As we told you earlier, there had been very real fears that the Zipingba Dam, 6 miles upstream from the devastated city of Dujiangyan, was displaying “extremely dangerous” cracks. The People’s Daily is now reporting that the dam is “structurally stable and safe” following a full inspection.
“The conclusion was reached after a panel of experts, led by Jiao Yong, Vice Minister of Water Resources, rushed to the site and made a thorough inspection of the 156-meter-high facility.”
Nevertheless, despite official reassurances, fears persist over other dam projects in the area with The Associated Press still reporting that hundreds of structures could be at risk.
“The National Development Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning body, said the earthquake had damaged 391 dams. It said two of the dams were large ones, 28 were medium-sized and the rest were small ones.”
Landslides have reportedly caused rivers to be blocked in Qingchuan County, creating an enormous lake, with Xinhua quoting Li Hao, the county’s Communist Party chief, as saying: “The rising water could cause the mountains to collapse. We desperately need geological experts to carry out tests and fix a rescue plan”. As the International Herald Tribune points out, “much depends on efforts to reduce the menacing pressure of water behind the dam walls”, if further disaster is to be averted.
In addition, The Guardian says that two hydropower stations in Maoxian County have been affected, although the extent of the damage is not yet clear. Meanwhile, Guangyuan and Mianyang, near the quake epicentre, house plants that help process plutonium for nuclear arms, although the China Nuclear Engineering & Construction Corporation currently states that, despite some damage to buildings in the area, there are no major concerns at this time regarding nuclear material.
Although the Three Gorges Dam has been declared safe, some commentators are already raising questions over its ability to stand up to future risks and the wisdom of building further dams in the area. Some have even asked if the world’s largest dam could have induced or exacerbated the earthquake:
“”Whether reservoir-induced seismicity is behind this week’s earthquake should be urgently investigated before the Three Gorges reservoir is filled to its maximum height,” says Patricia Adams, executive director of Probe International, a Canadian group monitoring the Three Gorges dam since the 1980s.”
Concerns of this sort are far from new however. Indeed, this article, written way back in 1999 for the Alaska Science Forum, talks about how “the dam also may trigger earthquakes that could threaten millions of people”. While it is too early to say with any degree of certainty the role the dam project may or may not have played in this week’s disaster, it is clear that the tragic events in Sichuan will reopen the debate surrounding China’s dam-building projects.