the Bantai Dam, holding 5.7 billion m³ of water, was bombed. +

The Jingguang Railway, a major artery from Beijing to Guangzhou, was cut for 18 days, as were other crucial communications lines. Although 42,618 People's Liberation Army troops were deployed for disaster relief, all communication to and from the cities was cut. Nine days later there were still over a million people trapped by the waters, who relied on airdrops of food and unreachable to disaster relief. Epidemics and famine devastated the trapped survivors. The damage of the Zhumadian area was estimated to be about CN¥ 3.5 billion (US$513 million). The Zhumadian government appealed to the whole nation for help, and received more than CN¥ 300 million (US$44,000,000) in donations. +

Legacy of the Banqiao Dam Disaster

In the decade or so that followed the dam failure, the lower reach of the Ru River, especially Zhumadian City, experienced several more disastrous floods. After many feasibility studies, it was decided to build a new Banqiao Dam and Reservoir and reconstruction was listed as a high priority in The Seventh Five-Year Plan of China. Built between 1986 and 1993, reconstructed Banqiao Dam and Reservoir controls a catchment area of 768 km2 (297 sq miles). The maximum reserve capacity is 675 million m³ (178 billion gallions), a capacity increase of 34 percent above the capacity of the failed dam. The effective storage is 256 million m³ (67.6 billion gallons) and the corresponding normal high water level is 111.5 meters (366 feet) above sea level. The flood control storage is 457 million m³ (121 billion gallions). The dam is made of clay and is 3,720 meters (12,200 feet) long, and 50.5 meters (166 feet) high. The dam crest level is 120 meters (390 feet) above sea level. The maximum discharge of the reservoir is 15000 m³/s (about 3.96 million gallons/s). [Source: Wikipedia +]

After the flood, a summit of National Flood Prevention and Reservoir Security at Zhengzhou, Henan was held by the Department of Water Conservancy and Electricity, and a nationwide reservoir security examination was performed after this meeting. Chen Xing was again brought back to the project. Justin Higginbottom wrote:“The government kept news of the disaster from being broadcast nationally, and there hadn’t been any international observers present. But when China’s Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power released a study in July 1989, it reported that the dam breach caused more than 85,000 people to die instantly. Two years earlier, “On Macro-Decision Making in the Three Gorges Project,” a study conducted by eight Chinese water science experts who probably had access to censored government reports, estimated the number of total dead — from flooding and the resulting epidemics and famine — at 230,000.

“Although the disaster is thought to be the deadliest of its kind anywhere in the world, it’s not common knowledge even inside China. When the dam broke, the Communist Party’s control of the media was near absolute, explains David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project. “Generally speaking, disasters of all forms, whether primarily natural in cause or human in cause, have been viewed by China’s leaders as highly sensitive,” he says, with the government loathe to concede culpability.

After the disaster of the Banqiao dam failure, the Chinese government became very focused on surveillance, repair, and consolidation of reservoir dams and taken a more aggressive stance on supervision and monitoring for needed repairs. In 2005, at a seminar in Beijing, officials and scientists agreed to open the Banqiao Dam failure for public debate and declared that casualty figures were no longer state secrets. And yet, explains Bandurski, when a Shanghai-based media company recently produced an in-depth feature critical of the Three Gorges Dam, the story was removed from the internet within hours.

Chinese Government’s Efforts to Address Problems with China’s Dams

The Chinese government has taken steps to address its dam issues. According China's Ministry of Water Resources statistics, China has invested US$9.72 billion since the 1998 Yangtze River floods in repairing and consolidating the country's 9197 degraded reservoirs, of which 2397 are large or medium sized, and 6800 are key small reservoirs. These repairs were scheduled to be finished in 2010. At that time there were still 5400 small smaller reservoirs in need of repair, which were slated to be completed in 2015. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Bloomberg: “China isn’t shy about deploying money. In 2019, 726 billion yuan ($105 billion) was shoveled into water conservancy construction — the highest in history, according to CLSA Securities Ltd. Flood management has received 1.2 billion yuan in central government funds since the beginning of the rainy season. But there’s competition. Trillions of yuan are being spent to support a national recovery from Covid-19, including building massive 5G capacity to ensure future manufacturing capabilities. That’s certainly justifiable. Roads to nowhere aren’t.Past disasters tend to frame thinking about future ones. Yet threats aren’t static — climate change is speeding up the severity of flooding. Risk assessments need to factor in where China’s wealth is being built. For instance, quantifiable flood losses in heavily industrialized Guangdong province in 2015 reached around 30 billion yuan, but disruption to its concentration of roads and railways, ports and airports pushed costs far higher. The cities of southern China are at great jeopardy. [Source: Anjani Trivedi, Bloomberg, August 28, 2020]

“One example of how mitigation efforts are being outpaced is the strategy of diversion zones adopted two decades ago, setting aside areas where authorities released water to control excessive flow. Resettled people have since been driven further away from zones where they were supposed to live as ever-larger amounts of water need to be unleashed. Eventually, they end up on lands that aren’t eligible for compensation.

Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; CNTO; Xindua, ESWIN. Telegraph, Envirnonmental News; NASA, Nature Conservancy

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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